Forensic Shakespeare, by Quentin Skinner

Shakespeare’s use of legal rhetoric is the force behind much of his drama, says Willy Maley

January 15, 2015

How to do justice to a book that contains 1,700 footnotes in a review of just 600 words? By adding a footnote. The word “forensic” – from “forensis, in open court, public” – has spiked in recent years, in step with policing, psychology and the quest for scientific truths, but its roots lie in politics, philosophy and theology. Ironically, Shakespeare never used it, but its earliest English incarnations address exactly those questions of selfhood and sovereignty that preoccupied the playwright.

Lazarus Seaman’s Diatribe (1647) declares: “It is not simply right that makes a man to be a King, but the solemn declaration of that right in a forensick way.” David Pierson’s Plea for Liberty (1655) asks why a king should have “immunity and freedome from all Lawes, whether muncipall and Country-Lawes, or forensick and forrain?” James Harrington’s True Form of a Popular Commonwealth (1659) sees justice as “a civil and forensick curb” on monarchy. Matthew Mead’s The Almost Christian Discovered (1662) sees in “forensick zeal” no guarantee of goodness. John Owen’s The Doctrine of Justification by Faith (1677) takes such doctrine in a “forensic sense”. Finally, John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1694) declares that a “Person…is a Forensick Term…and so belongs only to intelligent Agents capable of a Law, and Happiness or Misery”.

Quentin Skinner is not concerned with such adventures in etymology or dictionary digressions, nor with the fact that “forensic” makes its appearance just as “the turn against rhetoric” he identifies in Thomas Hobbes begins. Focusing on “forensic rhetoric”, he cautions critics who speak of Shakespeare’s rhetoric when they mean mere “wordplay and other verbal effects”. His book’s emphasis is not “figures and tropes” but “argument”, the original sense of “inventione”.

In considering eight works by Shakespeare, Skinner fastens on “the technicalities of forensic eloquence”. From Hamlet onwards Shakespeare produces “forensic plays”, structured by classical and Renaissance rhetoric, and Skinner’s painstaking readings of the key passages in Othello, Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well prove the point. His focus here is not courtroom drama but Shakespeare’s uses of “judicial rhetoric for dramatic effect”. The so-called problem plays are, Skinner says, Shakespeare’s most intensely forensic works. Rhetoric is the force behind law’s influence on drama. Putting page before stage, he urges us to look not to the courts but to rhetoric manuals for evidence of Shakespeare’s immersion in the language of law.

Given the sweep and majesty of his exploration of Shakespeare’s judicial language, it is inevitable that while some of Skinner’s reasoning is flawless, other parts are fuzzy. In a book full of special pleading and leading questions, he is by turns cavalier and cavilling, scrupulous in his examination of particular speeches, yet extraordinarily inattentive in isolating Shakespeare from his contemporaries and historical context, and completely cloth-eared on puns. More damagingly, in claiming that the history cycles show little interest in “judicial causes”, Skinner ignores the causes of war, such as Henry V’s dodgy dossier. Yet if we return to those 17th-century occurrences of “forensic”, we find Augustine in the 1660 translation of his Confessions describing his decision to relinquish rhetoric so “that the young men, who meditated…lying fooleries and forensick warrs, might no longer buy from my mouth armes for their madness”. If the word “forensic” comes after Shakespeare, suspicion of rhetoric goes back a long way.

Like the best scholarship, Skinner’s vast learning is a prompt to future studies. Such studies will hopefully reconnect argument and invention (in the modern sense), because Skinner’s magisterial efforts to carve out a space for forensic analysis that excludes wordplay has its limitations. To paraphrase Shakespeare: there’s nothing forensic but thinking makes it so.

Forensic Shakespeare

By Quentin Skinner
Oxford University Press, 368pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780199558247
Published 30 October 2014

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