Shakespeare's Place in Law-and-Literature

Journal of Liberty and Society, Vol. 3, 2011

16 Pages Posted: 18 Jun 2010 Last revised: 4 Aug 2011

Date Written: March 20, 2010


Nearly every Anglo-American law school offers a course called Law-and-Literature. Nearly all of these courses assign one or more readings from Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Why study Shakespeare in law school? That is the question at the heart of these courses. Some law professors answer the question in terms of cultivating moral sensitivity, fine-tuning close-reading skills, or practicing interpretive strategies on literary rather than legal texts. Most of these professors insist on an illuminating nexus between two supposedly autonomous disciplines. The history of how Shakespeare became part of the legal canon is more complicated than these often defensive, syllabus-justifying declarations allow. This article examines the history of Shakespeare studies vis-à-vis legal education. It begins with early law-and-literature scholarship, which focused on Shakespeare’s history or biography – speculating as it did about whether Shakespeare was a lawyer or perchance received legal training – and concludes with recent law-and-literature scholarship treating Shakespeare as a source of insight for law students and lawyers alike. I submit that early law-and-literature scholarship on Shakespeare anticipated New Historicist theory and that more recent law-and-literature work, with its turn to presentism, is in lockstep with Shakespeare studies. In law-and-literature classrooms, Shakespeare is more fashionable like a hobby than scholarly like a profession; but law-and-literature scholarship on Shakespeare amounts to high-caliber work based on interdisciplinary research as well as deep engagement with legal and literary texts.

I wrap up this essay with a note about the direction of the university in general and of the law-and-literature movement in particular. I admit that my closing argument, as it were, is tendentious. It raises issues usually raised by confrontational academics and suggests remedies for what William M. Chace has called “the decline of the English Department” or what Harold Bloom has called “Groupthink” in “our obsolete academic institutions, whose long suicide since 1967 continues”. If Chace and Bloom are right about a decline in academic standards – evidence shows that they are at least right about a decline in numbers of English majors – then the fate of literary studies seems grim. Nevertheless, Chace and Bloom overlook the migration of literature professors into American law schools, a phenomenon yet to receive critical attention. Another aspect of this phenomenon is the migration of students from the humanities to professional schools. I personally have known many students who wished to go on to graduate school in the humanities but quite understandably viewed that route as impractical and went to law school instead. A positive result of this trend is that a substantial body of law students is open to the idea of law-and-literature and finds luminaries like George Anastaplo or Stanley Fish more interesting than other law professors. My final comments address the strange exodus of literary scholars into professional schools, which pay more money and arguably provide vaster audiences and readership, more generous funding opportunities, and reduced teaching loads. Perhaps more than other literary disciplines, save for cultural studies, Shakespeare studies has moved into the realm of interdisciplinarity, albeit without large contributions from scholars outside of literature departments. The law-and-literature field would have perished without the expertise of literature professors; likewise, Shakespeare studies, if it continues down the path of politics and cultural criticism, will perish without the expertise of economists, political scientists, and legal scholars, whose mostly non-Marxist perspectives, when pooled with the perspectives of literature professors, might fill out a space for interesting scholarship and redeem the interdisciplinary label. Information-sharing is especially crucial for literature scholars who, in order to examine the history of Shakespeare in American culture, have turned to practices and methods traditionally reserved for other disciplines.

Suggested Citation

Mendenhall, Allen, Shakespeare's Place in Law-and-Literature (March 20, 2010). Journal of Liberty and Society, Vol. 3, 2011, Available at SSRN:

Allen Mendenhall (Contact Author)

Troy University ( email )

Troy, AL
United States

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