CFP: Legal Ecologies

January 23, 2017

“Legal Ecologies” is a collaborative roundtable session being proposed for MLA 2018 in New York. It’s co-organized by the Law and Humanities Forum and the Ecocriticism and Environmental Humanities Forum.

Proposals are invited for short, 8-10 minute papers. Participants may consider a wide range of questions, including, but not limited to, the following: how does the notion of ecology help us redescribe legal experience in terms that don’t depend on the grammar of “I” and “me”? What might we learn about key legal concepts such as intention, consent, judgment, responsibility, property, and personhood if we view them from an interspecies and/or materially grounded perspective? And how might this theoretical re-orientation translate into new possibilities for environmental justice?

Please send 150-word abstracts to Kevin Curran (kdcurran [at] gmail [dot] com) and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (jjcohen [at] gwu [dot] edu) by Friday, March 10.

A shorter CFP has been posted on the MLA website.

Object Lessons in Personhood

November 21, 2016

“Object Lessons in Personhood” is a roundtable session I organized for the MLA Law and Humanities Forum. It will take place on Thursday, January 5, 2017, at the MLA convention in Philadelphia. Featuring object lessons on chair, body, mail-coach, will, canoe, child soldier, and cloud, the session explores how theoretical issues surrounding legal personhood–questions of consent, responsibility, rights, and freedom–manifest themselves at the level of substance, form, and environment. Our aim is to establish a material archive for personhood and model new ways of putting legal studies into conversation with other thriving subfields in the humanitie

Presiding: Kevin Curran, University of Lausanne


Stephanie Elsky, University of Wisconsin, Madison

In Margaret Cavendish’s closet drama The Religious (1662), Mistris Odd-Humour, a gentleman’s daughter, refuses to relinquish her childhood chair, thus rendering herself unsuitable for marriage. Cavendish represents her attachment to this object as not only figurative but also literal: because she has physically outgrown her chair, she is unable to remove herself from it when a suitor unexpectedly arrives. The play seems to parody the inappropriate affective investment in objects, but the extended pun on the word “seat,” an object and a place, suggests something more. Cavendish collapses two incommensurable forms of property, the paramount legal category of land and its compensatory other, moveable goods. She thus challenges the boundaries of the inalienable, asking where legal personhood begins and ends, especially for a woman on the cusp of marriage. The play dramatizes the convergence of affect and object and, when the chair is finally destroyed, considers what kind of person and liberty (the play’s term) are created in its wake.


Sarah Winter, University of Connecticut

In his study of common-law writs, F. W. Maitland comments, “The forms of action we have buried, but they still rule us from their graves.” This paper investigates the forms of legal personhood mobilized by a set of writs that enabled courts to move bodies; specifically, the habeas corpus ad respondendum, used to bring a defendant before the court; the capias ad satisfaciendum, used to jail a defendant in order to obtain execution of a judgment; and the celebrated habeas corpus ad subjiciendum et recipiendum, which permits adjudication on the legality of a specific prisoner’s detention. In Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1836-37), the action of these writs illuminates the embodied nature of legal personhood. In the novel’s object lesson in mesne process, the insolvent debtor’s human body is reduced to a “carcase” by hunger and isolation in the Fleet. Through Mr. Pickwick’s voluntary incarceration, however, the debtor’s “corpus” becomes interchangeable with its counterpart, the free and mobile citizen’s body, thus demonstrating the restricted freedom of the modern political subject.


Daniel Williams, Harvard University

Until 1846 English law viewed any mobile object responsible for human death as “deodand”—to be rendered unto the crown via forfeiture or fine. The statutory abolition of deodand (9 & 10 Vict. [1846], c. 62) ushered in negligence and liability provisions more attuned to a machine-driven, accident-prone capitalist society. Reading two literary reflections on the same mortally threatening vehicle, I consider how Victorian writers, in dismissing deodand as a curious remedy for extracting compensation, gradually came to erase its emphasis on how objects and persons are legally drawn together by accidents. De Quincey’s The English Mail-Coach (1849), a text saturated with legal paraphernalia, laboriously envisions a forthcoming “sudden death” by comically dispersing responsibility among human and nonhuman actors. Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), by contrast, casts a devastating mail-coach accident as a contest between two human agents, despite the scene’s significant nonhuman presence and casualty. Relying on recent object-oriented theory that has invoked deodand as a useful precursor, I propose that we can furnish more creative accounts of the responsibilities entailed in negligence cases by attending to their objects as more than fungible bearers of human value or concern.


Lucy Sheehan, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

In Shirley Brooks’s melodrama The Creole; or, Love’s Fetters (1847), a patriarch has died; brandishing the piece of paper containing his last will and testament on stage, his son discovers the dictates of the will grant him irrevocable ownership over the woman he loves, who was his father’s slave and possibly his half-sister. The will is never read aloud on stage; instead, the document is furnished as a stage prop, an “object lesson” in how the law threatens to reduce complex bonds of kinship and elective love to a willed but unwanted property claim that grants possession to some while dispossessing others of, alternately, their status as legal persons and the objects of their affection. This paper will examine how the artifact of the planter’s will wielded on stage encapsulates the drama of legal personhood at the intersection of family and slavery, and legal form at the intersection of text and performance.


Christine Holbo, Arizona State University

Where would Huckleberry Finn interpretation be without the raft? For most literary critics and legal humanists, the raft runs away with it all, symbolizing freedom from society, and thus the possibility of justice in an unjust world. This paper argues that in focusing on the raft, critics have long been concerned with the wrong “thing,” and that they have overlooked a set of objects that directly figure the protagonists’ search for freedom and their understanding of their status as persons before the law: the series of canoes which, found and lost again, appear and disappear in the course of the narrative. Reading Huckleberry Finn for the canoe allows us to recognize the way the raft represents unfreedom as well as freedom; and it makes visible a complex argument woven into the novel concerning the relationships between personhood and property, freedom from law and freedom before the law in Reconstruction-era America.


Jill Stauffer, Haverford College

If someone was abducted at the age of 10 and forced to be a child soldier, is he responsible for what he has done? If he is indicted 20 years later, at what point did he pass the line between too young to be responsible and old enough to have known better? What kind of person can he be, if these are the questions? We find time and ourselves in aging. But when we are faced with what cannot be undone we also see that time is not a form of measurement but a question directed at us, a lived inner sense that plays a role in the kinds of selves we might be. Taking child soldiers as an extreme form of a common problem, I’ll explore the difference between a sense of time that opens up a future, and one that forecloses possibility. This is part of a larger work on how time passes in law.


Stefanie Mueller, Goethe Universität Frankfurt

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC spurred a renewed public interest in the legal fiction of corporate personhood and its consequences for a broader debate of what constitutes a person at law. In the same year, Timothy Donnelly published a collection of poems called The Cloud Corporation. But it is more than timing that brings these two texts together. Rather, it is that both deal with questions of personhood, voice and participation in the public sphere. The image at the center of the title poem is the cloud, with its changing meaning in the digital age and its elusive materiality as a natural phenomenon. This presentation will therefore examine the way in which the corporation serves as a metaphor of the self in “The Cloud Corporation” and how this self can interact with natural and legal persons in Citizens United.

On September 28, I’ll be directing a workshop called “The Legal Imagination: Archive, Practice, Concept” at the University of Geneva. A short description is below.

Between 1400 and 1700, English legal culture underwent massive changes on a number of fronts: textual, professional procedural, jurisdictional. With this in mind, this workshop invites participants to consider two basic questions: (1) how did law shape fundamental aspects of thought and experience in the late medieval and early modern periods? And (2) what sort of evidence exists to help us address this subject? In the course of our discussions, we will engage with a range of important methodological issues. For example: how do we pursue an archivally based study of legal culture without reducing law to a sub-species of social or political history? What aspects of law leave a recoverable material trace and what aspects do not? Do philosophy and theory provide critical resources that can work in concert with historical methods in the study of law? And most importantly, what can literature and theater tell us about the legal imagination that other cultural artifacts cannot? These questions may be particularly relevant to those working on literature and law, but they are significant in a more general way, as well. They offer an opportunity for each of us to reflect on how we might develop an approach to medieval and early modern studies that is both historically rigorous and intellectually versatile.

Read my short piece commissioned for the Edinburgh University Press blog in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It’s called “Shakespeare’s Questions.” (I’m working on a short book of the same title.)

A session for RSA 2016 in Boston.

Session Organizer: Kevin Curran (University of Lausanne)

Session Chair: Ayesha Ramachandran (Yale University)


Cosmopolitan Hospitality in The Merchant of Venice

Kevin Curran (University of Lausanne)

Abstract: The Merchant of Venice is Shakespeare’s most determinedly cosmopolitan play, presenting an array of border crossings and visitations among a religiously, nationally, and ethnically diverse community of friends and enemies. This paper explores the role of hospitality in cosmopolitan political life—the way greeting, feasting, and accommodation are used to manage encounters between insiders and outsiders in the play. Particular attention is given to the idea of “cosmopolitan hospitality,” which Immanuel Kant defined in Perpetual Peace (1789) as “the right of a foreigner not to be treated with hostility.” In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare takes up some of the same questions about curating political space that interest Kant in his essay. Importantly, though, Shakespeare also explores the limits of cosmopolitan hospitality. Throughout the play we see how sacrifice and persecution unsettle rituals of autonomy and inclusiveness. Ultimately, I argue, hospitality in The Merchant of Venice offers both a way to express cosmopolitanism’s greatest aspirations and a way to chart its inevitable failures.


Cosmopolitan Dogs: Foucault’s Indifference and Shakespeare’s Cynical Divestments

James Kearney (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Abstract: In his final lecture series at the Collège de France in 1984, Michel Foucault addressed Diogenes the Cynic specifically and the cynical tradition in Greek philosophy generally as part of his late work concerning ethics, practices of the self, and the “courage of truth.” Attending to cynicism as a mode of philosophical and political critique, Foucault reflects on “adiaphoros bios,” a lived practice of indifference that both sanctions and demands a cosmopolitan perspective. According to legend, Diogenes (4thC BCE) coined the term cosmopolitan when he denied allegiance to any local or particular polity and claimed that he was a citizen of the world (kosmopolitês). For Foucault, central to cynicism’s radical performance of political and philosophical critique as mode of life is its embrace of an “unlimited” divestment of both material possession and socio-political identity. In this paper, I address scenes of radical divestment in Shakespeare (Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, King Lear) – scenes informed by the cynical inheritance in early modern Europe – in order to discuss the ways in which Shakespeare dramatizes and wrestles with the ethical and affective demands of lived indifference and the impossible ideal of cosmopolitan identity.


Hidden Hospitality: Shakespeare and Early Modern Cosmopolitanism

Sheiba Kian Kaufman (University of California, Irvine)

Abstract: An integral component of harmonious coexistence is exercising hospitality toward the stranger, yet in Shakespeare’s Venetian plays, Othello and The Merchant of Venice, potential hospitable encounters take place off-stage or beyond the bounds of the play, leaving only the consequences of the exchange as markers for evaluating the success or failure of hospitality in the play. Moments of hidden hospitality in Othello and Merchant are primers in deciphering the extent of Shakespeare’s global visions, and offering through such narrations a means to measure the range of cosmopolitan impulses in the period. A key text that openly explores hospitable acts towards strangers sprouting from an earlier Shakespearean germination of the problems of plurality is The Travels of the Three English Brothers (1607). This paper considers how Shakespearean potentialities of interreligious and intercultural exchange manifest in this textual reception and suggests that reading Shakespeare’s narrations of hidden hospitality through parallel scenes of manifest hospitality between English Christians and Persian Muslims in Travels provides a more nuanced vision of early modern cosmopolitanism.

If the European Union was a dinner party, what kind of dinner party would it be? Drunken and friendly or tense and formal? Well-mannered or crass? These questions aren’t as silly as they might seem. The European Union is actually very much part of the intellectual history of hospitality. In its political and economic no less than its social aspect, the concept of hospitality involves a range of practices aimed at managing the relationship between hosts and guests, insiders and outsiders. To really understand the relationship between the European Union and hospitality, though, we need to look closely at Greece, way down at the end of the table, spilling wine and cursing indignantly.

To start, let’s wind the clock back to the eighteenth century when Immanuel Kant came up with the idea of “cosmopolitan hospitality.” Kant coined the term in a pamphlet called “Perpetual Peace” (1795), describing it variously as “the right of a foreigner not to be treated with hostility,” the “right to be a guest,” and the “right to visit.” Kant’s central idea was that a citizen of a European nation should be allowed to pursue commercial activities in any other European nation. The surest way to avoid war in Europe, Kant felt, was to link the economic destinies of its constituent members. Economic hospitality, the argument ran, is key to achieving “perpetual peace.”

This link between hospitality and harmony is remarkably similar to the original rationale for the European Union. Established in the wake of World War II, the project was designed to prevent such a disaster from ever happening again by replacing narrow forms of nationalism with a larger, transnational sense of economic community. This sounds sensible enough, but there was a problem with Kant’s theory of cosmopolitan hospitality and it’s reflected in the European response to the collapse of the Greek economy. Kant’s international utopia—a world in which money moves freely across borders, nations keep their doors open to one another, and businessmen are unconditionally welcome everywhere they go—is premised on a simplified and sanitized version of the concept of hospitality.

In the hospitality relations of “Perpetual Peace,” there is absolute parity among the parties involved—everyone’s equal and everyone wins. The intellectual tradition in which Kant was working, however, described hospitality in rather different terms. For the famous hosts of the Bible, for example, hospitality was risky business. In both the story of Lot and his daughters in Genesis and the story of the Levite of Mount Ephrain in Judges, hosts have to offer their virgin daughters to violent, sexually ravenous mobs in order to protect the strangers who are guests in their home. Pay-off, in other words, is not typically the measure of a successful hospitality relationship, at least not in the traditional sources. The essence of hospitality is that it begins in earnest at the point where your interests end. To be hospitable is also, in a sense, to be injured. As St. Paul instructs, “[Be] given to hospitality. Bless them which persecute you.” Or, in the words of Jacques Derrida, it is “the one who invites, the inviting host, who becomes the hostage.” The Latin word hostis, he reminds us, could mean either “guest” or “enemy.”

Which is Greece within the European Union? Guest or enemy? The answer has to be both. An archetypal hostis, Greece is welcome and unwelcome, friend and foe. Ushered warmly into Europe’s political and economic community in 2000, the country has since 2010 become an object of concern, frustration, and finally fear as its mounting debt places euro zone central banks, and the European Union generally, in danger of collapse. As a result, Greece has been subject to severe reprimands and humiliating austerity measures, all meted out by its European hosts.

The European Union is a project that grows out of the Kantian concept of cosmopolitan hospitality, but the Greek crisis shows us that it’s actually part of a much broader, darker, and more complicated tradition of hospitality—the very tradition that Kant wanted to do away with in order to advance a benignly liberal model of international political economy. What Greece will ultimately have to decide is whether it will stay at the dinner party—its behavior monitored and its portions cut back, an object of disapproving sidelong glances—or leave the table altogether and wander off alone into the cold, dark night.

A Roundtable Session for MLA 2017 in Philadelphia, organized for the Law and Humanities Forum.

Proposals are welcome for 10-minute papers that focus on a single “thing.” The aim of the session is to consider key theoretical issues surrounding legal personhood—questions of consent, responsibility, rights, and freedom—as they manifest themselves at the level of substance, form, and lived environment. Taken together, these papers will establish a material archive for personhood and model new ways of putting legal studies into conversation with other thriving subfields in the humanities, such as material culture studies, animal studies, science studies, ecotheory, disability studies, and critical theory.

150-word abstracts by March 15 2016 to Kevin Curran (

[My edited collection, Shakespeare and Judgment, is under contract with Edinburgh University Press. Here’s a description.]

Contributors: Katherine Attié, Sanford Budick, Kevin Curran, Constance Jordan, Julia Reinhard Lupton, John Parker, Carolyn Sale, Vivasvan Soni, Virginia Lee Strain, Richard Strier, Paul Yachnin.

Shakespeare and Judgment gathers together an international group of scholars to address for the first time the place of judgment in Shakespearean drama. Contributors approach the topic from a variety of cultural and theoretical perspectives, covering plays from across Shakespeare’s career and from each of the genres in which he wrote. Anchoring the volume are two critical contentions: first, that attending to Shakespeare’s treatment of judgment leads to fresh insights about the imaginative relationship between law, theater, and aesthetics in early modern England; and second, that it offers new ways of putting the plays’ historical and philosophical contexts into conversation.

A uniquely protean topic, judgment signifies across several semantic fields. Part of its history is legal, with the courtroom serving as its primary institutional home. The archive for legal judgment includes the reports and commentaries of jurists like Edmund Plowden and Edward Coke; considerations of the role of judges by Coke, John Davies, and Francis Bacon; and the many justice of the peace manuals that rolled off the presses during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Judgment is also a central feature of Christianity, endowing the religion with both moral force and temporal urgency. In a variety of sources, ranging from sermons to moral interludes, we find divine judgment being contrasted with the inflexible and error-prone judgment of the secular common law courts.

The history of aesthetics is also bound up with conceptions of judgment. In the vernacular literary criticism that developed in England over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, programmatic descriptions of good writing and right reading by figures such as Philip Sidney, George Puttenham, Samuel Daniel, and Henry Peacham were heavily invested in judgment, citing it as both the faculty responsible for proper discernment and the attribute that stands to benefit from superior writing and oratory. This link between inventio and scientia iudicandi [the science of judging] was not strictly literary, however. Deriving from Aristotle and Cicero, it also applied to political “invention,” or policy-making. Both versions of invention (the literary and the political) involved the principle of decorum—a version of judgment in which careful consideration is given to the particulars of circumstance rather than general moral precepts.

Finally, judgment is also a key term in the early modern discourse of sociality, in which context it is viewed as a practice that knits the individual’s sense of self into a larger community of taste. For example, Stephen Guazzo in The Civile Conversation (1581) writes, “The judgment which we have to know ourselves is not ours, but we borrow it of others . . . the knowledge of ourselves, dependeth of the judgment and conversation of many” (4-5). Comments like this in early modern conduct books intersect with the long philosophical tradition of thinking about how judgment links individuals to larger collectives. This line of thought begins with Aristotle and the Stoics and is taken up with particular rigor in the eighteenth century when writers like the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, and especially Immanuel Kant formulated new ideas about the role of judgment in social and political life. Later, in the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt developed the moral and political implications of Kant’s arguments in a series of influential essays. At the time of her death in 1975, Arendt was planning a final volume of her seminal work The Life of the Mind on “Judgment.”

Shakespeare has a place in this long and tangled history. As this volume shows, the plays occupy a point of intersection for judgment’s varied genealogies. Constance Jordan and Virginia Lee Strain, for example, show how the representation of adjudication in plays like The Merchant of Venice and 2 Henry IV were shaped by developments in both law reporting and courtroom practice. John Parker, on the other hand, explores how in The Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet, and Measure for Measure, Shakespeare juxtaposes Christian forgiveness and secular judgment. Julia Reinhard Lupton, meanwhile, investigates how Cymbeline establishes correspondences between the capacity for aesthetic judgment and the capacity for moral agency. Turning to performance, we find that audience judgment was a crucial source of meaning in the theater. Carolyn Sale discusses how audiences would have confronted problems of authority endemic to English common law when they assessed the actions of characters like Angelo, Isabella, and the Duke in Measure for Measure. Katherine Attié’s reading of Henry V, by contrast, links audience judgment not to law, but rather to a specifically early modern understanding of the intellectual and ethical labor of playgoing itself. This volume also maps out new genealogies of thought between Shakespeare’s plays and the work of later theorists of judgment. Lupton, for example, shows how Cymbeline can be understood as a theatrical iteration of Arendt’s theory of judgment, while Sanford Budick, taking The Merchant of Venice as a case study, demonstrates that Shakespeare and Kant share a similar view of the ethics of judgment. Vivasvan Soni, on the other hand, discusses the failure of modern philosophers to differentiate sufficiently between decision and judgment in Hamlet, arguing for the centrality of the former to the play’s treatment of time.

As this description indicates, Shakespeare and Judgment is a volume characterized by both methodological diversity and thematic focus. Featuring essays that range across multiple areas of early modern culture and modern intellectual history, it also advances a coherent argument about the way judgment brings various discourses about justice, religion, beauty, selfhood, time, and performance into contact in Shakespeare’s plays. Essays have been grouped so as to let the complexities of these crossings emerge; themed subsections denote frames of reference that comprise different forms of judgment (legal, aesthetic, moral, etc.), rather than building artificial walls between them. Section One, “Staging Judgment: Deliberation in the Plays,” presents four essays on the performance of judgment in the playworld itself (Soni, Jordan, Strain, Lupton). Section Two, “Audience Judgment: Deliberation in the Theater” includes four essays on the process of judging in the theater more broadly (Attié, Sale, Yachnin, Curran). Section Three, “The Ethics of Judgment,” features three essays on the way judgment raises larger ethical questions about law, religion, and interpretation (Parker, Budick, Strier). Shakespeare was not the only Renaissance dramatist to engage with judgment, but he treated the topic in a more sustained and wide-ranging way than any of his contemporaries.

Taken together, the essays in Shakespeare and Judgment offer a genuinely new account of the historical and intellectual contexts of Shakespeare’s plays. Building on current work in legal studies, religious studies, theater history, and critical theory, the volume will be of interest to a wide range of scholars working on Shakespeare and early modern culture.

[My new monograph, Shakespeare’s Legal Ecologies: Law and Distributed Selfhood, is under contract with Northwestern University Press. Here’s a description.]

This book offers the first sustained examination of the relationship between law and selfhood in Shakespeare’s work. Taking five plays and the sonnets as case studies, it argues that Shakespeare’s career-long interest in law also needs to be understood as an ongoing meditation on what it means to be a person—individually and collectively, intellectually and physically, and in relation to the world of things. Existing scholarship on early modern literature and law rarely takes up questions of selfhood, and when it does the focus is on how law contributes to the formation of ideas about interiority and personal agency. This book, by contrast, argues that law provided Shakespeare with a set of conceptual resources that allowed him to imagine selfhood in social and distributed terms, as a product of interpersonal exchange or as a gathering of various material forces. Scenes that display these qualities I refer to collectively as Shakespeare’s “legal ecologies,” representational environments in which selfhood is both linked to and shaped by other human and non-human agents in a juridical setting.

Shakespeare’s legal ecologies are important for two reasons. First, they mark a departure from the bounded and inward-looking selfhood of Augustinian and Cartesian thought and from the individualist political and ethical trajectories of those traditions. Viewed together, these scenes of distributed legal subjectivity show us Shakespeare’s distinctly communitarian vision of personal and political experience, the way he regarded living, thinking, and acting in the world as materially and socially embedded practices. Second, these scenes demonstrate how Shakespeare leveraged his knowledge of law for intellectual and speculative ends that were not specifically legal; the way, that is, Shakespeare thought with or through law as opposed to simply thinking about it. What this book offers, then, is a new theory of Shakespeare’s imaginative relationship to law and an original account of law’s role in the philosophical and ethical work of his plays and sonnets.

Methodologically, this book has both historical and theoretical investments. Since Shakespeare’s thinking about law is necessarily conditioned by the culture in which he lived and the time at which he wrote, readings of his plays and sonnets are frequently rooted in primary historical documents such as sixteenth- and seventeenth-century law books, legal reports, treatises, and assize court records. However, if grounding Shakespeare’s engagement with law in a specific past is important for this study, so too is showing how his writing opens the historical particulars of legal experience out onto larger, universal questions about being, agency, and the relationship between body and mind. Accordingly, this study also attends closely to the conceptual dimension of law—the ideas, assumptions, values, and habits of thought that underpin specific legal rules and practices and which intersect with primary questions about selfhood, such as: what are the sources of agency? What counts as a person? For whom am I responsible, and how far does that responsibility extend? What is truly mine? These are questions that are as fundamental to law as they are to metaphysics, ethics, and political theory, and, as this book shows, Shakespeare remained creatively and intellectually invested in them throughout his career.

At the heart of this study, then, is a commitment to the idea that Shakespeare’s legal imagination has both cultural and philosophical coordinates; that it belongs to a genealogy of thought that is rooted in the early modern period but which also extends beyond it to include modern thinkers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas, and Gilles Deleuze. Though they write in different forms and for different ends than Shakespeare, these philosophers nevertheless share with him an interest in thinking about selfhood from the outside rather than the inside, as something premised on collectivity, otherness, and the external life of the senses. By attending to both the early modern sources and the modern destinations of Shakespeare’s legal imagination, this book is able to tell a new story about Shakespeare’s unique place in the history of selfhood.

Shakespeare and Judgment

August 18, 2014

A panel at RSA 2015 in Berlin, Germany

Organizer: Kevin Curran, University of North Texas
Sponsor: Newberry Library Center for Renaissance Studies
Chair: Jennifer Waldron, University of Pittsburgh

“The Laws of Measure for Measure
Paul Yachnin, McGill University

What are the laws of Measure for Measure? I mean by this, not any particular statutes, precedents, or legal practices, but rather the genres of law in the play. These can also be imagined as three courts of ascending scope and authority. I count three genres. These are the law of sovereign will, the law of kind or of nature, and the law of judgment. The first two give us the law as above time and change and independent of individuals and collectivities. They are kinds of law by which we justify our social and political lives. The third genre, judgment, is in contrast embedded in active and collective public life and necessarily open to challenge and revision. Whereas will and kind live their lives within the playworld, judgment lives within the play but also operates vitally in relation to the play in the world and over the long term.

“Ratifiers and Props: Judging Laertes’ Rebellion”
Stephanie Elsky, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Rather than the king’s two bodies, Shakespeare’s Hamlet offers a multiplicity of monarchical bodies: would-be kings, false kings, and player kings crowd the stage, each in turn requiring a process of political and aesthetic discernment.  Laertes’ rebellion represents a particularly vexed instance of this since two kings momentarily exist at once. The anonymous messengers’ panicked report of the off-stage rebellion can be considered, then, an example of what Lorna Hutson terms judicial narratio. Using the legal-rhetorical technique that organizes events into a persuasive narrative, the messenger requires the audience to act as judge. By claiming that the commons fail to recognize custom and antiquity, the “ratifiers and props of every word,” he frames their judgment of this radical political innovation in terms of its relationship to the past. Like the king’s two bodies, the temporal and legal concept of “custom” both supports and undermines a constitutionalist notion of the state.

“Shakespeare and the Ethics of Judgment”
Kevin Curran, University of North Texas

Renaissance England saw the emergence of something we might call a “culture of judgment,” a set of ideas and practices that included forms of legal adjudication, methods of discerning aesthetic value, and standards of social decorum. Taking The Winter’s Tale as a case study, this paper shows how Shakespeare draws out of these cultural sources ethical insights about the relationship between judgment and social responsibility. For Shakespeare, as for Kant and Arendt, judging was a fundamentally collaborative and community-making act, more about establishing a relationship of care than advancing an individual decision. In The Winter’s Tale, judgment provides a framework for showcasing the social and moral risks we take when we cease to think in, and through, the presence of others. And by the end of the play it provides an equally compelling framework for thinking about how we might manage those risks.

“Shakespeare’s Judicial Quorum: Justices in Pairs and Impaired Judgment”
Virginia Lee Strain, Loyola University Chicago

After an extensive tradition of legal-political writing that emphasized the individual judge’s or magistrate’s decision-making practices, modern legal scholars have effectively re-submerged the “oracular” or “Herculean” figure of the judge back into a system of institutional roles designed to translate judicial decisions into materially-consequential performative acts. While such scholarship illuminates the contribution of the legal-administrative hierarchy, I would like to examine not the vertically-coordinated nature of legal judgment, but the effects of lateral relationships between or among judges. In the sixteenth century, various legal and administrative duties could only be performed when at least two judges or justices were present. This reality is reflected in a number of representations of the law in early modern drama. This paper investigates II Henry IV and Measure for Measure for the dramatic, epistemological, and ethical consequences of shared reasoning and decision-making practices at law.