William Shakespeare breathed his last on April 23rd, 1616, so this April 23rd marks 400 years since his death. It is also, supposedly, his 452nd birthday. Putting aside the oft-silly conspiracy theories and multitudinous alternate spellings of his name, many details of Shakesper’s life are clearly documented in contemporary sources. No one is sure, however, exactly what he was up to in the 1580s. One compelling theory suggests that he spent some part of that decade as a lawyer – or at least working for one. It’s hardly a foregone conclusion, but neither is it an improbable fiction.
Because I wear my heart upon my sleeve, I’ll disclose up front that I’m a Shakespear devotee as well as a lawyer, so I may be predisposed towards the playwright-as-lawyer theory. But evidence for it abounds in his works, where legal terms and concepts appear not only regularly, but accurately. They don’t just crop up in obvious places, like the famous courtroom scene in The Merchant of Venice, but also in settings that otherwise have nothing to do with law. Overall, the usage suggests that Willm had as much familiarity with the language of law as he did, more famously, with the language of love.
“What the dickens?” you may think. “Isn’t Shake-speare the guy who wanted to first kill all the lawyers?” He’s not. That’s his character Dick the Butcher, one of a gang of rabble-rousers – if not devils incarnate – looking to topple society. Putting those words in Dick’s mouth could just as well mean that Shakp thought well of lawyers. It also wouldn’t be the first time a lawyer made a lawyer joke for the amusement of others.
Not convinced? Refuse to budge an inch? If you’re too skeptical to accept the word of a law blog as the be-all and the end-all on literary history, visit the fabulous Internet Archive, which may be able to convince you in one fell swoop that it’s at least an open question. There you can access digitized versions of scholarly analyses debating the issue, on authoritative-looking, old-timey, sepia-toned pages.
Crack the Lawyer’s Voice – Liven Up Your Legal Writing
In the brave new world this knowledge has opened to you, you may wonder whether there’s a Shackspeare quote on point for the legal issues that preoccupy you all the livelong day. In fact, you won’t even have to go on a wild-goose chase to find them. As good luck would have it, we’ve gathered some less famous quotes to drop in your legal briefs, courtesy of the inimitable Wm Shakespe.
- Caught an infringer selling cheap knockoffs? “You have beguiled [consumers] with a counterfeit resembling majesty, which, being touch’d and tried, proves valueless.” (King John, III.i)
- Presenting the court with evidence of befuddled shoppers? “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!” (Macbeth, II.iii)
- A competitor adopted a mark that’s nearly identical to your client’s? “An apple, cleft in two, is not more twin than these two” (Twelfth Night, V.i)
- An angry acquaintance defamed your client? “He that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.” (Othello, III.iii)
- Consumers bought a product that fails to do as advertised? “Even as poor birds, deceived with painted grapes, do surfeit by the eye and pine the maw, even so she languisheth in her mishaps, as those poor birds that helpless berries saw.” (Venus and Adonis)
- Petitioning for the Supreme Court to resolve a disastrous circuit split? “My soul aches to know, when two authorities are up, neither supreme, how soon confusion may enter ‘twixt the gap of both and take the one by the other.” (Coriolanus, III.i)
- Was the alleged false advertising mere puffery? The advertiser is “like a fine bragging youth, and tell[s] quaint lies” no one would believe. (Merchant of Venice, III.iv)
- Arguing an emergency motion? “This weighty business will not brook delay.” (Henry VI, Part II, I.i)
- Defending against meritless claims? “I doubt not then but innocence shall make false accusation blush and tyranny tremble at patience.” (Winter’s Tale, III.ii)
- Plaintiff failed to mitigate damages? They could and should have taken steps to correct the situation, for “our remedies oft in ourselves do lie.” (All’s Well That Ends Well, I.i)
- Defending a parody? “They do it but in mocking merriment.” (Love’s Labour’s Lost, V.ii)
There’s a Shakspere quote or allusion to be found for every occasion. But be wary with your Google searching, and don’t play fast and loose. Remember all that glisters is not gold, and all that sounds nice is not Shakespeare. As the man himself once said: Verily, it doth set my teeth on edge how often people falsely attribute things to me on the internet. Before you copy and paste into quotation marks, verify that it’s something the Bard actually wrote, or you may look as much a bumbling Dogberry as if your complaint set forth the counts “Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.”
William Shakespeare has been dead as a doornail for four hundred years, but his clever phrases and household words will live on for ever and a day.
(Many thanks to the Shakespeare nerds who helped edit this post, and to the invaluable Open Source Shakespeare search engine.)