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Was Shakespeare a lawyer? At first, the question sounds absurd � as though the most famous playwright in the English language needed a secret day job. And yet, tucked away in the Bard’s many plays and sonnets, one can find dozens of legal terms, including “pleadings,” “plaintiffs,” “defendants,” “appellants,” and “juries,” to name just a few. Shakespeare’s use of legal jargon has fueled a long-running debate over whether the dramatist practiced, or at least studied, law in his youth. As early as the eighteenth century, critics began to remark on the abundance of legalisms in Shakespeare’s work, and from that observation they spun an elaborate tale of how Shakespeare had been a student in London’s Inns of Court, and then an attorney’s clerk. It’s a wonderful image � the young playwright poring over a dusty statute book: “2(b) or not 2(b): that is the section!” But unfortunately, there is scant evidence for the theory that Shakespeare ever studied law. Except for Shakespeare’s own words. He clearly knew his litigation � his writings are peppered with the language of the courts. In Twelfth Night, for example, Olivia assures the neurotic Malvolio, “Thou shalt be both the plaintiff and the judge of thine own cause.” Which, when you think about it, doesn’t sound so bad. In Othello, the treacherous Iago complains that Othello “nonsuits my mediators” � to be nonsuited was the equivalent of having one’s complaint summarily dismissed. An Elizabethan 12(b)(6) motion, if you will. Even more familiar to modern ears is Portia’s statement, in The Merchant of Venice, that she and her fellow plotters shall be served with “interrogatories, and we will answer all things faithfully.” How, you might ask, did Shakespeare learn about ‘rogs? The hard way, it turns out, for he was served with interrogatories in the 1612 lawsuit of Mountjoy v. Bellot, which involved Shakespeare’s acting as a go-between in negotiating the dowry of his landlord’s daughter � back then, third-party witnesses could be made to answer interrogatories. Intriguingly, certain lines in Shakespeare can only be understood in light of the leading cases of the day. For example, in Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch urges Sir Andrew Aguecheek to insult Cesario as follows: “If thou thou’st him thrice, it shall not be amiss.” The phrase is incomprehensible without knowing that, in Shakespeare’s day, prosecutors would use the “thou” form of address when delivering the most withering cross-examinations. The practice quickly became a verb � “to thou.” Shortly before Twelfth Night was performed, Sir Walter Raleigh had been prosecuted in a notorious trial in which the Crown’s attorney general unleashed a volley of contemptuous thou’s against the defendant. Eventually, the prosecutor worked himself up to a slashing, though rather ridiculous, crescendo by crying: “I thou thee, thou traitor!” This was too ripe for satire for Shakespeare to resist. He quickly revised Twelfth Night to include the reference to thou’ing. It was in the field of property law, however, that the Bard really excelled. Like his father before him, Shakespeare dabbled in real estate, and he naturally gravitated to the vocabulary of property law. In Hamlet, for example, Horatio refers to kings who “stand seized” of their lands � using “seized” (also spelled “seised”) in the legal sense of possession. The concept of holding title “in fee simple” cast a powerful spell on Shakespeare as a symbol of permanent ownership. But wait, you say: Wasn’t Shakespeare the guy who wanted to “kill all the lawyers”? Actually Shakespeare put those words in the mouth of Jack Cade, who in Henry VI is plotting a rebellion against the Crown. The fact that such a treasonous fellow wants to get rid of lawyers is often interpreted as a pro-lawyer point: that lawyers are the protectors of traditional English liberties. That said, it seems likely that the line was calculated to get an appreciative snort from the audience. In the final analysis, the important point is not whether Shakespeare was a lawyer, but the fact that he understood the law as a potent metaphor for life. Arguing about his legal training is probably a waste of time, or as the Bard himself put it, ” ‘Tis like the breath of an unfee’d lawyer.” Adam Freedman is an in-house lawyer practicing in New York. A version of this article originally appeared in New York Law Journal Magazine, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel.

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