The Author Was A Professional Lawyer

Chapter XVIII


From the Book
Enter Francis Bacon


Bertram Theobald

The New York Review of Books
August 10, 2000


"Politicians used to prefer him to be the wily Bacon....Men of law point to his remarkable knowledge of the law."---John Bayley



Although I have pointed out, in passing, a few of the copious indications that "Shakespeare" must of necessity have been a trained lawyer, yet the question is so vitally important, that a short chapter must be devoted to this same topic.

Critics have sometimes urged that the encyclopaedic knowledge displayed in the dramas has caused the author to be claimed as an expert not only in law, but in medicine, horticulture, music, and many other subjects too. This is true ; but legal science stands on a different footing. Any man may study-- let us say music, and acquire so good a knowledge of it that he may be competent to write articles, or even books on the subject.. Certaintly he might write a drama and introduce dialogue on it in large quantities, and yet not betray the fact that he was but an amateur musician. So, too, with gardening, physics, natural history, and all manner of studies, even including medicine.

But with the law it is otherwise. As Lord Chief Justice Campbell once said :

"Let a non-professional man, however acute, presume to talk law, or to draw illustrations from legal science in discussing other subjects, and he will speedily fall into laughable absurdities."

Yet, with all the profuse display of legal allusion throughout the plays, "Shakespeare" is never caught tripping. I believe it has been suggested that occasionally he purposely allows a character who is obviously an ignoramus to talk legal nonsense ; but apart from this, his grasp of the most intricate legal technicalities has been held by one authority after another to be proof of his status as a practising lawyer.

We must remember that in the works of Shakespeare it is not a question of sprinkling a few legal phrases here and there, in order to give a superficial impression of knowledge. Lawyers tell us tht the writer of these plays almost seems to have thought in legal terminology. He did not drag it in ; it flowed forth spontaneously in season and out of season. He was more at home in legal metaphors than in any other kind. Grant White, who was himself a lawyer as well as a Shakespearean commentator, says : 

"No dramatist of his time, not even Beaumont, who was the younger son of a judge of the Common Pleas, and who abandoned law for drama, used legal phrases with Shakespeare's readiness and exactness...."

Speaking of Sonnet XLVI Lord Campbell remarks :

" I need not go further than this sonnet, which is so intensely legal in its language and imagery that without a considerable knowledge of English forensic procedure it cannot be fully understood."

And again, speaking of the jests in The Comedy of Errors, he remarks : 

"These jests cannot be supposed to arise from anything in the laws or customs of Syracuse, but they show the author to be very familiar with some of the most abtruse proceedings in English jurisprudence." --(From Shakespeare's Legal Acquirements, p. 38)

Franklin Fiske Heard, an American authority, says :

"The Comedy of Errors shows that Shakespeare was very familiar with some of the most refined principles of the science of special pleading, a science which contains the quintessence of the law....In the second part of Henry IV, Act V, Scene v., Pistol uses the term absque hoc, which is technical in the last degree. This was a species of traverse..... The subtlety of its texture, and the total dearth of explanation in all the reports and treatises extant in the time of Shakespeare with respect to its principles, seem to justify the conclusion that he must habe attained a knowledge of it from actual practice." --From (Shakespeare as a Lawyer p.43)

Judge Webb says emphatically : 

"If anything is certain in regards to the Sonnets, the Poems, and the Plays, it is certain that the author was a lawyer."

Notice that the learned judge goes so far to say "it is certain." A man accustomed to weigh evidence and consider every relevant fact before pronouncing judgment , does not speak with such assurance as this, unless he feels amply justified in so doing. As illustrations he gives the following :

"In the Merchant of Venice Antonio settles the property of the Jew in so lawyer-like a manner that Mr. Lewin, in his Treatise on Trusts, cites his language in illustration of a 'use'....In King John the law of the adulterine bastardy is laid down with the precision of a text book....In Hamlet the Prince of Denmark talks of statutes, recognisances, fines and recoveries, and double vouchers, as glibly as if he was fresh from reading Bacon's Law Tracts.

....In Love's Labours Lost the French Maid of Honour refuses to make her lips ' a common of pasture,' in As You Like It Rosalind talks of 'dying by attorney,' in The Merchant of Venice Portia proposes to be 'charged on interrogatories' ; and in The Merry Wives of Winsdor Mrs. Page, speaking of the fat knight, says, 'if the devil have him not in fee-simple, with fine and recovery, he will never, I think, in the way of waste, attempt us again.' The practice of the courts was as familiar to the dramatist as the theory of the law. In The Comedy of Errors we have a circumstantial account of an arrest on mesne process, in an action on the case, effected on a merchant, in the streets of Ephesus.....And if we care to see how the noblest poetry can be marred when the poet turns pedant we have only to read the dying speech of Romeo : ----

Eyes look your last!

Arms take your last embrace! And lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!

All Shakespeare's characters talk law ; and Lord Campbell testifies that 'to Shakespeare's law, lavishly as he propounds it, there can neither be demurrer, nor bill of exception, nor writ of error.' " --The Mystery of William Shakespeare, by His Honour Judge Webb. London : Longmans, 1902, pp. 168-9

What more need be said on this subject? The Legal profession, so far as it has given utterance to its views is practically unanimous in declaring that the author of the plays was a trained lawyer, and though experts may sometimes be at fault, in this case their verdict has never been seriously challenged, still less upset. Here we have yet another instance where the orthodox theory breaks down completely, since the notion that Shakespeare was ever an attorney's clerk "has been blown to pieces." Once more the evidence points to Francis Bacon, and no other man. The idea that the true author was assisted by a legal collaborator will not bear examination. The technical knowledge is too subtle and too closely bound to the very warp and woof of the text to admit of such an explanation.



 More quotes : Malone in 1790 wrote :---"The author's knowledge of legal terms is not merely such as might be acquired by the casual observation of his all--comprehending mind, it has the appearance of technical skill ; and he is so fond of displaying it on all occasions that I suspect he was early initiated in at least the form of Law."

Sir James Wilde, K.C. afterwards Lord Penzance, speaks of "Shakespeare's" perfect familiarity with not only the principles, axioms and maxims, but the technicalities of English Law, a knowledge so perfect and intimate that he was never incorrect and never at fault."

Lord Chief Justice Campbell wrote : " He had a deep technical knowledge of the Law and an easy familiarity with some of the most abtruse proceedings in English Jurisprudence. One of the Sonnets (No. 46) is so intensely technical in its phraseology that without a considerable knowledge of English forensic procedure it cannot be fully understood."





 - Sir Francis Bacon's New Advancement of Learning