Shakespeare and the Law in the Movies Winter 2023

Class Details

This course will begin with an analysis of the social, political and, most importantly, religious framework of the Elizabethan world into which Shakespeare was born in 1564. We will examine the development of the English common law from its earliest origins in medieval times through Shakespeare’s day and then analyze the relationship of a number of his early history plays to the Elizabethan concept of law and social order. We will consider several plays, including but not limited to, The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Measure for Measure, to see how Shakespeare used the law and legal principles in those works. Among the questions to be examined are how faithful was he to the law as he understood it? What dramatic licenses did he take? What did his use of the law tell us about Shakespeare the playwright and the dramatist? Film excerpts from Royal Shakespeare Company productions of the trial scenes in four of the plays plus film selections from the Falstaff plays will be utilized to demonstrate the legal principles under discussion. In addition, we will climb Stone Hill behind the Clark Art Institute where each student will read aloud and then explain a Shakespeare soliloquy in return for a hot chocolate. Finally, we will visit Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA, to meet with its artistic director for a behind the scenes tour of the theater and a conversation on the challenges of producing classic Shakespeare in the modern world of social media. In addition, we will take up the famous “Authorship Question,” much beloved by under-employed PhD. candidates. Was William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon the Author of the plays, a man all but unknown outside of Oxfordshire, obscure, almost an historical non-person, who could not even spell his own name the same way on any page of his last will and testament? Or was the true Author one of several prominent nobles in Elizabeth’s court with every reason to remain anonymous?
The Class: Format: lecture
Limit: 16
Expected: NA
Class#: 1129
Grading: pass/fail only
Requirements/Evaluation: Four three-page papers called "clerk's notes," which will be shared with all students the night before in Glow addressing a topic to be discussed during the next class.
Prerequisites: None
Enrollment Preferences: Seniors first, first-years last. English and theater majors preferred but not required.
Unit Notes: Philip R. McKnight, Esq., is a trial and appellate attorney, adjunct professor, Williams College and MCLA, and a frequent lecturer on environmental law and history, Shakespeare and the law, and the role of the law in American democracy.
Attributes: SLFX Winter Study Self-Expression
STUX Winter Study Student Exploration

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