W101 | Shakespeare and the Law: The First Thing We Do, Let’s Praise All the Lawyers 

10:00 am - 12:00 pm

9/22, 9/29, 10/6, 10/13, 10/20 & 10/27

Six Sessions

In person at the Williams College Faculty Club

968 Main Street

Williamstown, MA 01267

This course is offered in-person at the Williams College Faculty Club in Williamstown MA. Please note that all in-person course attendees must affirm that they have been fully vaccinated when registering and must wear masks in class at this time. Thank you for your understanding.

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.  Finally, 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 clips from BBC Shakespeare productions of the trial scenes in the plays listed above will be utilized to demonstrate the legal principles under discussion.

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 more prominent Elizabethans, who by birth, education and experience far outshone the Stratfordian and who had every compelling reason to keep his Authorship a secret?  We will examine the evidence and in the last class reach a fair and just conclusion as to who was the Author of the Plays – or maybe simply determine that it really does not matter at all.

Recommended Reading: 

Read as much of each play as you can comfortably.  A course packet provided at the first class will provide the trial scenes of the plays being shown on the screen so that you can follow along.

Philip R. McKnight, Esq., J.D., University of Chicago Law School; trial and appellate attorney practicing in New York, Connecticut and Europe; Adjunct Professor, Williams College and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, teaches environmental law and history; frequent OLLI lecturer on environmental law, Shakespeare and the law, and the role of the law in American democracy.


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