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Shakespeare on Lawyers and the Law

I will make a Star Chamber matter of it...

Shakespeare mentions law more than any other profession. Although we assume Shakespeare did not formally study law, we see from the many references in the plays that he had acquired a significant general knowledge of legal terminology. The legal jargon in Hamlet’s speech in Act 5 is especially impressive.

The Star Chamber. From Cassell's History of England, Vol.2 One play in particular contains the bulk of Shakespeare's writings on the law: Measure for Measure. As Daniel Kornstein explains in his book Kill All the Lawyers: Shakespeare's Legal Appeal:
Measure for Measure is an ideal play for lawyers. It quivers with legal immediacy and raises fundamental questions of law and morality. Legal themes permeate the play and rivet the attention of both lawyers and nonlawyers alike. "Good counselors lack no / clients" one character announces in the first act (1.2.198-99), and we know near the start that we are watching a play about law (Kornstein, 35).
We should remember that Shakespeare became a wealthy man after his acting troupe was granted a Royal Patent by King James I, and would have had many business dealings both in London and Stratford. Moreover, Shakespeare was involved directly in the case of Christopher Mountjoy versus Stephen Bellott. Please see Shakespeare in Court for more information.

The following is a selection of Shakespearean quotations on lawyers and the law. Please click on the play name to see the full scene with explanatory notes. Enjoy!



I have neither the scholar's melancholy, which is emulation, nor the musician's, which is fantastical, nor the courtier's, which is proud, nor the soldier's, which is ambitious, nor the lawyer's, which is politic.
(As You Like It, 4.1.97), Jaques to Rosalind

Push him out of doors;
And let my officers of such a nature
Make an extent upon his house and lands:
Do this expediently and turn him going.
(As You Like It, 3.1.16), Duke Frederick to Oliver

TOUCHSTONE. Wast ever in court, shepherd?
CORIN No, truly.
TOUCHSTONE Then thou art damned.
CORIN Nay, I hope.
TOUCHSTONE Truly, thou art damned like an ill-roasted egg, all on one side.
CORIN For not being at court? Your reason?
TOUCHSTONE Why, if thou never wast at court, thou never sawest good manners; if thou never sawest good manners, then thy manners must be wicked; and wickedness is sin, and sin is damnation. Thou art in a parlous state, shepherd.
CORIN Not a whit, Touchstone: those that are good manners at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behavior of the country is most mockable at the court.
(As You Like It, 3.2.30)
* manners = morals.

Why, may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? Why does he suffer this mad knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery? Hum! This fellow might be in's time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries: is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt? Will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The very conveyances of his lands will scarcely lie in this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?
(Hamlet, 5.1.97), Hamlet to Horatio
* quiddities - quibbles; petty distinctions. From Latin quid, meaning what.

Yea, and so used it that were it not here apparent
that thou art heir apparent--But, I prithee, sweet
wag, shall there be gallows standing in England when
thou art king? and resolution thus fobbed as it is
with the rusty curb of old father antic the law?
Do not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief.
(1 Henry IV, 1.2.54), Falstaff to Prince Hal

Between two hawks, which flies the higher pitch;
Between two dogs, which hath the deeper mouth;
Between two blades, which bears the better temper:
Between two horses, which doth bear him best;
Between two girls, which hath the merriest eye;
I have perhaps some shallow spirit of judgement;
But in these nice sharp quillets of the law,
Good faith, I am no wiser than a daw.
(2 Henry VI, 2.4.17), Warwick to Lords

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.
(2 Henry VI, 4.2.59), Dick the Butcher to Jack Cade

All scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentlemen,
They call false caterpillars, and intend their death.
(2 Henry VI, 4.4.36), Messenger to Henry VI

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE. There's no time for a man to recover his hair that grows bald by nature.
ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE. May he not do it by fine and recovery?
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE. Yes, to pay a fine for a periwig and recover the lost hair of another man.
(The Comedy of Errors, 2.2.71)

When law can do no right,
Let it be lawful that law bar no wrong:
Law cannot give my child his kingdom here,
For he that holds his kingdom holds the law.
(King John, 3.1.189), Constance to Cardinal Pandulph

A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave.
(King Lear, 2.2.14), Kent

Then 'tis like the breath of an unfee'd lawyer; you
gave me nothing for't.
(King Lear, 1.4.122), Fool

Help, master, help! here's a fish hangs in the net,
like a poor man's right in the law.
(Pericles, 2.1.153), Fisherman

We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o'ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey.
(Measure for Measure, 1.3.21), Duke Vincentio

We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror.
(Measure for Measure, 2.1.1), Angelo to Escalus

The jury, passing on the prisoner's life,
May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two
Guiltier than him they try. What's open made to justice,
That justice seizes: what know the laws
That thieves do pass on thieves? 'Tis very pregnant,
The jewel that we find, we stoop and take't
Because we see it; but what we do not see
We tread upon, and never think of it.
You may not so extenuate his offence
For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,
When I, that censure him, do so offend,
Let mine own judgment pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial. Sir, he must die.
(Measure for Measure, 2.1.19), Angelo to Escalus

O just but severe law!
(Measure for Measure, 2.2.56), Isabella

The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept.
(Measure for Measure, 2.2.112), Angelo to Isabella

You seem'd of late to make the law a tyrant.
(Measure for Measure, 2.4.123), Angelo to Isabella

The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil?
(The Merchant of Venice, 3.2.80), Bassanio

A pound of that same merchant's flesh is thine:
The court awards it, and the law doth give it.
(The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.321), Portia

I will make a Star Chamber matter of it.
(The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1.1.1), Shallow to Slender

MISTRESS PAGE. I'll have the cudgel hallowed and hung o'er the altar; it hath done meritorious service.
MISTRESS FORD. What think you? may we, with the warrant of womanhood and the witness of a good conscience, pursue him with any further revenge?
MISTRESS PAGE. The spirit of wantonness is, sure, scared out of him: if the devil have him not in fee-simple, with fine and recovery, he will never, I think, in the way of waste, attempt us again.
(The Merry Wives of Windsor, 4.2.178)

[Queen Mab gallops]
O'er lawyers' fingers, who straight dream on fees.
(Romeo and Juliet, 1.4.77), Mercutio

And do as adversaries do in law,
Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.
(The Taming of the Shrew, 1.2.280), Tranio

The law shall bruise him.
(Timon of Athens, 3.5.5), Second Senator

For pity is the virtue of the law,
And none but tyrants use it cruelly.
(Timon of Athens, 3.5.10), Alcibiades

A friend of mine, who, in hot blood,
Hath stepp'd into the law, which is past depth
To those that, without heed, do plunge into 't.
(Timon of Athens, 3.5.12), Alcibiades

Crack the lawyer's voice,
That he may never more false title plead,
Nor sound his quillets shrilly.
(Timon of Athens, 4.3.167), Timon

If you do wrongfully seize Hereford's rights,
Call in the letters patent that he hath
By his attorneys-general to sue
His livery, and deny his offer'd homage,
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head.
(Richard II, 2.1.204), Duke of York to Richard II

Words pay no debts, give her deeds: but she'll bereave you o' the deeds too, if she call your activity in question. What, billing again? Here's 'In witness whereof the parties interchangeably' -- Come in, come in: I'll go get a fire.
(Troilus and Cressida, 3.2.56), Pandarus to Troilus

He hath ribbons of an the colours i' the rainbow;
points more than all the lawyers in Bohemia can
learnedly handle, though they come to him by the
gross: inkles, caddisses, cambrics, lawns.
(The Winter's Tale, 4.4.234), Servant

* The Law is a Ass
Just a quick note about another famous quotation on the law that many believe Shakespeare penned. "The law is a ass" is actually Dickens. The line is from Oliver Twist: "The law is a ass — a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience." (Chapter 51).

Kornstein, Daniel. Kill All the Lawyers?: Shakespeare's Legal Appeal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.


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