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 Hamlets speech in Act 5 is especially impressive.
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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
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)
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 thats 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.