Bradin Cormack.  A Power to Do Justice: Jurisdiction, English Literature, and the Rise of Common Law, 1509-1625.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007.  xvi+406pp.  ISBN-13: 9780226116242.

Lorna Hutson.  The Invention of Suspicion: Law and Mimesis in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.  x+382pp.  ISBN-13: 9780199212439.

Dennis Kezar, ed.  Solon and Thespis: Law and Theater in the English Renaissance.  Notre Dame IN: U of Notre Dame P, 2007.  viii+294pp.  ISBN-13: 9780268033132.

Elliott Visconsi.  Lines of Equity: Literature and the Origins of Law in Later Stuart England.  Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2008.  xiv+216pp.  ISBN-13: 9780801446726.

Curtis Perry
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

Curtis Perry. "Review of Bradin Cormack, A Power to Do Justice; Lorna Hutson, The Invention of Suspicion; Dennis Kezar, ed. Solon and Thespis: Law and Theater in the English Renaissance; Elliott Visconsi, Lines of Equity." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10). <URL:>.

  1. The most striking thing about reading these four books in conjunction is the story they seem to tell about the increasing methodological assurance of literary scholars working at the intersection of law and literature in an early modern British context.  The earliest of the books under review—Solon and Thespis, printed in early 2007 and featuring articles that in some cases seem to have been written much earlier—is framed by its editor, Dennis Kezar, as an attempt to jump-start an interdisciplinary field that has had difficulty finding traction within early modern literary scholarship.  Kezar writes: "the 'law and literature movement' describes a space in which institutional momentum and interdisciplinary inquiry meet with often intriguing but frequently short-lived and theoretically inarticulate results.  Few can define this 'field' compellingly or lastingly enough to describe what would amount to an orthodoxy, let alone an intervention" (2).  The apologetic nature of this overview looks out of date in the context of the other books under review, each of which bids—successfully, but in very different ways—to make law and literature seem like a conjunction that is at once organic and necessarily central to early modern cultural studies.  None of them could be characterized as "theoretically inarticulate" and I am quite certain that the impact of at least two of them (Cormack's A Power to Do Justice and Hutson's The Invention of Suspicion) will be anything but short-lived.

  2. In fairness, essay collections typically play a different role than single-author books in the ebb and flow of disciplinary development.  Their heterogeneity is often very much part of their value: essay collections are most useful when they provide a snapshot of the different approaches available within some burgeoning but not yet codified interdisciplinary sub-field, and they are appropriately superseded by ambitious single-author books as the scholarly discourse in question attains maturity.  By this standard, Solon and Thespis, which is a fine collection in its own right, seems to have been published a few years too late for maximum impact: there have been a sizable number of ambitious book-length studies of law and literature in early modern Britain published by leading presses in the last few years, including (in addition to the other books under review here) books by Rebecca Lemon, Brian Lockey, and Subha Mukherji.  And there is some indication that several of the essays gathered in Solon and Thespis were themselves written at an earlier stage in the development of the current law and literature movement: Paul Cantor's discussion of free-market ideologies in Ben Jonson is a version of a paper first published in 2001, Karen Cunningham's essay on mooting at the Inns of Court shares some material with her 2002 book Imaginary Betrayals, and Debora Shuger notes that her essay in the volume "subsequently evolved into a book length project" published in 2006 (Censorship and Cultural Sensibility) and adds: "I have made some last minute revisions to the essay to correct factual errors, but on the whole it reflects a somewhat earlier stage in my thinking on this topic" (189). 

  3. Solon and Thespis can be recommended, however, on the basis of its many interesting articles, if not on the basis of its cumulative methodological intervention: this is a book that scholars interested in early modern drama especially will be happy to have on their shelves.  A brief résumé of the essays will provide a sense of the range of questions here gathered under the umbrella of law and literature.  The first suite of essays deals primarily with Ben Jonson.  Matthew Greenfield's essay takes its cues from the characteristically Jonsonian idea of satirical drama as an arraignment, and reads his Poetaster and Dekker's Satiromastix in terms of the different ways that satire and law understand human agency and thus criminal intent.  Cantor reads Bartholomew Fair as a step on Jonson's part towards a neo-liberal free-market ideology.  And Frances Teague argues that Volpone is set in Venice in order to displace what might otherwise be an uncomfortable topical resonance between the play's courtroom drama and the prosecutions of the gunpowder plotters.  Heather Dubrow, in one of the collection's finer essays, reads King Lear in terms of the quotidian jurisdictional and procedural complexities associated with the possession of land in early modern England, and argues that we can see anxieties about land ownership and displacement running throughout the play and offering a kind of subtextual complement to the more overt thematic concern with political usurpation.  Ernest B. Gilman, in a far-ranging essay linking The Tempest's many oblique pre-histories to its colonial narrative, focuses on Sycorax's legal pre-history in which, it is implied, she pled the belly and had a death sentence commuted to deportation.

  4. The remaining essays move away from the Jonson/Shakespeare dyad.  Kezar offers a thoughtful and nicely nuanced reading of The Witch of Edmonton as a morally ambiguous piece of drama that simultaneously participates in and critiques the murderous cultural discourses constitutive of early modern witchcraft, and Shuger's aforementioned essay attempts to reorient our understanding of censorship laws.  Karen Cunningham reads Gorboduc as a play whose dramatic imagination is structured in part by its authors' familiarity with moot courts at the Inner Temple.  And Luke Wilson (whose 2000 book Theaters of Intention must be mentioned in any omnibus review of the law and literature movement in renaissance studies) offers an account of how early modern ideas about bribery differ from our own habits of thought, and demonstrates the former by reading Chapman's The Tragedy of Chabot against documents pertaining to Francis Bacon's impeachment on bribery charges in 1621.  Finally, a smart (but surprisingly ungenerous) epilogue by Deak Nabers suggests that the volume's essays, because they are predominantly interested in doing literary criticism, lack "new accounts of either the nature of the law or the meaning of its history" (264) and attempts to supply that lack with theoretical discussion of law's status in relation to other forms of power.  It should be clear, even from this hasty overview, that Solon and Thespis interact in a wide range of ways in this book.  Some essays deal with the depiction of legal proceedings within plays, some with formal similarities between legal and dramatic narratives and performances of various kinds, some with questions about the role of law in the governance of drama, and some with vexed issues that are looked at within individual essays in both legal and dramatic terms as a way, one might generalize, to extend new historicist reading practices into new institutional arenas. 

  5. Lorna Hutson's fascinating and original-minded study The Invention of Suspicion is also specifically about the interrelationship between Solon and Thespis.  In fact, she sees the development of London theatre in the second half of the sixteenth century as being inextricably bound up with contemporaneous developments in popular legal culture.  Hutson's historical argument is intricate and difficult to summarize adequately, but its basic outline begins with changes to the protocols governing criminal justice and its local administration in sixteenth-century England (such as the development of the jury system and the written examinations required of Justices of the Peace) that fostered communal participation in and responsibility for the gathering and weighing of circumstantial evidence.  These developments put a premium on the ability to construct probable narratives and to assess probabilities in accounts presented by others, skills that were honed in schools via the study of Roman rhetoricians but that quickly became important, too, for a larger segment of the population than could read Latin.  The growing importance of the rhetorical and interpretive skills associated with producing and assessing evidence also encouraged a taste for the kinds of narrative one finds in Roman new comedy, which feature sequences of events in tightly plotted chains of circumstance that invite multiple constructions and involve situations rife with the potential for misapprehension.  These associated developments, in Hutson's account, continue to reinforce each other in various ways during the 1560s and 1570s, as popular involvement with questions of evidence deepens and Inns of Court writers like George Gascoigne—who have a stake in the social efficacy of law and are uncomfortable with the way scammers are treated as authorial surrogates in Roman comedy—refashion classical comedy to suit their own social values.  The resulting drama—a kind of humanist theatre in which comic intrigue plots become fables of magisterial detection—is assimilated in turn by the popular stage and so helps to explain the kinds of plotting we find in plays in various genres from the 1580s and 1590s, as dramatists began to exploit dramatic potential of evidentiary uncertainty in new ways.  The book's final chapters examine this development, focusing in particular on Shakespeare's plotting and characterization and on the way these work to transform different genres: the history play, revenge tragedy, and romantic comedy.  The final chapter contrasts Shakespeare and Jonson as inheritors of this tradition who moralize about the theatricality of forensic narrative in very different ways.

  6. There is much in this book to admire, and Hutson makes several provocative arguments that I think are will prove valuable to subsequent scholars of early modern drama.  The Invention of Suspicion is likely to be a very useful book.  The book's main methodological intervention is its emphasis upon the public, participatory nature of criminal law, an emphasis that allows Hutson to move decisively away from the familiar Foucauldian paradigm in which justice is understood as disciplinary spectacle.  Readings of plays authorized by this paradigm, Hutson argues, not only misunderstand the nature of communal participation in the administration of Elizabethan justice, but also fail to notice the way detection and punishment tend to be plotted and thus to underestimate the importance of the way characters and audience-members are invited to assess and interpret evidence.  In addition to reorienting our sense of drama's socio-political investments, in other words, Hutson's approach to drama shifts emphasis away from "the Renaissance theatre's visual impact" and towards "the forensic rhetoric of plot" (68).  This shift in emphasis pays off, finally, in cogent readings of several well-known early modern plays.  Hutson provides, for instance, the most satisfying explanation I have yet encountered for the fact that plays like Titus Andronicus and The Spanish Tragedy—revenge plays that pivot around questions of crime and punishment—are in some ways plotted like comedies. 

  7. Hutson's emphasis upon communal participation in law also leads her to argue that writers like Kyd, Shakespeare, and Jonson were participating in what had become a "popular culture of evidence evaluation" (241).  What is implied by this, I think, is that they used techniques adapted from earlier elite drama but in ways that they felt would resonate with an interest in evidence evaluation shared by their public-theatre audiences.  Since this is a book about authors more than about audiences, Hutson does not do as much as she might with this point: there is an interesting tension in the book between its narrative of literary influence (in which techniques developed by writers like Gascoigne are assimilated by writers like Shakespeare) and its larger cultural argument about the diffusion of forensic concerns beyond the elite.  What might it mean for our understanding of early modern audiences to think of theatre as participating centrally in a popular culture of evidence evaluation?

  8. Readers will also be interested in the sweep of Hutson's literary historical narrative, which begins with the morality play Mankind (shown to have a very different attitude towards evidence and guilt than the later plays she takes up) and runs through Hamlet.  Hutson certainly does not claim to be offering any kind of general or synoptic history of early modern drama, but the many scholars in medieval and early modern studies who are now re-examining age-old assumptions about continuity and discontinuity across historical periods will find in Hutson's book a cogent and well-developed historical account of one reason why Shakespeare's drama is unlike the drama of his pre-reformation predecessors.  There is also an interesting challenge here for those critics who argue that the much-celebrated subjectivity effects found in Shakespeare's plays are merely projections of modern reading habits.  Instead, Hutson argues that it is Shakespeare's bravura handling of a mimesis grounded in forensics that gives his characters the illusion of having a plausible independent existence beyond the words on the page and that invites speculation about them beyond what the text can fully support.

  9. It is almost inevitable, given the scope of Hutson's argument, that her readers will find things to quibble with.  Though the book never pretends to be a comprehensive literary history, different readers will inevitably feel that she has overstated cause and effect linkages or left crucial things out.  For example, I kept wondering if the book might not be over-emphasizing the cultural importance of plots from Roman comedy by focusing on one narrative of influence and transmission and so failing to note forensic qualities scripted differently in other kinds of drama.  Certainly Seneca's tragedies—which (as Hutson acknowledges) were more obviously on the minds of early Elizabethan members of the Inns of Court than were the texts of Roman new comedy—contain both characterological enigmas of motive and scenes organized around the weighing of evidence, even if their plots lack the kinds of chains of causality that one finds in Roman comedy: what about the essentially forensic plot of Oedipus, or the episode in Phaedra where Theseus misjudges what has happened in the first half of the play because he misunderstands the physical evidence represented by Hippolytus's sword?  But my real point here isn't that Seneca, say, should have been better represented in the book's argument, it is that The Invention of Suspicion invites this kind of criticism by its very structure:  because it combines a very capacious and suggestive claim about early modern English drama and culture in general with some very precise, narrowly argued arguments about specific plays and chains of influence, it is at once easy to extrapolate from the large argument to one's own areas of interest and extremely tempting to read for possible omissions in the book's literary history.  The larger picture, though, is that Hutson's book is powerful, innovative, and well-argued; I predict that it will be an unusually useful and influential book, in the sense that a very broad range of scholars will be able to engage productively with its larger argument about the sixteenth-century emergence and diffusion of a culture of forensic curiosity.   

  10. Where Hutson's book rejects as misleading the typical new-historicist emphasis on top-down political authority, Bradin Cormack's impressive book A Power to Do Justice interrogates it from within, reminding us that questions concerning Tudor and early Stuart political authority can be read through the lens of jurisdiction and so bidding to place the study of law and literature at the very centre of our received understanding of early-modern English political culture.  One could think of the book as itself representing a kind of jurisdictional coup, a successful annexation for the law and literature movement of important new-historicist terrain.  Cormack's style echoes new-historicist modes of argument in large and small ways: we get readings of literary and non-literary texts juxtaposed, arguments about the analogy between creative work in two cultural spheres (law and literature), chapters arranged chronologically, but as case studies instead of as sections in a linear narrative history, and a selection of major primary literary texts that is mostly canonical and so given as representative.  Still, the book feels fresh and important because of its author's remarkable erudition and also because jurisdiction, as a category for historicist analysis, proves to be at once extremely subtle and enormously capacious.  The political questions that have occupied historicist critics—questions, that is, about things like nationhood, empire, power, sovereignty, and social order—can usefully be re-examined as problems grappled with at the level of jurisdiction, and so the study of literature and law becomes, in Cormack's extremely capable hands, a way of pressuring historicist analysis to become ever-more responsive to the way emerging cruxes and tensions pertaining to these large categories were constructed in contemporaneous discourses, including literature.

  11. After a short prologue and a densely written theoretical introduction, the book consists of six chapters, each built around historical argumentation and some very finely wrought close readings.  Cormack is a very, very good close reader, and his discussions of primary documents are all extremely interesting and persuasive: any scholar working on any one of his major primary texts—Skelton's Magnyfycence, More's Utopia, books 5 and 6 of Spenser's Faerie Queene, Shakespeare's histories, Pericles, and Cymbeline, and Cure for a Cuckold, a late-Jacobean play by Webster, Rowley, and Heywood that effectively sets the book's chronological end-point—should consider the relevant chapters to be required reading.  There is an historical arc here—a story about the consolidation and professionalization of common law and its encounters with jurisdictional rivals or limits.  But ultimately the central argument of the book is theoretical as much as historical, a claim about how law, for all of its abstract-seeming authority, attains meaning only through administrative interpretations and practices that can be at once improvisational and creative: what matters is law's application, and thus the negotiations that take place around the question of jurisdiction. 

  12. While this is presumably true for all legal systems, and certainly for those based upon precedent, it is a perspective that proves especially fruitful for the Tudor and early Stuart period, when the jurisdictional boundaries between common law and other courts based on civil and canon law could be shifting and unclear.  Cormack is interested above all in contested jurisdictional borderlands: in Henrician jostling between different courts and authorities, in questions about the legal role of custom raised by the Elizabethan presence in Ireland, in efforts by English thinkers to make sense of the presence within English law of traces of the Norman conquest, and in questions about the relationship between "jurisdictional threshold and…center" (42) raised in Jacobean England as a result of English mercantile ambitions.  Successive chapters tease out the political and legal implications at stake in each of these scenes of jurisdictional renegotiation, examining the imaginative, ad hoc process by which the law has to be adapted to limit cases.  He also argues that imaginative literature—because it is "implicated in the same process of shaping unruly practice for which jurisdiction itself stands" (4) can offer the critic a kind of snapshot image of this ever-changing process of legal adaptation, showing us how different ideas and perspectives were joined or opposed even after questions about jurisdiction have been ironed out or settled within the realm of legal practice.  That is, Cormack argues, literature is not a discrete discourse in which cruxes raised in legal thinking are also allegorized or examined, it is a discursive realm that resembles and overlaps with the realm of legal theory in which writers attempt to weigh in on and sort out vexed contemporary matters of jurisdiction.

  13. To my way of reading, theoretical arguments about the relationship between literary authority and jurisdiction that are presented in the book's introduction are perhaps the least edifying aspect of what is generally a very deeply edifying book.  Since many of the writers Cormack takes up—all of them, perhaps, but Shakespeare, who we are of course accustomed to thinking of as preternaturally sensitive to any and all discursive trends within his culture—are also legally trained and/or actively invested in a jurisdictional conflict that impinges upon their fiction-making, it is possible to show in a more practical and less theoretical manner that fiction-making in literature overlaps with legal fiction-making in these cases: Webster was most likely a Middle Templar, while Skelton, More, and Spenser, it is argued, participate directly in arguments about jurisdiction via the production of literature while also reflecting in a self-referential manner upon the creative, fiction-making nature of jurisdictional invention itself.  All of the case studies are sharp and illuminating—especially, for this reader, the chapters on More, on Spenser and Ireland, and on Cure for a Cuckold.  The arguments presented in these and the other case-study chapters are too layered and intricate to summarize adequately, but I strongly recommend them to anyone with an interest in early modern politics and literature, broadly construed: The Power to Do Justice is a remarkably well-executed book, one of the smartest and most learned I have read in some time.   

  14. Elliott Visconsi's Lines of Equity represents still another approach to law and literature in that, unlike Hutson's and Cormack's books, its arguments are not generated out of any specialized scholarly knowledge of early modern legal systems or practices: "this is not a book," Visconsi writes, "about the relation between literature and the seventeenth-century equity courts…nor indeed is it in any meaningful way a study of the entanglement of literary texts with the professional judiciary" (2).  It is instead a book about literature and politics organized as a study of some non-technical ideas about society and law.  In particular, it is about a late seventeenth-century fascination with an idea of equity that Visconsi derives primarily from Aristotle: equity as both a mode of legal interpretation (such as when a king relaxes punitive legal stricture) and as a disposition toward equal justice that an individual might inhabit or adopt.  The fuzziness of the distinction between these two meanings is crucial, and Visconsi's argument is that the later seventeenth-century writers under discussion attempted to encourage their readers to cultivate habits of thought that were equitable in both senses. 

  15. William Davenant is credited with being the pioneering figure here—an early theorist of "literature's public utility" (27)—but the main authors in question are Dryden, Milton, Behn, and a handful of Restoration-era republican writers (Henry Neville, Algernon Sidney, and Henry Vane). The argument is that these writers respond to seventeenth-century socio-political upheavals with a series of fictions designed to explore and inculcate equity via scenarios about the origins of law.  These fictions—instances of what Visconsi calls "imaginative originalism"—include state of nature arguments displaced onto putatively primitive locales (as in Dryden's The Indian Emperour or Behn's Oroonoko) as well as stories told more overtly about origins such as Paradise Lost.  And they are all designed, in Visconsi's account, "to enlist…readers in an imaginative contemplation of the origins of political community" (119).  One of the larger arguments that introduces the book is that English interest in the origins of law and social civility in this period is contextualized by a native cultural pessimism, the fear that the English are naturally prone to gothic barbarism and so might require remedial instruction in civics.  At fraught moments such as the Exclusion Crisis, this fear becomes more pressing and the need for remediation more urgent.  Writers attempting such remediation offer it to their readers via fictions that, on the one hand, show that equity should lie at the heart of law as well as, on the other, featuring models of virtue centered upon personal equitability.  Another large argument, implied at least in the book's short coda on Robinson Crusoe as a form of imaginative originalism, is that Defoe's use of the resources of this seventeenth-century tradition—the way it solicits reader-identification, its mixture of personal narrative and social allegory—contributes meaningfully to Crusoe's importance in the history of the novel as a form. 

  16. The chapters here are mostly organized around readings of selected literary works, which makes sense since the book's stated objectives are ultimately literary-critical and philosophical rather than historicist or cultural.  Visconsi writes:
    My objective is not to claim a comprehensive account of the norms of mid-seventeenth-century literature, or that all writers between 1649 and 1688 are interested in thinking of literature as a means of public paideia or a remedy for English barbarism.  Instead, I focus on the handful of writers—and indeed upon a handful of works—in which the nexus between literature and equitable judgment is exaggerated, or indeed over-determined, by a thematic focus on the origins of law and the first principles of states (31).
    To a reader accustomed to the profusion of facts, texts, and anecdotes featured in most historicist cultural criticism, there is something almost luxurious about the pace of Visconsi's sustained accounts of how law and equity are figured in these texts.  The readings are persuasive and lucid and can be recommended not only to specialists in seventeenth-century or Restoration literature but to early modernists (like the present reviewer) who work in other sub-fields but teach texts by writers like Behn and Dryden and so have a pragmatic use for cogent, accessible criticism of them.  The chapter on Behn is particularly interesting, finding in both Oroonoko and The Widow Ranter a Tory preoccupation with the threat of mob-rule that is displaced in each text but still associated with racialized idea of British barbarism.  

  17. If I have a criticism of Lines of Equity it is of the sketchy and overly-schematic pre-history that Visconsi uses in his introductory chapter to set up his argument about Restoration-era writers.  Strictly speaking, Visconsi's argument does not really require a pre-history: it needs only to show that the texts under discussion share a set of concerns, not that these concerns are fully distinctive and original to this moment.  But in his introduction, and occasionally at other moments in the book, Visconsi offers generalizations about Elizabethan and early Stuart literature and culture that strike this reader at least as derivative and somewhat caricatured.  In order to assert the distinctiveness of his mid- and late-seventeenth-century paradigm, for example, Visconsi seems to imply that Elizabethan and early Stuart writers were wholly incapable of attempting to elicit moral or political reactions from audiences other than aristocratic patrons and princes.  To be sure, questions about the nature and extent of the early Stuart public sphere can be vexed, but Visconsi oversimplifies a political culture whose membership at the end of the day may not have been all that different from the audiences imagined for at least some of the literary texts under discussion here.  Visconsi also, I think, elides a robust tradition of "imaginative originalism" with important classical and humanist antecedents.  Again, I do not think that discussion of this tradition is strictly required here, but a clearer sense of antecedents would have made it easier to see what is and what is not considered to be distinctive about the "handful of writers" under discussion.  As a reader I found myself wondering if readings like the ones on offer here couldn't likewise be made for various pre-revolutionary fictions.  How about The Tempest, for instance, even before Davenant and Dryden rewrote it? 

  18. In one sense, the assessment of the law and literature movement offered by Kezar in his introduction to Solon and Thespis is borne out by these three interesting single-author studies: there still does not seem to be any agreement about a methodological orthodoxy governing work at the interdisciplinary intersection of these two fields.  But in light of these and other recent studies, we can now say with confidence that this is A Good Thing, a sign of plenitude rather than of incoherence.  The questions asked by Hutson, Cormack, and Visconsi are all quite different, and so the insights yielded by their books are also of very different varieties.  But each of them makes it plain that scholars interested in political, cultural, or even formal aspects of early modern literature have much to gain by turning their attention to the study of law.


Works Cited

  • Cunningham, Karen J.  Imaginary Betrayals: Subjectivity and the Discourses of Treason in Early Modern England.  Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002 
  • Lemon, Rebecca. Treason By Words: Literature, Law, and Rebellion in Shakespeare's England. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2006.
  • Lockey, Brian.  Law and Empire in English Renaissance Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.
  • Mukherji, Subha.  Law and Representation in Early Modern Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.
  • Shuger, Debora.  Censorship and Cultural Sensibility: The Regulation of Language in Tudor-Stuart England.  Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2006.
  • Wilson, Luke.  Theaters of Intention: Drama and the Law in Early Modern England.  Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000.  



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