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  • Law and Representation in Early Modern Drama
  • Daniela Carpi
Subha Mukherji Law and Representation in Early Modern DramaCambridgeCambridge University Press2006Pp. xxi + 291$95.00.

This volume contributes to the growing body of research on literature and law, a field whose beginnings can be traced to the seminal studies of Richard Weisberg, including his famous The Failure of the Word(1984), as well as to Richard Posner's Law and Literature: A Misunderstood Relation(1988) and to the influential works by scholars such as Costas Douzinas, Ian Ward, Stanley Fish, Ronald Dworkin, Peter Brooks, Adam Gearey, Peter Goodrich, Arthur Jacobson, and Paul Gewirtz. This study considers early modern English drama, which is often characterized by deep interest in legal problems. The drama frequently presents figures of lawyers—generally seen as villains—and explores [End Page 264]issues concerning inheritances, contracts and their validity, marriages and property, and relationships between children and fathers. But what particularly struck the imagination of the early modern English were trials, with their implicit theatricality, their insistence on performance, and the disputes between defendants and lawyers, or judges and witnesses.

Mukherji begins by considering the theatricality of trials and the judicial structure of most Elizabethan dramas. She asks why Renaissance dramatists demonstrate such a profound interest in the law and answers by asserting that plays manifest a human need to "conceptualise and symbolise the experience of law, justice and injustice" (2). In addition, a strong link existed between legal and dramatic structures in early modern London, a connection that can be dated to classical Athens, where eloquent speech was highly cultivated in legal and literary arenas. The historical relation between law and rhetoric, which has been well assessed, has also triggered the comparison between law and literature, for playwrights bring to the forefront the apprehension of law as social action and communication.

Mukherji's study of legal pamphlets allows her to demonstrate broad cultural change, in that law effects the incessant transformation of and adaptation to cultural codes. The law reflects changes in the concepts of privacy and contingency, and the interest of playwrights is centered on considering how the law affects the life of common citizens. Of particular interest is the relation between Renaissance drama and the body of laws governing marriage, laws that entail problems of forced marriages, of the validity of secret and public marriages, and of the spousal de presentiand de futuro. One of the most famous treatises at the time, Henry Swinburne's A Treatise of Spousals(1600), deals with post-Reformation marriage practices. Its influence can be felt in many plays of the period, such as Webster's White Devil, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, and Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness; Romeo and Julietalso includes a serious debate on the validity of two marriages, one between the two lovers secretly celebrated by a priest (valid given the sacred celebration and the following consummation, but legally invalid because of the father's lack of consensus, as Juliet is underage), and the intended one with Paris, fostered by the father and by a sort of promotional act through the party and the contract de futuroagreed upon by the parents.

Mukherji considers the emblem of such marriage contracts to be the ring, an object that recurs often, as in The Merchant of Venice, Webster's Duchess of Malfi, Middleton's Changeling, and All's Well that Ends Well. If in Shylock the ring comes to epitomize "a nexus of transactions and investment projected as an act of donation" (38), in the play we have two rings: Shylock's, which represents his connection to the past and his love for his dead wife, and Portia's, a [End Page 265]symbol of giving and covert reclaiming. While it is true that the ring becomes a symbol of marriage, marriages that entail commercial transactions lead to dubious unions.

Mukherji's analysis is particularly innovative concerning the ring, charged as it is with symbolic value both from a legal and an ethical point of view. But particularly fresh and original is her reading of A Woman Killed with Kindness, where she speaks of the domestication of justice, that is...


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