Dennis Kezar, ed. Solon and Thespis: Law and Theater in the English Renaissance. South Bend: U of Notre Dame P, 2007. 304pp. ISBN 978 0268033135.

Subha Mukherji. Law and Representation in Early Modern Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. 314pp. ISBN 978 0521850353.

Brian Lockey. Law and Empire in English Renaissance Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. 236pp. ISBN 978 0521858618.

Todd Butler
Washington State University

Todd Butler . "Review of Dennis Kezar, ed. Solon and Thespis: Law and Theater in the English Renaissance;
Subha Mukherji, Law and Representation in Early Modern Drama; Brian Lockey, Law and Empire in English Renaissance Literature."
Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 14.1-11 <URL:>.

  1. Though the links between early modern literature and the law have long been a topic of historical and critical interest, recent years have seen such studies advance at an increasingly rapid and sophisticated pace. The past several years have brought forth work on topics as diverse as treason (Lemon) and the intricacies of debtor-creditor relationships in the late sixteenth century (Ross). Though the timing of their publication was perhaps coincidental, the arrival of three new books demonstrates again the variety and fruitfulness of this growing field of inquiry.

  2. Of the three volumes surveyed here, Dennis Kezar's Solon and Thespis: Law and Theater in the English Renaissance offers perhaps the most varied set of reflections on the "law" in early modern England. This is in part the inevitable result of an essay collection rather than a single-author monograph, and it is certainly not a detriment to its contribution. Eschewing a literal and narrowly focused examination of "law" and "theatre"-there are no investigations, for example, of the specific laws that governed playhouses-the book's essays instead favor a more expansive understanding of their topic that draws its inspiration from New Historicist considerations of the theatricality of power and the means by which formal legal structures simultaneously compete with and rely upon more fluid and protean understandings of authority.

  3. Organized thematically rather than chronologically, the assembled essays address a wide range of playwrights, including Chapman, Dekker, Jonson, and Shakespeare, as well as members of the Inns of Court. In each instance the essays' authors set these writers alongside considerations of the social, political, and economic practices that both inform their work and are elucidated by it. Luke Wilson, for example, juxtaposes Chapman's Chabot with the trial and eventual dismissal of Francis Bacon from the Lord Chancellorship for bribery, resulting in a consideration of the dynamics of gift-giving and patronage that is sensitive to both Derridean critical theory and the sophisticatedly subtle ways in which the early moderns themselves understood the complex relationship between law and community. Similarly, Karen Cunningham demonstrates how the practice of mooting-the debating of imaginary cases meant to train and sharpen the lawyers of the Inns of Court-provided those same lawyers with not only potential subjects for plays such as Gorboduc but also an understanding of how the practice of playing might "secure the realm in acts of imagination" (215).

  4. While the volume as a whole merits attention, several of its features deserve particular praise. After a general introduction by Kezar the collection begins with a cluster of three articles on Ben Jonson, the combined result of which is to reaffirm the playwright's work as a viable alternative to the tendency of many critics (particularly those in faculties of law) to turn first to Shakespeare for their source texts. Heather Dubrow's essay on land law and King Lear demonstrates not only a careful analytical summary of a tangled and often presumptively prosaic area of early modern law but also the way in which such knowledge can, through careful historical exposition, reveal how concerns more commonly studied on a national level-colonial expansion, the fear of the "Other"-might also animate more local relationships. Finally, Debra Shuger challenges us to see early modern censorship as driven not by the fear of subversive ideas per se but by the profound anxiety over the danger that slander and falsehood posed to a political community still reliant upon notions of charity and honour.

  5. Like Kezar's collection, Subha Mukherji's Law and Representation in Early Modern Drama focuses on the relationship between theatre and the law, specifically how drama alternately interrogates, enhances, or otherwise illumines the nature of early modern legal discourse and institutions. Mukherji begins from an implicitly New Historicist standpoint, focusing on the processes of "representation" as a means to explore the links between "the disciplines and cultural practices of the stage and court in early modern England" (2). Distinctive about Mukherji's approach, however, is her extensive use of archival and manuscript resources-legal documents, case histories, and contemporary treatises-as a means of entry into and commentary upon an expansive collection of early modern dramas, including a range of obscure and critically neglected plays and pamphlets that shared the stage (and here the page) with more familiar works by Shakespeare, Webster, and Haywood. In turn these dramas not only undergo fresh interpretation but also offer valuable and otherwise elusive testimony to the "lived culture of litigation" that remains so difficult to extract from extant legal documents and commentaries (16).

  6. The potential benefits of Mukerhji's approach are perhaps best illustrated by the book's initial chapter on marriage law and the material tokens of marital commitment. It begins with a detailed exposition of the marriage law and in particular its application to the notoriously knotted matter of espousals, in which canon courts were often called upon to enforce a promise of marriage that had floundered upon differing interpretations of the commitment each party had previously expressed. Drawing heavily upon Henry Swinburne's A Treatise of Spousals and its incomplete manuscript sequel (a copy of which is usefully included in the text as an appendix), Mukerhji details how conflicts over verbal promises expose the interpretative difficulty inherent in words and how the law must construct a stable interpretation from evidence that is often incomplete or contingent upon an individual speaker or context. Such difficulties made the existence of rings and other love tokens particularly valuable, as they materially and synecdochally represent more inscrutable human intentions. At the same time, however, these material items are subject to the same interpretative difficulties as the promises they supposedly secure, ultimately demonstrating the difficulty the law encounters in stabilizing representation. Along with court records Mukherji illustrates her analysis with not only the natural choice of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice but with a host of other dramas-at least 17 other plays come into view. Some of these are simply gestured to, but the tally as a whole helps illustrate not only the wealth of material present but also the challenge Mukherji faces in its presentation, as scholars (particularly those unfamiliar with these issues) may find the chapter's prose and its evidence at times somewhat turgid and overly complex.

  7. This is, however, a small complaint for an otherwise fine volume, and it generally does not reoccur in the chapters that follow, which handle such topics as the legal status of women, the physical and conceptual geographies of stage and court in early modern London, and the intersection between the period's domestic tragedies and its Protestant moralizers. Combining an intense focus on specific legal and theatrical moments with an expansive and ambitious set of claims, this is a book that will repay repeated reading.

  8. In contrast to the previous two volumes, Brian Lockey's Law and Empire in English Renaissance Literature approaches the law on a grander-scale, that of nations and political philosophy. During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Lockey argues, England's increasingly imperialistic ambitions demanded at least theoretically (if not practically) a legal justification that native traditions of common law were incapable of providing. More amenable to this project were elements of continental and natural law which, despite their problematic associations with Catholicism, offered a more expansive and universal set of standards that eschewed the "legal chauvinism" of the common-law courts (9). While he is attentive to the institutional structures of English law, Lockey's interest lies not with the law per se but with its influence on the structures of literature, specifically the romance genre. Beginning with Spanish chivalric tradition and then moving into the English reception of that tradition in Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Wroth, Lockey contends that romance writers drew directly from the struggle between common and continental law as they attempted to articulate a more sophisticated justification for the process and human costs of imperial conquest.

  9. To his credit Lockey's reading of the early modern romance tradition avoids any simplified narrative of literary development. Instead each writer is presented as balancing the potentially deep contradictions between nationalism, sovereignty, and the basic human rights possessed by both conqueror and conquered-as the English empire grew, so too did the complexity of its literary responses. This approach yields fresh readings of often somewhat neglected texts. Focusing on the Old Arcadia (rather than its later revision), Lockey brings forward a Sidney whose Protestant militantism is tempered by a reliance upon Catholic values as a foundation for his notion of "charitable conquest," in which imperialism is deemed acceptable when driven by virtue rather than self-interest. Turning to Spenser, Lockey examines not only the author's A View of the Present State of Ireland but also The Fairie Queene, emphasizing not Book Five and its focus on justice but the portrayal of salvage man in Book Six. As the salvage man encounters first Calepine and then Arthur and his squire Timias, becoming increasingly civilized in the process, we see Spenser imagining a space for the English conquest of Ireland in which the expansion of English law at once immunizes English settlers from Irish barbarity and enables the transformation of the "good" Irish-that is, those whose natural inclination to civility renders them amenable to acceding to the English conquest. A similar concern with arguments for the civilizing effects of imperialism animates the book's readings of Cymbeline and Wroth's Urania.

  10. The book is thus as much about the romance as it is the law, a fact somewhat belied by its title. (Presumably "law" and "empire" are more striking keywords than "romance," at least for contemporary literary critics.) As such its readings at times seem somewhat abstracted from the specific and often devilishly complex political and jurisprudential moments they share, though the chapter on Wroth is a well-done exception in this regard. Lockey's term for what these texts do in regards to the legal debates he identifies is "engagements," a word that at once signals both investiture and a potential lack of recognizable influence over outcomes. The desire for such direct political influence, as Julie Stone Peters recently recognized, has animated the field of law and literature since its conception. Lockey's book demonstrates just how extensively this desire was shared by early modern writers of romance, and perhaps also just how unrealized that desire could be.

  11. Together these texts not only attest to the continuing vitality of law and literature studies in the early modern period but they also point the way toward future research. Though Lockey in particular is rightfully interested in some of the theological underpinnings of law, and Mukerhji ably details the influence of church courts over moral offenses and institutions such as adultery and marriage, the field as a whole tends to emphasize the common law and civil court system. Although the power of church courts declined in the seventeenth century, their connections to an institution struggling to come to terms with its own ritual heritage still makes this area of English legal and social history ideal for the sort of inquiries exemplified in Kezar's volume. Similarly, while Mukherji's use of archival resources suggests the wealth of manuscript information that remains to be brought to bear on familiar literary texts, both dramatic and non-dramatic, these same resources might themselves be fruitfully examined themselves as narratives rather than simply transcripts or depositions. Such potential suggests the extent to which the best work in "law and literature," at least in the early modern period, possesses a truly interdisciplinary bent, attentive to texts by cultural historians (Cynthia Herrup and J.A. Sharpe, for example) and legal scholars. What the books reviewed here ably demonstrate, however, is that these same historians and legal scholars would have much to learn from literary critics as well.
Works Cited
  • Lemon, Rebecca. Treason By Words: Literature, Law, and Rebellion in Shakespeare's England. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2006.
  • Peters, Julie Stone. "Law, Literature, and the Vanishing Real: On the Future of an Interdisciplinary Illusion." PMLA 120.2 (March 2005): 442-453.
  • Ross, Charles. Elizabethan Literature and the Law of Fraudulent Conveyance: Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003.

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© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).