[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.

A Special Session at MLA 2015 in Vancouver

Organizer: Kevin Curran

Talks by Kevin Curran, Luke Wilson, and Carolyn Sale

Presiding: Julia Reinhard Lupton

Shakespeare’s imaginative use of law has been a topic of scholarly interest for at least a century. Where might we go next with this line of inquiry, and how can we bring it into more meaningful contact with other areas of debate in our field? This session will address this question by presenting three papers, each of which develops a new critical keyword—“Hospitality,” “Use,” and “Common(s)”—aimed at advancing the study of Shakespeare and law by entering it into conversation with current theoretical and philosophical debates. Our goal is to imagine new futures for Shakespeare and law by developing a new vocabulary of critical engagement.

The rationale for this special session is two-fold. In the first place, we wish to bring the discussion about Shakespeare and law up to date by moving it into new conceptual and philosophical environments, a task the participants feel the “keywords” model serves particularly well. In doing this, we also want to respond more fully to a dimension of law that has been neglected in Shakespeare and early modern studies. “Law” is not a single, static thing, but rather a constellation of various social and political agents, institutional locales, and conceptual forces. While the social, institutional, and historical aspects of law have received sustained treatment in studies of Shakespeare and early modern literature, the conceptual dimension of law—the ideas, assumptions, values, and habits of thought that underpin specific legal rules and practices—remains underexplored. This is a significant oversight since it is on the conceptual level that law overlaps with some of the most urgent philosophical and theoretical questions in contemporary humanities scholarship. 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 Shakespeare remains creatively and intellectually committed to them throughout his career. It is through the use of legal scenes and legal language, in particular, we argue, that his plays and poems enter this wider field of speculation. Taken together, our keyword papers take an important step towards developing a critical lexicon that effectively addresses this largely overlooked aspect of Shakespeare’s legal imagination.

Kevin Curran’s paper, “Hospitality,” shows how legal themes in The Merchant of Venice connect to the long philosophical tradition of hospitality, as exemplified in a range of writings from Leviticus to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and including work by Immanuel Kant, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas. Hospitality is not a legal topic in a narrowly juridical sense, but it is nevertheless bound up with key legal concepts: a hospitality relation arises from some sort of obligation (contractual or non-contractual), some sense of duty (legislated or immanent), and therefore from some larger understanding of justice—of what is right, or at least of what is required. Presenting social scenes that are both irrationally sacrificial and contractually cosmopolitan in turn, The Merchant of Venice asks us to think of hospitality in pluralistic terms, as a spectrum of socio-symbolic acts that extend from the ambit of absolute obligation to the ambit of rights and entitlements.

Luke Wilson’s paper, “Use,” opens by considering Giorgio Agamben’s reading of the early fourteenth-century controversy over the usus pauper that pitted the Franciscans against Pope John XXII. Agamben argues that the Franciscan spokesmen (Michael of Cessna, William of Ockham, Bonagratia of Bergamo) came close to a potentially radical detachment of use relations from property relations, but failed because they were unable to think about use otherwise than through the categories of the Roman law. In English common law, too, the category of use continued to play an important part, both as adjunct and alternative to property. With this in mind, Wilson asks whether Shakespeare might be able to provide what the defenders of the Franciscans, in Agamben’s view, could not: a way of conceptualizing use that did not ultimately derive from a fundamentally legal paradigm of the relation between use and possession. Wilson draws his examples from As You Like It and the sonnets. 

Carolyn Sale’s paper, “Common(s),” considers what we might gain for our understanding of early modern English literature and law if we orient our attention around early modern and contemporary conceptions of the “commons.” Taking key scenes from As You Like It, Measure for Measure, and King Lear as case studies, Sale shows how the commons furnishes us with a linguistic, discursive, ideational, and political matrix within which to construe, challenge, and refine our standing conceptions of the relationship between the law and literature in early modern England, especially the relationship of the English common law and Shakespeare’s writing for “common stages.” 

Mike’s Witmore’s thoughts on the “post-academic age of the humanities” at Wine Dark Sea.

Interesting conference in Dublin. Here’s an overview of the central lines of inquiry quoted from the conference website:

What does it mean to be oneself? When considering this issue, two approaches are unavoidable, as they both devote their investigations to the question of who one is, in one’s singularity. On the one hand, phenomenology defines the subject in terms of one’s conscious experience; on the other hand, psychoanalysis roots the subject in the unconscious. Across this rough divide, these two conceptualizations of the subject appear as irreconcilable. Nonetheless, it is precisely this irreconcilability that we aim at interrogating during this conference.

Picture Macbeth alone on stage, staring intently into empty space. “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” he asks, grasping decisively at the air. On one hand, this is a quintessentially theatrical question. At once an object and a vector, the dagger describes the possibility of knowledge (“Is this a dagger”) in specifically visual and spatial terms (“which I see before me”). At the same time, Macbeth is posing a quintessentially philosophical question, one that assumes knowledge to be both conditional and experiential, and that probes the relationship between certainty and perception as well as intention and action. It is from this shared ground of art and inquiry, of theater and theory, that this series advances its basic premise: Shakespeare is philosophical.

It seems like a simple enough claim. But what does it mean exactly, beyond the parameters of this specific moment in Macbeth? Does it mean that Shakespeare had something we could think of as his own philosophy? Does it mean that he was influenced by particular philosophical schools, texts, and thinkers? Does it mean, conversely, that modern philosophers have been influenced by him, that Shakespeare’s plays and poems have been, and continue to be, resources for philosophical thought and speculation?

The answer is yes all around. These are all useful ways of conceiving a philosophical Shakespeare and all point to lines of inquiry that this series welcomes. But Shakespeare is philosophical in a much more fundamental way as well. Shakespeare is philosophical because the plays and poems actively create new worlds of knowledge and new scenes of ethical encounter. They ask big questions, make bold arguments, and develop new vocabularies in order to think what might otherwise be unthinkable. Through both their scenarios and their imagery, the plays and poems engage the qualities of consciousness, the consequences of human action, the phenomenology of motive and attention, the conditions of personhood, and the relationship among different orders of reality and experience. This is writing and dramaturgy, moreover, that consistently experiments with a broad range of conceptual crossings, between love and subjectivity, nature and politics, and temporality and form.

“Edinburgh Critical Studies in Shakespeare and Philosophy” takes seriously these speculative and world-making dimensions of Shakespeare’s work. The series proceeds from a core conviction that art’s capacity to think—to formulate, not just reflect, ideas—is what makes it urgent and valuable. Art matters because unlike other human activities it establishes its own frame of reference, reminding us that all acts of creation—biological, political, intellectual, and amorous—are grounded in imagination. This is a far cry from business-as-usual in Shakespeare studies. Because historicism remains the methodological gold standard of the field, far more energy has been invested in exploring what Shakespeare once meant than in thinking rigorously about what Shakespeare continues to make possible. In response, “Edinburgh Critical Studies in Shakespeare and Philosophy” pushes back against the critical orthodoxies of historicism and cultural studies to clear a space for scholarship that confronts aspects of literature that can neither be reduced to nor adequately explained by particular historical contexts.

Shakespeare’s creations are not just inheritances of a past culture, frozen artifacts whose original settings must be expertly reconstructed in order to be understood. The plays and poems are also living art, vital thought-worlds that struggle, across time, with foundational questions of metaphysics, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. With this orientation in mind, “Edinburgh Critical Studies in Shakespeare and Philosophy” offers a series of scholarly monographs that will reinvigorate Shakespeare studies by opening new interdisciplinary conversations among scholars, artists, and students.

Kevin Curran

For more information, including a list of Editorial Board members and guidelines on submitting a proposal, please follow this link.

For the official EUP series page, please follow this link.

Alternate Currents

October 29, 2013

Check out Joseph Campana’s (Rice University) fascinating new blog, Alternate Currents. Putting ideas about energy into conversation with critical and artistic modes of inquiry, Campana describes the aims of the blog as follows:

“Energy is everywhere, thrumming through bodies and machines, illuminating private and public spaces, enabling the computers and servers I use as I type this. To many, energy seems increasingly and exclusively the province of scientists, businessmen, activists, and public policy makers. Artists beg to differ. Alternate Currents explores:

  • how central art is to the conversations we now have about energy, sustainability, and ecology. It considers the way range of arts and media engage with energy: extraction, generation, consumption, crisis, distribution, sustainability, and enervation.
  • longstanding links between art, energy, affect, perception, and aesthetics
  • the relationship between energy industries and artistic patronage and production
  • and how artists engage with energy as it courses through and shapes bodies, cities, and landscapes.”

New York Sound Maps

October 22, 2013

Have a look at The Roaring Twenties, a fabulous project by Emily Thompson at Princeton University which reconstructs the aural landscape of New York in the 1920s. Thompson explains:

“To recover [the meaning of sounds] we need to strive to enter the mindsets of the people who perceived those sounds, to undertake a historicized mode of listening that tunes modern ears to the pitch of the past.  The Roaring ‘Twenties website is dedicated to that challenge, attempting to recreate for its listeners not just the sound of the past but also its sonic culture.  It offers a sonic time machine; an interactive multimedia environment whereby site visitors can not just hear, but mindfully listen to, the noises of New York City in the late 1920s, a place and time defined by its din.”

Another interesting sound project, the NYSoundmap, has been assembled by artists, philosophers, designers, and sound engineers affiliated with the New York Society for Acoustic Ecology.

The Sound of Knowledge-Making

“Listen to Wikipedia”: a brilliant project. Here, Wikipedia edits are correlated to bells (additions) and strings (subtractions). “‘Listen to Wikipedia’ was written by Stephen LaPorte and Mahmoud Hashemi, and is open-source. Like RCMap, L2W gets its real-time Wikipedia data as broadcast by Wikimon. L2W was inspired by and partially based on ‘Listen to Bitcoin’, but was mostly rebuilt to use D3.js (also like RCMap). We also use howler.js for cross-browser audio support, and additional sound processing was facilitated by SoX.”

I’ll be directing a seminar called “Theater and Judgment in Early Modern England” for faculty and advanced graduate students at the Shakespeare Association of America conference in St. Louis next year. The description is below.

Judgment is both a concept and a practice. It is fundamental to law as well as religion, and it is a key term in the development of aesthetics and the discourse of sociality. As such, judgment has a remarkably vibrant intellectual history. The basic premise of this seminar is that the theater of Shakespeare and his contemporaries occupies an important position within that intellectual history, that early modern plays and the institution of theater have compelling things to tell us about judgment, and that, conversely, judgment offers an illuminating framework for thinking about a variety of early modern plays. The audience for this seminar is broad since judgment stands at the intersection of several different strands of early modern intellectual culture, including law, religion, ethics, literary criticism, and rhetoric. It will also appeal to philosophically and theoretically inclined scholars, especially those interested in Hannah Arendt. Arendt explored the topic of judgment in various ways throughout her career and lectured on Kant’s Critique of Judgment at the University of Chicago and the New School for Social Research. The aim of the seminar will be to map out the relationship between early modern theater and the intellectual history of judgment through a variety of case studies. Papers are invited on a range of topics. These might include: courtroom scenes; judges and judge-figures; justices of peace and juries; judgment and theatrical spectatorship; theater and the development of literary criticism; judgment and the prehistory of taste; the legal history of judgment; divine judgment; skepticism and other intellectual contexts; judgment and evidence; theological considerations; judgment and sociality; modern philosophical perspectives; medieval inheritances; the rhetoric of judgment.


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