- Shakespeare’s Imaginary Constitution: Late Elizabethan Politics and the Theatre of Law
Recent studies of Renaissance law and literature demonstrate that seemingly esoteric legal issues, such as conflicts over jurisdictions or developments in contract law, had a deep and wide-ranging impact on Renaissance literature and theatre. Paul Raffield’s book Shakespeare’s Imaginary Constitution: Late Elizabethan Politics and the Theatre of Law furthers this work, showing that, in his plays, Shakespeare [End Page 467] consistently engaged major Elizabethan legal issues, especially those that sought to define the relationship between monarch and subject and the role of the subject in the polity. Critics have long recognized that Shakespeare knew something of the law; Raffield shows how subtly and persistently Shakespeare wrote about such issues, especially those related to political authority.
Raffield discusses six plays that “collectively reflect” legal and constitutional issues in the last decade of Elizabeth’s reign, especially legal responses to the “absolutist tendency” of the crown (13). Chapter 1, on Titus Andronicus, examines the play’s dystopian view of the body politic. Chapter 2, on The Comedy of Errors, looks at the individual in the polity, in particular the play’s intervention in contemporary debates about individual obligations in contract law. Chapter 3 turns from subjects to the monarch, arguing that Richard II’s portrayal of monarchic land ownership is consistent with sixteenth-century legal arguments for limited monarchy. In chapter 4, Raffield looks at another way of tempering the monarch’s authority, showing that ancient folk customs and rituals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream mollify Theseus’ strict application of Athenian law. Chapter 5 focuses on the legal profession itself, considering how the Chief Justice and Justice Shallow in parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV are embodiments of the immutable authority of the common law. Chapter 6 considers post-Elizabethan politics, arguing that the Duke in Measure for Measure uses disguise to obfuscate his use of power, and in so doing is a prescient embodiment of King James’s concept of the mystical and divine authority of the monarch.
Throughout these chapters, Raffield pinpoints ways that legal and dramatic texts echo each other, developing intriguing readings of specific passages in the law and in Shakespeare’s plays. Raffield often shows how even the smallest moments are deeply engaged with a play’s legal themes. For instance, in the chapter on Titus Andronicus, Raffield links the play’s multiple references to music in stage directions, imagery, and mythological allusions to the theme of justice, which is understood as the harmonious governance of society. In the chapter on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he uses Bottom’s transformation into an ass to open up a discussion of the festive rituals that likewise transform “Athenian” law, including the Feast of the Ass, Inns of Court holiday celebrations, and especially Mayday. He also brings this interpretive skill to his readings of legal documents; for instance, citing Plowden’s Reports to show that the English judiciary sought pragmatic ways to promote limited monarchy, a tendency that is reflected in the concern with the monarch’s handling of property in Richard II.
Raffield arrives at many of his most interesting insights through an associative logic, showing how words or images resonate with one another, and he calls attention to this logic in his frequent use of words like “link,” “associate,” “parallel,” “reflect,” and “analogy,” or phrases like “calls to mind” and “raises the possibility.” For instance, Raffield discusses the gold chain in The Comedy of Errors, noting that the issues surrounding its ownership and payment are important, in part because the chain represents the law, and that in this way “Shakespeare’s gold chain . . . has a juristic link which is traceable at least to the Laws of Plato,” where the law is described as a chain that binds the community (64). Elsewhere, he uses variations of the word “associate” to make a point about sexual violence in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Having shown that, in Titus Andronicus, Demetrius (and his brother) raped Lavinia in...