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  • Measure for Measure:Social and Legal Thought in Early Modern England
  • Rich Connors (bio)
A. L. Beier
Social Thought in England, 1480–1730: From Body Social to Worldly Wealth
new york: routledge, 2016
xxi + 462 pages; isbn: 9781138956865
John M. Collins
Martial Law and English Laws, c. 1500–c. 1700
cambridge: cambridge university press, 2016
xiv + 319 pages; isbn: 9781107092877
Michael J. Braddick and Phil Withington, editors
Popular Culture and Political Agency in Early Modern England and Ireland: Essays in Honour of John Walter
woodbridge, u.k.: boydell press, 2017
xiv + 309 pages; isbn: 9781783271719

Of government the properties to unfoldWould seem in me to affect speech and discourse,Since I am put to know that your own scienceExceeds, in that, the lists of all adviceMy strength can give you: then no more remainsBut that, to your sufficiency, as your worth is able,And let them work. The nature of our people,Our city's institutions, and the termsFor common justice, you're as pregnant in,As art and practice hath enriched anyThat we remember.

Measure for Measure, 1.1.3–13 [End Page 425]

with these words vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, admits to his confidant Escalus, a judge, that dispensing justice is a challenging art, one seemingly beyond his current capabilities. His solution is to allow others—in the short term the enthusiastic and flawed jurist Angelo—to take his place and impose order and discipline upon the wayward subjects of Vienna. For Jacobean men and women in the audience of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, the themes of law, order, and justice, and the undertones of corruption, hypocrisy, and irony could hardly have gone unnoticed.1 Since it was first performed at Christmas 1604, the motifs of vice and folly, of arbitrary legal license and sexual and moral depravity have branded the play as one of Shakespeare's darkest comedies, one that dramatizes "the unquenchability of demotic irreverence and subcultural independence."2 Indeed, in the play a heroine, Isabella, challenges the conceit of those in power when she asserts that they are "but man, proud man, / Dressed in a little brief authority" (2.2.117-18). As Shakespeare's contemporaries understood, and as much recent historical scholarship has shown, the nature of power and of people's relationships to it, in their multifarious forms and contexts, were necessarily negotiated and renegotiated by patricians and plebeians alike throughout the early modern period.3 Shakespeare certainly explored and drew upon the paradoxes of interpersonal and institutional power relations in Measure for Measure, but he routinely did so throughout his plays—in his comedies for entertainment, in his history plays for edification, and in his tragedies for exemplary [End Page 426] explication and, at times, expiation.4 And as legal and literary scholars have shown, Shakespeare regularly seized upon the law and "Jacobethan" legal culture not only to expose and to comment upon the social world and social order in which he lived but also to elicit reflection and responses from his astute audiences.5 Indeed, Shakespeare's patrons and punters appreciated that order and stability, like life itself, was tenuous, transient, provisional, and prone to sudden change. As readers of this journal recognize, the social lives of early modern English people and the society they inhabited have been the subject of intensive historical research for the last three or four decades. The fruits of that research and the complex historiography it has created have been summarized by numerous scholars toiling in the field, and thankfully the broad subject remains very much a "hard hat area," as it was characterized in 1990: much has been written and accomplished but extensive scholarly research continues apace.6 This essay explores aspects of current work, seeking to reflect upon recent publications in the field and integrate their findings into broader historiographical understandings of the early modern English world. As one of its preeminent scholars has recently noted, decades of archival research have revealed a thoroughly dynamic society that between 1500 and 1750 became "more defined, institutionally, ideologically and culturally; better known geographically and socially; more integrated and connected."7 These changes were uneven and paradoxical, for England...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1544-399X
Print ISSN
0018-7895
Pages
pp. 425-441
Launched on MUSE
2018-09-20
Open Access
No
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