"Alleged Shakespearean Legal Allusions"

J. M. Robertson, M.P.

from Who Wrote 'Titus Andronicus'?
(Watts and Company, London: 1905, pp. 53-57.)

Alleged Shakespearean Legal Allusions

[53] So much stress is laid by Professor Collins on his argument from the legal allusions in Titus that it may be worth while to show in some detail how nugatory is his contention. It runs:

And lastly, we have in the diction one of Shakespeare’s most striking characteristics. All through his writings, but more particularly in the poems and earlier dramas, his fondness for legal phraseology and his profuse employment of it are so marked that its absence would be almost conclusive against the authenticity of a work attributed to him. But Titus Andronicus will sustain this test. Thus we have "affy in thy uprightness" (i, 1); "true nobility warrants these words" (i, 2); "Suum cuique is our Roman justice" (i, 2) "the Prince in justice seizeth but his own" (i, 2); "rob my sweet sons of their fee" (ii, 3); "purchase us thy lasting friends" (ii, 4); "let me be their bail" (ii, 4); "the end upon them should be executed" (ii, 4); "do execution on my flesh and blood" (iv, 2); "do shameful execution on herself" (v, 3) "and make a mutual closure of our house" (v, 3) "the extent of legal (sic) justice" (v, 4) "a precedent and lively warrant" (v, 3); "will doom her death" (iv, 2). Nor must we forget the masterly touch in the fifth Act, which is peculiarly characteristic of Shakespeare—the fine irony which identifies Tamora and [54] her two sons with revenge, rape, and murder just before retribution falls on them.*

I quote the entire paragraph lest any of the Professor’s pleas should be evaded; but I may be excused for dismissing the last sentence with the remark that if the habitual extolling of ineptitudes and commonplaces as "fine" and "Shakespearean" would settle the question, he and Mr. Baildon would have done so many times over. That such darkening of critical counsel should be a part of the plea for Shakespeare’s authorship of Titus is an additional reason why we should seek to clear up the issue.

The general thesis as to Shakespeare’s legal knowledge or proclivities, maintained by Professor Collins in a special essay, "Was Shakespeare a Lawyer?" in his volume of Studies in Shakespeare, was exhaustively dealt with five years before by Mr. Devecmon in a treatise to which the Professor makes no allusion. As had been previously pointed out by Mr. Sidney Lee, "Legal terminology abounded in all plays and poems of the period"; and Mr. Devecmon points out that in Webster’s The Devil’s Law Case there are "more legal expressions (some of them highly technical, and all correctly used) than are to be found in any single one of Shakespeare’s works." It is more to our present purpose, however to note that legal allusions—especially in the extravagantly wide sense in which Professor Collins interprets the [55] term—are equally abundant in the works of Shakespeare’s predecessors. In Peele’s Arraignment of Paris (1584) we have the following:

Aiders in her suit
Do observance
Sentence of a judge
A hard and doubtful case
Answer his offence
The court of Jove
Plead his case
Plead his cause
Answer his indictment
To plead or answer by attorney
Allow the man his advocate
Arraigned of partiality (twice)
Sentence partial and unjust
My tongue is void with process to maintain
A daysman chosen by full consent
Judged corruptly
Reverse my sentence by appeal
Law and right
Equity and law (twice)
Quitted by heaven’s laws
Indifferent sentence
Licensed according to our laws;

Also the terms "doom" = judgment (eight times), "bequeathed" (four times), "bail," "pledge," "fee" and "attaint." In Peele’s Battle of Alcazar, again, we have the following "legal" expressions:

Honour’s fee
Pay satisfaction with thy blood
Sealed with blood
True succession of the crown
Intitle him true heir unto the crown;

and in his Edward I these:

Heavenly ordinance decrees (twice) [56]
Yearly fee
Death doth seize and summon all alike
By doom of heavens it is decreed
Seized [in the legal sense] with honourable love
Seize desire
Invested in his rights
Lawful line of our succession
Make appeal Submit to your award
Stand to our award
To execute on me Benevolence (= gift).

And in the Spanish Tragedy of Kyd, who as one "born to the trade of Noverint had a right to be legal, we have, in addition to the common "doom," the following phrases:

Valour’s fee
Breach to common law
Laid my heart to gage
Place of execution
See this execution done
Compass no redress
The court is set
I had a suit with her
The law discharged
Hear my suit
Bankrupt of my bliss
An action of battery
An action of the case
An ejectione firmæ by a lease
Plead your several actions, etc.
Here’s my declaration
Here’s my hand
Here’s my lease
Cross my suit
Sorrow and despair hath cited me
To hear Horatio plead with Rhadamanth.

In Greene, yet again, we have in one short scene [57] of Orlando Furioso the phrases: "put in their pleas," "enter such a plea," "nonsuits your evidence," "set a supersedeas of my wrath." It seems unnecessary to carry further this particular issue. Solvuntur tabulae.


* Studies in Shakespeare, pp. 118-119. back

† "In re Shakespeare's 'Legal Acquirements,'" by William C. Devecmon. Publications of the New York Shakespeare Society, No. 12. London, Kegan Paul, 1899. back

Life of Shakespeare, p. 32, note. back

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