Coscus, Queen Elizabeth, and Law in John Donne's "Satyre II"

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Even though it features a sustained attack on the poet-turned-lawyer Coscus, John Donne's "Satyre II" (ca. 1595) is rarely discussed in the specific context of late Elizabethan law. This omission is noticeable in the writings of both literary and legal scholars. Many literary scholars interpret the poem through the lens of modern liberalism and its focus on the law's ability to protect individual autonomy. It has been said that Donne's satires tell "us more about the satirist than the thing satirized" and that "Satyre II" in particular tells us that Donne's "aim (or fantasy)" was "to stand clear of the religious, political, and social pressures of his world." (1) For others, Donne's legal satire is so extensive that it borders on philosophical abstraction: it is "a writerly expose of a crisis in Law in the most comprehensive sense"; its villain Coscus is "a sort of Uncreating Word," a veritable embodiment of "the protean nature of words." (2) One final, related view holds that Donne satirized lawyerly ethics--or the lack thereof--but not anything peculiar to late Elizabethan law itself. So, for example, while Geoffrey Bullough concludes that "Satyre II" "shows [Donne's] inner knowledge of the legal profession," ultimately all that this knowledge reveals is that lawyers are "dishonest" and "pretentious." (3) But surely lawyers were not the only dishonest and pretentious professionals in Elizabethan England, nor was that the only era in which lawyers were dishonest and pretentious.

More understandably, Donne's "Satyre II" has also escaped the notice of legal historians, including those who have in recent decades worked to bridge the divide between law and literature and those who have argued that it was roughly during Donne's lifetime (1572-1631) that this divide took its institutional, disciplinary, and ideological form. Even Peter Goodrich, who has written several probing studies of the early modern common-law tradition and two wonderful recent essays on legal satire and its exclusion from the practice of law, fails to take notice of Donne's satire. (4) This omission is regrettable because Donne's satire confirms one of Goodrich's central historical theses about the emergence of the modern Anglo-American common-law tradition, a tradition that denigrates the codification of law on the Roman, or civil law, model and presumes instead the legal priority of both court-made precedent and immemorial custom. According to Goodrich's thesis, this tradition emerged in the late sixteenth century by consciously, even violently, forgetting or repressing its own genealogical origins in familial dynamics--and specifically in paternal authority--in order to promote a (false) conception of the law as rational, centralized, autonomous, and artificial. (5) In order to situate "Satyre II" within Goodrich's genealogical critique of the common law, I hope to show that the poem implicates Sir Edward Coke and Queen Elizabeth in this process of repressing the genealogy of, and genealogy in, English land law. More specifically, I will argue that Coke, who had not yet published any of his Reports or Institutes but who was already in the 1590s well on the way to becoming the oracle of English common law, lurks behind the figure of Coscus, and that Elizabeth is similarly evoked by the "Lady" whom he woos and the "thrifty wench" with whom he is compared. With these specific targets in mind, I also hope to show that "Satyre II" is firmly engaged in important legal controversies from the early 1590s, specifically those concerning the calculated alignment of Coke's antiquarian legal ideology and Elizabeth's parsimonious fiscal feudalism, and it is alert to the toll this alignment took on English landholding families. The Donne who emerges from my discussion is, even in this early poem, a much more astute, sophisticated, and skeptical observer of the law, as it was being practiced and institutionalized, than literary critics and legal historians have previously allowed. …