2. Shakespeare and justice

The first part (consisting of three readings) of the evening in Middle Temple Hall on 16th November 2015 devoted to “Shakespeare and the law”


Commentary by Dr Hannah Cornforth


Shakespeare was deeply connected to the law, and passionate about justice. He had dealings with the Inns of Court, he wrote for law students, and Elizabethan society was very litigious.

He was even called once as a witness in a law court – the Court of Requests at Westminster – to give evidence in the trial of the case of Bellott v Montjoy on 11th May 1612. In this action Stephen Bellott was suing his father-in-law for the financial settlement he had been promised at the time of his marriage in 1604: a dowry of £60 and a future legacy of £200 in Montjoy’s will.

Shakespeare had been a lodger in the Montjoys’ house in Cripplegate at the relevant time. When he was called as a witness he said he had played a role as a go-between in the couple’s courtship, but he could not remember the financial arrangements of the marriage settlement. In the absence of this testimony the Court remanded the case to the overseers of the London Huguenot church who awarded the plaintiff far less than he had claimed.   Even so, their award was still unpaid a year later.

Shakespeare’s signed deposition of evidence is among the court papers that have survived.


Both Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice are concerned with the issues of justice and mercy upon which the operation of the law depends.

 Measure for Measure (2.2.28-145)

[Juliet Stevenson (Isabella) and Alex Jennings (Angelo)]

In this scene we meet the young Isabella, who highly prizes her own virtue and virginity.   When her brother Claudio is arrested and threatened with execution, she is forced to cast herself on the mercy of Angelo, who has been put in charge of Vienna.  Isabella begs Angelo to show mercy rather than insist on the literal letter of the law. His reaction shocks her…


ISABELLA: I am a woeful suitor to your honour, Please but your honour hear me.

ANGELO:                              Well, what’s your suit?

ISABELLA: There is a vice that most I do abhor

And most desire should meet the blow of justice;

For which I would not plead, but that I must;

For which I must not plead, but that I am

At war ‘twixt will and will not.


ANGELO:                              Well, the matter?


ISABELLA: I have a brother is condemned to die.

I do beseech you, let it be his fault,

And not my brother.


ANGELO: Condemn the fault and not the actor of it?

Why, every fault’s condemned ere it be done.

Mine were the very cipher of a function

To fine the faults, whose fine stands in record,

And let go by the actor.


ISABELLA:               Oh just but severe law!

I had a brother then. Heaven keep your honour!

Must he needs die?


ANGELO:                Maiden, no remedy.


ISABELLA: Yes. I do think that you might pardon him,

And neither heaven nor man grieve at the mercy.


ANGELO: I will not do’t.


ISABELLA:                            But can you if you would?


ANGELO: Look, what I will not, that I cannot do.


ISABELLA: But might you do’t and do the world no wrong,

If so your heart were touched with that remorse

As mine is to him?


ANGELO:                He’s sentenced. ‘Tis too late.


ISABELLA: Too late? Why, no. I that do speak a word.

May call it again. Well, believe this:

No ceremony that to great ones ‘longs,

Not the king’s crown, nor the deputed sword,

The marshal’s truncheon, nor the judge’s robe,

Become them with one half so good a grace

As mercy does.

If he had been as you, and you as he,

You would have slipped like him, but he like you

Would not have been so stern.


ANGELO:                              Pray you, be gone.


ISABELLA: I would to heaven I had your potency

And you were Isabel. Should it then be thus?

No. I would tell what ’twere to be a judge,

And what a prisoner.


ANGELO: Your brother is a forfeit of the law,

And you but waste your words.


ISABELLA:                           Alas, alas.

Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once,

And He that might the vantage best have took

Found out the remedy. How would you be

If He, which is the top of judgment, should

But judge you as you are? O, think on that,

And mercy then will breathe within your lips,

Like man new made.


ANGELO:                Be you content, fair maid.

It is the law, not I, condemn your brother.

Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son,

It should be thus with him. He must die tomorrow.


ISABELLA: Tomorrow? Oh, that’s sudden. Spare him, spare him.

He’s not prepared for death. Even for our kitchens

We kill the fowl of season. Shall we serve heaven

With less respect than we do minister

To our gross selves? Good, good my lord, bethink you:

Who is it that hath died for this offence?

There’s many have committed it.


ANGELO: The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept.

Those many had not dared to do that evil

If the first that did th’edict infringe

Had answered for his deed. Now ’tis awake,

Takes note of what is done, and like a prophet

Looks in a glass that shows what future evils

Either new, or by remissness new-conceived

And so in progress to be hatched and born,

Are now to have no successive degrees,

But ere they live to end.


ISABELLA:               Yet show some pity.


ANGELO: I show it most of all when I show justice,

For then I pity those I do not know

Which a dismissed offence would after gall,

And do him right that answering one foul wrong

Lives not to act another. Be satisfied

Your brother dies tomorrow; be content.


ISABELLA: So you must be the first that gives this sentence,

And he, that suffers. Oh, it is excellent

To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous

To use it like a giant. Could great men thunder

As Jove himself does, Jove would never be quiet,

For every pelting petty officer

Would use his heaven for thunder, nothing but thunder.

Merciful Heaven!

Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt

Splits the unwedgeable and gnarlèd oak

Than the soft myrtle. But man, proud man,

Dressed in a little brief authority,

Most ignorant of what he’s most assured –

His glassy essence – like an angry ape

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As make the angels weep, who, with our spleens,

Would all themselves laugh mortal.

We cannot weigh our brother with ourself.

Great men may jest with saints; ’tis wit in them,

But in the less, foul profanation.

That in the captain’s but a choleric word

Which in the soldier is flat blasphemy.


ANGELO: Why do you put these sayings upon me?


ISABELLA: Because authority, though it err like others,

Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself

That skins the vice o’th’ top. Go to your bosom,

Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know

That’s like my brother’s fault: if it confess

A natural guiltiness such as is his,

Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue

Against my brother’s life.


ANGELO: [aside]               She speaks, and ‘tis such sense

That my sense breeds with it. – Fare you well.


ISABELLA: Gentle my lord, turn back.


ANGELO: I will bethink me. Come again tomorrow.



The Merchant of Venice

(4.1.182-200) [Sheila Hancock]

The distinction between mercy and a more literal rendering of justice also underpins – famously – The Merchant of Venice.  In some of Shakespeare’s best known lines Portia pleads for the life of Antonio which Shylock insists upon by way of exacting repayment of a bond that he has secured against a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Her speech argues beautifully that mercy is more important than the power of kings, is in fact a godly attribute,

‘And earthly power doth then show likest God’s | When mercy seasons justice.’



PORTIA: The quality of mercy is not strained;

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes

The thronèd monarch better than his crown.

His scepter shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.

But mercy is above this sceptered sway;

It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;

It is an attribute to God himself,

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this –

That in the course of justice none of us

Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy.


The Winter’s Tale (3.2.1-114)

[Alex Jennings (Leontes) and Juliet Stevenson (Hermione)]

In another of Shakespeare’s courtroom scenes Leontes falsely accuses his wife, Hermione, of adultery.  The scene threatens to make a mockery of the law, revealing the hollowness of legal rhetoric, as Hermione is made to plead for her life and access to her children.   In this state of supplication she resembles both Isabella and Portia.

LEONTES: This sessions, to our great grief we pronounce,

Even pushes ‘gainst our heart; the party tried,

The daughter of a king, our wife, and one

Of us too much beloved. Let us be cleared

Of being tyrannous, since we so openly

Proceed in justice, which shall have due course

Even to the guilt or the purgation.

Produce the prisoner.


HERMIONE: Since what I am to say must be but that

Which contradicts my accusation, and

The testimony on my part no other

But what comes from myself, it shall scarce boot me

To say, “Not guilty.” Mine integrity

Being counted falsehood, shall, as I express it,

Be so received. But thus: if powers divine

Behold our human actions – as they do –

I doubt not then but innocence shall make

False accusation blush and tyranny

Tremble at patience. You, my lord, best know,

Who least will seem to do so, my past life

Hath been as continent, as chaste, as true,

As I am now unhappy; which is more

Than history can pattern, though devised

And played to take spectators. For behold me,

A fellow of the royal bed, which owe

A moiety of the throne, a great king’s daughter,

The mother to a hopeful prince, here standing

To prate and talk for life and honor, for

Who please to come and hear. For life, I prize it

As I weigh grief, which I would spare. For honor,

‘Tis a derivative from me to mine,

And only that I stand for. I appeal

To your own conscience, sir, before Polixenes

Came to your court, how I was in your grace,

How merited to be so; since he came,

With what encounter so uncurrent I

Have strained t’appear thus. If one jot beyond

The bound of honor, or in act or will

That way inclining, hardened be the hearts

Of all that hear me, and my nearest of kin Cry “fie” upon my grave.


LEONTES:                   I ne’er heard yet

That any of these bolder vices wanted

Less impudence to gainsay what they did

Than to perform it first.


HERMIONE:                           That’s true enough,

Through ’tis a saying, sir, not due to me.


LEONTES: You will not own it.


HERMIONE:                                       More than mistress of

Which comes to me in name of fault, I must not

At all acknowledge. For Polixenes,

With whom I am accused, I do confess

I loved him as in honor he required,

With such a kind of love as might become

A lady like me; with a love, even such,

So, and no other, as yourself commanded;

Which not to have done I think had been in me

Both disobedience and ingratitude

To you and toward your friend, whose love had spoke,

Even since it could speak, from an infant, freely

That it was yours. Now, for conspiracy,

I know not how it tastes, though it be dished

For me to try how; all I know of it

Is that Camillo was an honest man,

And why he left your court, the gods themselves,

Wotting no more than I, are ignorant.


LEONTES: You knew of his departure, as you know

What you have underta’en to do in’s absence.



You speak a language that I understand not.

My life stands in the level of your dreams,

Which I’ll lay down.


LEONTES:                   Your actions are my dreams.

You had a bastard by Polixenes,

And I but dreamed it. As you were past all shame —

Those of your fact are so — so past all truth,

Which to deny concerns more than avails;

For as Thy brat hath been cast out, like to itself,

No father owning it — which is, indeed

More criminal in thee than it — so thou

Shalt feel our justice, in whose easiest passage

Look for no less than death.


HERMIONE:                           Sir, spare your threats:

The bug which you would fright me with I seek.

To me can life be no commodity.

The crown and comfort of my life, your favor,

I do give lost, for I do feel it gone

But know not how it went. My second joy

And first fruits of my body, from his presence

I am barred, like one infectious. My third comfort,

Starred most unluckily, is from my breast,

The innocent milk in its most innocent mouth,

Haled out to murder. Myself on every post

Proclaimed a strumpet; with immodest hatred

The child-bed privilege denied, which ‘longs

To women of all fashion. Lastly, hurried

Here to this place, i’th’ open air, before

I have got strength of limit. Now, my liege,

Tell me what blessings I have here alive,

That I should fear to die? Therefore proceed.

But yet hear this – mistake me not – no life,

I prize it not a straw, but for mine honor,

Which I would free – if I shall be condemned

Upon surmises, all proofs sleeping else

But what your jealousies awake, I tell you

‘Tis rigor and not law. Your honors all,

I do refer me to the oracle. Apollo be my judge.


In all three scenes we get a sense of how Shakespeare used the inherent drama of the law courts in his plays.  We also, I think, get hints of what he perceives to be an element of theatre in the workings of the law itself.


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