4. Shakespeare and legal language

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


Commentary by Dr Hannah Cornforth


The language of the law and, more important still, the ways of thinking fostered by a legal training at the early modern Inns of Court, were hugely influential for Shakespeare.   The next group of readings shows the way in which even plays that are not ostensibly about legal issues, or about questions of civil rights and justice, are nonetheless often shaped by Shakespeare’s interactions with the law.

Hamlet contains the most famous soliloquies in all of Shakespeare, including ‘To be or not to be’.  Tonight we will hear a speech that Hamlet addresses to the audience in the theatre as he wonders how to reveal his uncle Claudius’s corruption. He wishes to show him to be a murderer who killed Hamlet’s father, and then an adulterer who married his mother, Gertrude.

In a piece of stage play that would no doubt have appealed to young law students in the audience at Shakespeare’s Globe, Hamlet turns to the theatre for the answer to his dilemma: he will stage a play, and use his uncle’s reaction to this ‘mousetrap’ in order to prosecute him for his crimes.

In the soliloquy we see him weighing up his options (in what was known as deliberative rhetoric) and constructing his speech very carefully according to guidelines for public oratory of the kind taught at the Inns in Shakespeare’s day.


Hamlet (2.2.468-524)

[Sam West]


HAMLET:                    Now I am alone.

Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!

Is it not monstrous that this player here,

But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,

Could force his soul so to his own conceit

That from her working all the visage wanned,

Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,

A broken voice, and his whole function suiting

With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!

For Hecuba! What’s Hecuba to him or he to her

That he should weep for her? What would he do

Had he the motive and that for passion

That I have? He would drown the stage with tears

And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,

Make mad the guilty and appall the free,

Confound the ignorant and amaze indeed

The very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I,

A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak

Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,

And can say nothing – no, not for a King

Upon whose property and most dear life

A damned defeat was made. Am I a coward?

Who calls me villain, breaks my pate across,

Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face,

Tweaks me by the nose, gives me the lie i’ th’ throat

As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?

Ha? ‘Swounds, I should take it, for it cannot be

But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall

To make oppression bitter, or ere this

I should’ve fatted all the region kites

With this slave’s offal. Bloody, bawdy villain!

Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,

That I, the son of a dear father murdered,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Must like a whore unpack my heart with words

And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,

A stallion! Fie upon’t! foh!

About, my brains! Hmm – I have heard

That guilty creatures sitting at a play

Have by the very cunning of the scene

Been struck so to the soul that presently

They have proclaimed their malefactions.

For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak

With most miraculous organ. I’ll have these players

Play something like the murder of my father

Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks;

I’ll tent him to the quick. If ‘a do blench,

I know my course. The spirit that I have seen

May be a dev’l, and the dev’l hath power

T’assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps

Out of my weakness and my melancholy,

As he is very potent with such spirits,

Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds

More relative than this. The play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.


We then shift to a rather different tone, hearing from a comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Theseus (Alex Jennings) delivers some exquisite lines on how poets transform their day-to-day experience into the magic of the stage.  His speech is a testament to the transformative powers of the imagination, the same powers that Shakespeare used to turn his experience of the law courts into the powerful courtroom scenes we heard earlier on, or to turn his understanding of legal rhetoric into Hamlet’s nuanced expressions of complex emotions.



A Midsummer Night’s Dream (5.1.2-11)

[Alex Jennings]


THESEUS: More strange than true. I never may believe

These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend more

Than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Are of imagination all compact.

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;

That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

Such tricks hath strong imagination

That if it would but apprehend some joy,

It comprehends some bringer of that joy;

Or in the night, imagining some fear,

How easy is a bush supposed a bear!



Legal language pervades Shakespeare’s poems as much as his plays, and we hear two of his much-loved sonnets (35 and 49), in which he turns to the rhetoric of the law in order to express the depths of his love and desperation.


The Sonnets (35)

[Juliet Stevenson]

No more be grieved at that which thou hast done.

Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud;

Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,

And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.

All men make faults, and even I in this,

Authorizing thy trespass with compare,

Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,

Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;

For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense—

Thy adverse party is thy advocate—

And ’gainst myself a lawful plea commence.

Such civil war is in my love and hate,

That I an accessary needs must be,

To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.


The Sonnets (49)

[Sam West]

Against that time (if ever that time come)

When I shall see thee frown on my defects,

Whenas thy love hath cast his utmost sum,

Called to that audit by advised respects;

Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass

And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye,

When love, converted from the thing it was

Shall reasons find of settled gravity;

Against that time do I ensconce me here,

Within the knowledge of mine own desert,

And this my hand, against myself uprear

To guard the lawful reasons on thy part.

To leave poor me, thou hast the strength of laws,

Since why to love I can allege no cause.



Finally we hear a comic extract from Henry IV Part Two, in which we meet two Justices – revealingly named Shallow and Silence – both of whom have seen better days.  Shakespeare gently mocks them and their nostalgia for their glory days at the Inns of Court, implying that their careers (and indeed their lives) have not lived up to the heady promise of their legal training.

This scene – read tonight by Sheila Hancock and Alex Jennings – has been included to show that while Shakespeare’s engagement with the law and the ideas the law serves to protect is passionate, heartfelt, intellectual and profound, it is not reverent.  As with all things Shakespeare writes about, he treads a delicate line between the tragic and the comic, not hesitating to satirize any institution or individual that takes itself too seriously.


 Henry IV Part Two (3.2.1-30)

[Sheila Hancock (Shallow) and Alex Jennings (Silence)]

SHALLOW: Come on, come on, come on, sir!

Give me your hand, sir, give me your hand, sir.

An early stirrer, by the rood!

And how doth my good cousin Silence?


SILENCE: Good morrow, good cousin Shallow.


SHALLOW: And how doth my cousin, your bedfellow?

And your fairest daughter and mine, my goddaughter Ellen?


SILENCE: Alas, a black ousel, cousin Shallow!


SHALLOW: By yea and nay, sir.

I dare say my cousin William is become a good scholar: he is at Oxford still, is he not?


SILENCE: Indeed, sir, to my cost.


SHALLOW: A’ must, then, to the Inns o’ Court shortly.

I was once of Clement’s Inn, where I think they will talk of mad Shallow yet.


SILENCE: You were called Lusty Shallow then, cousin.


SHALLOW: By the mass, I was called any thing; and I would have done anything indeed too, and roundly too.

There was I, and little John Doit of Staffordshire, and black George Barnes, and Francis Pickbone, and Will Squele, a Cotswold man – you had not four such swinge-bucklers in all the Inns o’ Court again.

And I may say to you, we knew where the bona robas were and had the best of them all at commandment.

Then was Jack Falstaff, now Sir John, a boy, and page to Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk.


SILENCE: This Sir John, cousin, that comes hither anon about soldiers?


SHALLOW: The same Sir John, the very same.

I see him break Scoggin’s head at the Court Gate, when a’ was a crack, not thus high; and the very same day did I fight with one Sampson Stockfish, a fruiterer, behind Gray’s Inn.

Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I have spent!



2 thoughts on “4. Shakespeare and legal language

  1. Kathy

    Has given me something to think about. I read Shakespeare at school but didn’t take much notice of the finer points. He seems to know a fair bit about the Inns and the law.


  2. I read law for four and half years at our local university. I read the words of Lord Blackburn and such other English common law judges. I really want to know the LANGUAGE OF LAW IN SHAKESPEARE. Your quotations of his works above did not offer me any clear insight on it. I had entertained the expectation that whole sentences and phrases peculiar to Law, Lawyers and Judges of the court, would be fetched to confirm the LANGUAGE OF THE LAW IN SHAKESPEARE as proposed here. I see none. Show me what I have missed.


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