THE LAW PLAYS an unacknowledged role in much of Shakespeare’s work. Trials—real trials, quasi-trials, mock trials—recur. In many plays, characters refer to contemporary laws and legal institutions; and the plays raise larger questions about justice and the workings of the law. Lawyers, then, can help to illuminate Shakespeare’s plays, and many have done so by explaining the early modern legal background and Shakespeare’s exploitation of persistent legal puzzles for dramatic purposes.
Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at NYU, argues that Shakespeare’s plays contribute to modern debates about law and justice, and he draws crisp lessons from twelve of those plays. He argues that Titus Andronicus teaches us that in a world devoid of the rule of law, individuals protect their interests by taking revenge against those who violate them—and that revenge begets revenge in a cycle of retribution that spins out of control and throws society into chaos. Portia’s character in The Merchant of Venice illustrates the hazards of legal rhetoric: lawyers can manipulate law for private ends, subverting justice and social order. Measure for Measure proves that legal decisionmakers should avoid the two extremes of rigid legalism and excessive mercy, and strive to take a path down the middle. Othello illustrates the hazards of legal fact-finding; the four Henry plays the fallibility and the trickery of sovereigns; and Macbeth the fallacy of natural justice—the view that justice will prevail even without human intervention. Hamlet warns that intellectuals make bad rulers because their idealism interferes with the pragmatics of governance. King Lear teaches us of “the unavoidable injustice of death.” The Tempest argues that great leaders voluntarily relinquish power.
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