Shakespeare and the Law in the Movies Winter 2024

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Class Details

This course will begin with an analysis of the social, political and 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 listed above plus film selections from the Falstaff plays will be utilized to demonstrate the legal principles under discussion. We will visit Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA, to meet with its artistic director for a behind the scenes tour and a conversation on the challenges of producing classic Shakespeare in the modern world of social media. Finally, we will all recite soliloquies on top of Stone Hill. 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 Elizabethans, who by birth, education and experience far outshone the Stratfordian and who had every compelling reason to keep their Authorship a secret.
The Class: Format: lecture
Limit: 10
Expected: NA
Class#: 1259
Grading: pass/fail only
Requirements/Evaluation: Presentation(s); Performance(s); Other: Students will work with me on an individual basis to learn how to deliver their assigned soliloquies on stage and then explain how they would direct another actor to make the same delivery.
Prerequisites: None except a love of Shakespeare, the ability to marvel at the Royal Shakespeare Co. productions on film and a willingness to engage in serious, robust discussion whether Shakespeare was true to the common law or rather to the requirements of the stage.
Enrollment Preferences: First senior, then junior, then sophomore, then first years
Unit Notes: Prof. Philip R. McKnight, Esq., J.D., Williams '65, Un. Chicago Law School '68, a trial and appellate attorney. Adjunct Professor, Williams College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, teaching environmental law and environmental history.
Attributes: SLFX Winter Study Self-Expression
STUX Winter Study Student Exploration

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