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Reviewed by:
  • Literature, Politics and Law in Renaissance England
  • Gary D. Hamilton
Erica Sheen and Lorna Hutson, eds. Literature, Politics and Law in Renaissance England. Language, Discourse, Society. Hampshire: Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, 2005. vii + 244 pp. index. illus. $65. ISBN: 0–333–98399–8.

Because Renaissance England was "anterior to the full emergence of distinctions between legal, literary and political discourses" (18), this collection contains a diversity of topics. The order of the nine essays following the volume's fine introduction is "partly chronological, partly thematic" (5), allowing one "to see a shift across the period . . . from an idea of narration as a forensic habit of mind to a recognition of its role in the construction of a distinctively literary subjectivity." The collection "begins with the analysis of a political culture in which ways of being and doing are ordered by the category of 'law,' and ends with one in which they are coming increasingly ordered by the category of 'literature'" (18).

In post-Reformation England, the common law began to assume "a quasi-spiritual juridical authority" (3) and jurists attempted "to compensate for its lack of jurisdiction over conscience and inwardness, by developing an Aristotelian notion of equity" (4). Concerned with "the common law's repressed memory of its own once partial jurisdiction" (5), Peter Goodwich's essay probes the ethical writing of William Fulbeck, and in particular his disavowals of friendship in professional life, identifying Fulbeck's asceticism and insistence on "the sacral character of the practice of the common law" (26) as an attempt to "incorporate spiritual jurisdiction into what he perceives as the broader domain of common law" (5).

Other essays focus on post-Reformation legal grapplings with the inaccessible domain of human intention, a topic full of implications for issues of authorship and legal liability for literary imaginings. In exploring the treason charges against Henry Cuffe, secretary to Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, Alan Stewart focuses on Cuffe's "passion for Tacitus" and "how his treachery occurred through his study of books" (60). In a world where survival depended on tactics "to obscure the provenance and transmission of their texts," Stewart asserts that Cuffe was hanged precisely because "scholarship was not only his meal-ticket but also his raison d'etre" (65–66).

Luke Wilson writes on tool abuse and the legal significance of suddenness, or the unpremeditated criminal act, which appears in legal reports in the 1570s and [End Page 647] which "constitutes the essential mark" (126) distinguishing manslaughter from murder. Relating this legal significance to Philip Sidney's use of the classical topos of tool abuse in his revising of the Old Arcadia, Wilson sees in this revision a process of displacing "premeditation, and even literary agency, in a way that exculpates the author." In the New Arcadia Sidney articulates "the ways in which liability will come into play in defining the emerging category of the author" (139).

The focal point of Ina Habermann's essay on John Webster is the legal concept of equity, "the principle of taking the lawgiver's or defendant's inten-tions into account when considering the circumstances of a particular case" (4). Habermann notes that "within a patriarchal framework, the most particular cases are often those involving women." Webster, who recognized "the inherent theatricality of equity," deliberately placed women's cases at the center of his works, thereby staging "femininity as a challenge to the law" (113–14) and testing the law's limits.

In the middle of this volume are two strong essays on censorship. Michelle O'Callaghan's case study of George Wither's prosecution in 1614 challenges revisionists who have explored early Stuart censorship exclusively by way of concentrating on the licensing system, thereby making censorship into a synonym for press control. She questions studies that emphasize economic at the expense of ideological reasons for press control because they overlook "other mechanisms" (147), such as royal proclamations and defamation laws. Debates initiated by Wither in 1614 "demonstrate the way that censorship, in its many forms, was central to an emergent political consciousness" (166).

In his study of libel law in and after 1621, David Colclough denies that libel writing was widely...


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pp. 647-649
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