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Shakespeare on Trial

This one-term (15 CATS) half-module will be taught by one 3-hour seminar per week in the Studio at the CAPITAL Centre. It will employ rehearsal techniques, and students will be expected to explore ideas by putting texts on their feet.  

This module studies three Shakespeare plays that stage trials: The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, and The Winter’s Tale. Co-taught by Dr Paul Raffield (School of Law) and Professor Carol Rutter (Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies; Director, The CAPITAL Centre) the module is interested equally in early modern legal history and theatrical performance.

It considers the Tudor laws that underpin Shakespeare’s sensational dramatisations, thinking about the legal status of aliens and the constitutional relationship between crown and judiciary (in Merchant), magistracy and the consistory courts (in Measure), and treason (in Winter’s Tale). It pursues certain conceits employed as much by poets as lawyers – for example, the idea of London as ‘Troynovant’, a model for the city-state. It asks questions about how lawyers were trained, from grammar school to the Inns of Court – and about how much Shakespeare knew, technically, of the law. It examines a range of treason trials – Thomas More’s, Anne Boleyn’s, Robert Devereux’s, Walter Raleigh’s, the Gunpowder Plotters’ – to examine the extent to which the crown was able, via the treason trial, to enforce the Imperium of the monarch. Moving from the Inns of Court across the Thames to the Globe Playhouse to look at Shakespeare’s stagings of such trials, the module will engage with the performative, seeing the courtroom and the theatre as analogous performance spaces where stories were told and contested, where language was charged and words worked, where the next entrance, the next witness might bring into play evidence to explode the entire narrative to date. Among the theatrical topics discussed will be advocacy, the rhetoric of accusation and defence, and a politics of the body, including the gendered body: it is women in Shakespeare who regularly appeal from the magistrates to a higher court for judgment. What happens when they, acting impromptu, challenge the legal system?

The module has been designed to complement, rather than replicate, any of the themes addressed in “Law and Literature” (LA357) and “Origins, Images and Cultures of English Law” (LA242).

  • 50% assessed essay;
  • 50% examination.

The examination requirement will be fulfilled by a practical performance or presentation: each student will plan and deliver a half hour presentation. The practical will be observed by three members of the academic staff and will be video recorded for external assessment. Supporting this demonstration, and as part of the examination, students will write a 1500-word reflective essay analysing and assessing the experience of planning and delivering the presentation.