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Shakespeare and the Law

The history of scholarship on the way Shakespeare employs legal terminology and concepts is complex, controversial, and closely tied to the authorship question. Adherents of the traditional view of authorship traditionally deprecate Shakespeare’s alleged knowledge of the law, while often simultaneously invoking all sorts of unsupported theories about how the author might have acquired this knowledge. Legal experts, on the other hand, argue that Shakespeare’s legal knowledge is acutely honed and precise — and that it indicates a mind well-trained and practiced in the idioms and conceptual habits characteristic of lawyers and judges. For example, Shakespeare’s Legal Language: A Dictionary by Sokol and Sokol, published in 2000 in the Athlone Shakespeare Dictionary Series fills over 400 pages with detailed discussion of Shakespeare’s legal terms and concepts.
Browse our articles on Shakespeare and the Law.

The Shakespeare Canon of Statutory Construction


Supreme Court Justice Stevens addresses the search for truth and justice by discussing the view that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford is the true author of the Shakespeare Canon and how that view may help understand statutory construction.

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Hamlet and the skull

Noted barrister and M.P. Sir George Greenwood claimed Shakespeare’s plays and poems “supply ample evidence that their author . . . had a very extensive and accurate knowledge of law.” This essay surveys arguments for and against supposing a legal education for Shakespeare.

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Could Shakespeare Think Like a Lawyer? Inheritance Law in Hamlet

Hamlet and Ghost

by Thomas Regnier. Shakespeare’s frequent use of the law is well documented. Whether his legal terms are always used correctly has been a matter of dispute. I examine how accurately legal terms are used in the plays, and how accurately and deeply legal issues are developed.

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An Unrecognized Theme in Hamlet: Lost Inheritance and Claudius’s Marriage to Gertrude Part I

Claudius and Gertrude

by J. Anthony Burton. The subject of inheritance is the principal idea behind several important scenes, including the nature of the disappointed “hopes” Hamlet includes, along with murder, incest, and attempted murder, in his list of justifications for killing Claudius

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Laertes’s Rebellion as a Defense of His Inheritance: Further Aspects of Inheritance Law in Hamlet

Hamlet and Laertes

by J. Anthony Burton. The theme of lost inheritance has a special but limited function within the larger framework of the play. It does not, of course, displace or even compete with the central theme of revenge or, more properly, justice. Inheritance works as a sort of unifying preoccupation

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Shakespeare’s Bad Law


by Mark Alexander. A look at the history and scholarship on Shakespeare's knowledge of the law. Alexander's analysis reveals Shakespeare's legal knowledge is sophisticated and deep, and that it is his critics who've got it wrong.

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The Legally Annotated HAMLET


by Mark Alexander. A scene by scene analysis of legal themes and allusions in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

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