The Law in Shakespeare’s Works

Last Friday I had the pleasure of listening to an interview on WPR with Stephen Marche, author of the book, How Shakespeare Changed Everything.*

During the interview, Mr. Marche talked about how many English words were first used by Shakespeare.  Lawyers can thank Shakespeare for words like “negotiate”, “compromise”, and “circumstantial”.** The conventional wisdom is that Shakespeare invented those words, although Mr. Marche acknowledged that Shakespeare may really have been the first person to write down words that were already in use at the time.  (I think the latter may be more likely, although I do not claim to be an expert on this matter.)

The interview got me thinking about references to the law in Shakespeare.  A quick search online referred me to a 2009 conference at the University of Chicago Law School on “Shakespeare and the Law.”  Another quick journal and law review search on Westlaw showed a number of references to Shakespeare.

Do any of our readers have a favorite Shakespeare passage or play?  What are your thoughts on Shakespeare and the law?  What influence, if any, has Shakespeare had on the public’s view of the law and lawyers?  Did Shakespeare use legal concepts correctly in his plays?  Do you think that Shakespeare really coined all the words for which he is credited?  Is there anything that lawyers can learn from reading Shakespeare?

I very much look forward to reading Mr. Marche’s book.

*For more information on the interview, please see the Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) website.  Veronica Rueckert interviewed Stephen Marche on Friday, July 22, 2011 at 9:00 a.m.

**According to the list of Shakespeare’s invented words posted at

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Bruce E. Boyden

    As a teacher of civil procedure, I have always found it bemusing and also somewhat depressing that in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy one of the reasons he rattles off weighing in favor of suicide is “the law’s delay.”

  2. Irene Calboli

    I am not an expert on this topic, but what is certain is that Shakespeare did not “invent” any of the mentioned words. These are all Latin words, which long before the Shakespeare time were used in Roman Law (negotium, compromissum, circumstatiae) to express legal concepts (the same concepts that they now express in English) and in the Latin language. The same words were also used in the various romance languages (langue d’oc and langue d’oil, and later developed into French, Spanish, and Florentine–later Italian–and other Italian dialects,) well before the Shakespearean time. So, probably Shakespeare wrote down and adapted these Latinisms that either were in the current language or used by lawyers (who often had studied Latin and Roman law and also used the Latin language) at that time to express similar concepts. It would be interesting to compare legal documents of that time with Shakespeare’s writings. I am a great Shakespeare admirer, but the Romans had really invented these words long before (let’s “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s”), and most of them actually have their etymological roots based on pre-existing Greeks words (this also shows that to know Latin and Greek may be an important tool for lawyers!).

  3. Joseph Hylton

    we appear to be living in the golden moment of books about Shakespeare and the law. A quick resort to shows that in the past two years several such books have arrived, including: Kenji Yoshino, A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice (2011); Margaret Graham Tebo, Shakespeare for Lawyers: A Practical Guide for Quoting the Bard; Dunbar Barton, Shakespeare and the Law (2011); Lorna Hutson, The Invention of Suspicion: Law and Mimesis in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama (2011); Andrew Zurcher, Shakespeare and the Law (2011); Gary Watt, ed., Shakespeare and the Law; Anselm Haverkamp, Shakespearean Genealogies of Power: A Whispering of Nothing in Hamlet, Richard II, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, and The Winter’s Tale (Discourses of Law) (2010); Edward J. White,
    Commentaries on the law in Shakespeare: with explanations of the legal terms used in the plays, poems and sonnets, and a consideration of the criminal … of the Bacon-Shakespeare controversy (2010: Paul Raffield,Shakespeare’s Imaginary Constitution: Late-Elizabethan Politics and the Theatre of Law (2010); and Karen Cunningham,ed., The Law in Shakespeare (2010).

    There may well have been others. Yoshino is a distinguished professor of constitutional law and other topics at NYU.

  4. Melissa Greipp

    Another book that may be of interest is Daniel Kornstein’s book, Kill All the Lawyers? Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal, which is cited at

  5. David Papke

    The publication of a large number of books on Shakespeare and the law is in itself an interesting phenomenon. I don’t think it can be explained by the importance of Shakespeare’s comments on the law. Yes, he is generally taken to be the greatest playwright of the western tradition, but, the pungency of some of his law-related quips notwithstanding, would anyone consider him an important legal thinker? The publication of so many books on Shakespeare and the law might derive instead from the deep Whiggish strains of our culture, that is, the pervasive assumption that there are “great ones,” whose “great insights” can be lined up and thereby illuminate us. Then, too, perhaps legal writers with an inclination toward interdisciplinary law and literature scholarship are uneasy about stepping outside the legal discipline and unreflectively hope to bring credibility and prestige to their enterprise by attaching to such a renowned literary figure as Shakespeare.

  6. Melissa Greipp

    Today is Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. (The authorities can’t be certain that today is truly his birthday, but convention has marked this day. Shakespeare was born with certainty in April.) Shakespeare also died on April 23.

    Celebrations are being held around the world today and in April. At Marquette, I know of two Shakespeare celebrations: Hamlet was performed at the Halfaer Theatre this month, and the English department hosted a sonnet slam featuring notable leaders on campus and in the community who each recited a sonnet.

    Shakespeare fans can get lost in the myths and mysteries of Shakespeare. I indulged the opportunity to reread some of the sonnets, and think about their mysteries, after attending the sonnet slam. One mystery is to whom Shakespeare is addressing the sonnets. Are the fair youth, the dark-haired lady, and the rival poet, as they are commonly referred to, real people, or fictional characters? A lot of good research points to the idea that Shakespeare was writing with real people in mind, but sometimes I wonder if he may have been exploring emotions by picturing a fictional person, instead of writing in an autobiographical sense. Or, maybe real people inspired the sonnets, but then fantasy filled in the rest.

    Another mystery surrounds the dedication. Shakespeare’s publisher, Thomas Thorpe, may have published the sonnets without Shakespeare’s permission. The dedication is to “Mr. W.H.,” who is “the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets . . . .” (original spelling). Is Mr. W.H. Shakespeare’s sponsor or someone else? Did Thorpe write the dedication, or did Shakespeare? Besides the power of Shakespeare’s writing, these gaps in the historical record create a deeper longing in the reader to know more.

    Whatever Shakespeare’s motive in writing the sonnets, they do contain some references to legal terms and to courts of law. These references are another example of Shakespeare’s remarkable breadth of knowledge and reading.

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