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In this drama, in which we should not expect to find any allusion to English juridical proceedings, Shakespeare shows that he must have been present before some tiresome, testy, choleric judges at Stratford, Warwick, or Westminster,—whom he evidently intends to depict and to satirise,—like my distinguished friend CHARLES DICKENS, in his famous report of the trial of Bardel v. Pickwick, before Mr. Justice Starey, for breach of promise of marriage. Menenius (Act 11. Sc. 1), in reproaching the two tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus, with their own offences, which they forget while they inveigh against Coriolanus, says—
“You wear out a good wholesome forenoon in hearing a cause between an orange-wife and a posset-seller, and then re-journ the controversy of three pence to a second day of audience. When you are hearing a matter between party and party, if you chance to be pinched with the colic, you make faces like mummers, set up the bloody flag against all patience, and in roaring for a pot dismiss the controversy pleading more entangled by your hearing : all the peace you make in their cause is, calling both the parties knaves."
Shakespeare here mistakes the duties of the Tribune for those of the Prætor ;- but in truth he was recollecting with disgust what he had himself witnessed in his own country. Nowadays all English judges are exemplary for despatch, patience, and good temper!!!
Romeo and Juliet.
The first scene of this romantic drama may be studied by a student of the Inns of Court to acquire a knowledge of the law of “ assault and battery,” and what will amount to a justification. Although Sampson exclaims, “My naked weapon is out: quarrel, I will back thee,” he adds, “Let us take the law of our sides; let them begin.” Then we learn that neither frowning, nor biting the thumb, nor answering to a question, “Do you bite your thumb at us, Sir?” “I do bite my thumb, Sir,” —would be enough to support the plea of se defendendo.*
* To show the ignorance and stupidity of Sir Andrew Aguecheek (“Twelfth Night,' Act iv. Sc. 1) in supposing that son assault demesne (or that the Plaintiff gave the first blow) is not a good defence to an action of battery, he is made to say, “I'll have an action of battery against him, if there be any law in Illyria : though I struck him first, yet it's no matter for that."
The scene ends with old Montagu and old Capulet being bound over, in the English fashion, to keep the peace,—in the same manner as two Warwickshire clowns, who had been fighting, might have been dealt with at Charlecote before Sir Thomas Lucy.
The only other scene in this play I have marked to be noticed for the use of law terms is that between Mercutio and Benvolio, in which they keenly dispute which of the two is the more quarrelsome ;-at last Benvolio,—not denying that he had quarrelled with a man for coughing in the street, whereby he wakened Benvolio's dog that lay asleep in the sun,-or that he had quarrelled with another for tying his new shoes with old riband, -contents himself with this tu quoque answer to Mercutio :
An I were so apt to quarrel as thou art, any man should buy the fee-simple of my life for an hour and a quarter. (Act III. Sc. 1.)
Talking of the fee-simple of a man's life, and calculating how many hours' purchase it was worth, is certainly what might not unnaturally be expected from the clerk of a country attorney.*
* So in ‘ All's Well that Ends Well' (Act iv. Sc. 3) Parolles, the bragging cowardly soldier, is made to talk like a conveyancer in Lincoln's Inn :-"He will sell the fee-simple of his salvation * * and cut the entail from all remainders."
With a view to your inquiry respecting the learning of Shakespeare I have now, my dear Mr. Payne Collier, gone through all his plays,—and I can venture to speak of their contents with some confidence, having been long familiar with them. His Poems are by no means so well known to me; for, although I have occasionally looked into them, and I am not blind to their beauties, I must confess that I never could discover in them (like some of his enthusiastic admirers) the same proofs of surpassing genius which render him immortal as a dramatist. But a cursory perusal of them does discover the propensity to legal thoughts and words which might be expected in an attorney's clerk who takes to rhyming.
I shall select a few instances, without unnecessarily adding any comment.
From VENUS AND ADONIS.
“ But when the heart's attorney once is mute,
The client breaks as desperate in the suit."
“Which purchase if thou make for fear of slips,
Set thy seal-manual on my wax-red lips.”
“Her pleading hath deserved a greater fee.”
From the RAPE OF LUCRECE.
“Dim register and notary of shame.”
“For me I force not argument a straw,
Since that my case is past the help of law.”
“No rightful plea might plead for justice there."
“ Hath served a dumb arrest upon his tongue.”
From the SONNETS.
“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past.”
“ So should that beauty which you hold in lease.”
“And summer's lease hath all too short a date.”
“ And 'gainst thyself a lawful plea commence."