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Law and LanguageCurrent Legal Issues Volume 15$
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Michael Freeman and Fiona Smith

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199673667

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199673667.001.0001

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‘Where be his quiddities now’? Law and Language in Hamlet

‘Where be his quiddities now’? Law and Language in Hamlet

(p.201) 13 ‘Where be his quiddities now’? Law and Language in Hamlet
Law and Language

Eric Heinze

Oxford University Press

This chapter suggests that law's oppressive character emerges largely through its linguistic qualities, in Hamlet. Hamlet represents Shakespeare's most original statement on legal language as the essence of all that is manipulative and duplicitous in law's norms, institutions, guardians, and practitioners — a culmination of insights progressively developed earlier in the corpus. The chapter is organized as follows. Section 1 examines law and language in one of Shakespeare's early works, the history play Henry VI, Part Two, which partly anticipates, but partly also diverges from Hamlet's portrayal of law. Section 2 considers Hamlet's broader political context. Even more overtly than the nominally medieval setting of the early history plays, Hamlet's world anticipates the modern surveillance state, in which the ‘literacy’ of power — far from overcoming the sheer, brute force correlated to the Renaissance stereotype of medieval law — merely dresses it in that same manipulable language which is put on trial in the Henry VI trilogy. Section 3 argues that law in Hamlet is distinct not in the sense of existing separately from other forms of power, but because, again through its linguistic element, it becomes the paradigm for the oppressive tendencies of power generally as exercised within the modern state.

Keywords:   law, language, Henry VI Part Two, modern surveillance state, power, linguistics

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