Shackles in Shakespeare: On the Falsity of Personal Liberty in Renaissance England

(2014) 35 Liverpool Law Review 25

18 Pages Posted: 21 Jul 2015

See all articles by Camilla Barker

Camilla Barker

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law

Date Written: April 15, 2014


The extent to which individuals truly can master their liberty is a question that infiltrates the entire Shakespearean corpus. It is through a series of fraught socio-legal conflicts that Shakespeare’s audiences are treated to the comedies and tragedies of Europe’s transition into early-modernity. Socio-legal relationships fuel Shakespeare’s plots and his characters present challenges to the ways in which the reader thinks about law and legal process. In reality is “law” just the will of whoever has the most power? Does equality only exist for those born into the highest social substratum? Is the rule of law really as universal as it seems? By investigating these questions using four of Shakespeare’s apparently apolitical plays, the author examines the individuals within socio-legal relationships as a way of shedding light on the day-to-day realities of Renaissance England, something that more traditional scholarship has yet to pursue. Part One examines marriage, class conflict and legal participation in The Comedy of Errors. Part Two looks at the native-alien division and legal obligation in The Merchant of Venice. Part Three assesses the nature of empire and the security of prescribed knowledge in Cymbeline. Finally, Part Four probes wider issues of social control and subordination in The Tempest.

Keywords: law and literature, personal liberty, Shakespeare, law, power, oppression, Renaissance England

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Barker, Camilla, Shackles in Shakespeare: On the Falsity of Personal Liberty in Renaissance England (April 15, 2014). (2014) 35 Liverpool Law Review 25. Available at SSRN:

Camilla Barker (Contact Author)

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law ( email )

United Kingdom

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