Lorna Hutson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of English Law and Literature, 1500-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2017) 832 pp. £95.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780199660889
Constructively posing some of the most challenging questions animating the study of law and literature, The Oxford Handbook of English Law and Literature, 1500-1700 is a critical resource for any scholar of the field. Editor Lorna Hutson and the collection’s authors demonstrate the discipline’s vitality, and the individual chapters range from the law’s debt to literary and rhetorical heritages to fiction’s complex grappling with legal forms and cultures. Like any useful and ambitious resource, however, the Handbook also allows for entry into the subject itself, introducing scholars new to the field to the manifold lines of influence between law and literature in the early modern period. Hutson asks, and the collection subsequently answers, 'What shifts in thinking in legal, literary, and historical approaches to early modern England have made a Handbook like this one possible?' (2). The 'Introduction' and the following chapters are devoted to illuminating some of the most pressing historical and methodological issues within the field.
Given the scope of the work, each essay cannot be given full attention here; rather, this review attempts to chart some of the critical interventions and thematic resonances of the Handbook as a whole. There are, besides Hutson’s 'Introduction', thirty-eight chapters, divided into eight sections. The first section unveils the rhetorical sources behind the Inns’ public readings (McGlynn; Williams) and the influence of Roman forensic rhetoric in early modern education (Eden). Part One also includes a chapter by McBain, who traces the prevalence of university training among lawyers in the period and thus their literary and rhetorical training. Prominent in the Handbook are essays that discuss dramatic form and legal culture, particularly in the famous trial scene in The Merchant of Venice (Skinner) or in the culture of staged representations more broadly.
Authors in Part Two and elsewhere devote careful attention to literary productions originating from legal settings. A chapter by Winston considers the epigrams of Sir John Davies and their goal 'to shape the limits of professional decorum and behaviour' (121-122). Goodrich turns to the legal emblem and its role in influencing legal understanding in the period. The following two chapters focus on the masques and revels staged by the Inns (Butler; Raffield). Each essay in this section responds to the late Christopher Brooks's lecture at St. Andrews Centre for Mediaeval and Early Modern Law and Literature in 2013, which is reproduced and edited in the volume.
Moving from law’s genesis and intertextual relationship to literary works to a consideration of how the law was administered in practice, Part Three offers analyses of local law officials and the broader English legal landscapes (Sharpe), reconsiders critical commonplaces about the period’s representations of Justices of the Peace (Landau), and the status of evidentiary standards and oaths (Shapiro). The third section concludes with Strain’s reading of legal reform in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2. Each essay in Part Three contributes to a more historically nuanced understanding of law as it was performed both in courts and onstage.
Part Four turns to the spiritual dimensions of legal practice, or the influence of scriptural interpretation upon legal culture. Phillips begins the section by examining how three playwrights – John Bale, George Peele, and Shakespeare – each grapple with the legend of King John and his initial disavowal of the authority of the Catholic Church. Cromartie focuses on the reception of Christopher St German’s theorization of monarchical power, while Shagan similarly offers a reading of reception and refashioning in the case of Richard Hooker’s conceptions of ecclesiastical polity. Along these lines, several essays in the collection provide new readings of John Selden’s role in determining the shape of legal discourse and thought in the period (Visconsi; Rosenblatt).
Part Five narrates specific responses to changes in the law from literary texts from the period. While the Handbook certainly demonstrates the wide-ranging influence of law upon the literary imagination, Wilson’s contribution on contract law cautions against overstating the case. It is certainly true, however, that certain genres were more responsive to legal developments than others, as Stretton’s chapter on city comedies evinces. Turning to Isabella Whitney’s 'will' in her Swete Nosgay, Sale provides a fresh contextualization of the work in light of the Statute of Wills (1540). Dolan undertakes to read the fascinating conflated figure of the wife and the witch, the 'witch wife', who, as Dolan argues, 'condenses and expresses concerns about what all wives want and what kinds of bargains wives would make if they could' (451). Turner concludes Part Five with a perceptive analysis of legal corporations and literary fictions.
Legal thought was transmitted through oral, manuscript, and print sources, and yet Part Six focuses on the consequences and influences of print specifically by readings of libel and the press in the period. Ibbetson discusses the complex history of libel before uncovering Edmund Coke’s distinctive understanding of defamation of the monarch, while Bellany looks at the issue from the angle of the legality of torture, particularly in the case of John Felton, the assassin of the Duke of Buckingham. Raymond and Mzelzainis, on the other hand, separately trace notable watersheds in the history of censorship, challenging in the process our received wisdom on the legality and dangers associated with printing new, potentially evocative material.
In Part Seven the Handbook provides a closer look at the concept of liberty, starting with Meyler’s chapter on Philip Massinger’s play The Bondman and Nyguist’s engaging and important work on the troubling term 'slave' and its many valences in the period. Halliday traces the impact of the story of Jacob and Esau on the notion of birthright in the period, while Smith discusses John Lilburne’s conception of the common law and English identity.
The final section is the longest, but it captures and performs the copiousness of the topic, examining the extra-English contexts in which legal discourse influenced contemporary thought. Thus Zurcher recounts the agency attributed to a material object, in this case a weapon or tool that brings about the death of an individual. Zurcher locates this material potency in a reading of The Faerie Queene. Moving beyond English borders, Houston situates a discussion of Scots poetry in the distinctively Scottish legal environment. Editor Hutson’s and Warren’s chapters each study Henry V, but approach the play from different angles. Hutson considers the ways in which Shakespeare adapts his sources to shift the focus in the play from what the legality of the King’s actions are to what he thinks and believes about his martial and political decisions. Warren, on the other hand, proposes a new source for reading the play’s engagement with international law, Alberico Gentili’s De armis Romanis. The final two chapters, by Holberton and Hulsebosch, move transatlantically to the literature and legal cultures of early America, through a study of Dryden’s Conquest of Granada and notions of emigration to the Americas, respectively.
The Oxford Handbook of English Law and Literature, 1500-1700 delivers what the title and introduction promise – a handbook in the sense that one need not read sequentially but that, if given its deserved attention, will reward the scholar in manifold, perhaps surprising, ways. Not only are the authors sensitive to the historical specificity of particular legal codes, cases, and discourses, but they bring to their analyses a sharp sense of how literary fiction both was influenced by and intervened in the profession. Scholars interested in questions of evidence and categories such as credibility or science studies will also find useful chapters in the Handbook, particularly when attempting to provide a narrative of how different discourses – literary and legal alike – raised important questions in debates about proof or national identity. This resource can only advance the study of law and literature, and should be part of the larger discussion in early modern studies on how early modern individuals encountered, debated, and understood a form of English subjecthood that relied significantly on the period’s legal and literary cultures.
Katherine Walker, University of North Carolina