Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Local Communities and Central Power in Shakespeare's Transnational Law

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Local Communities and Central Power in Shakespeare's Transnational Law

Article excerpt

This essay uses William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, based on a novella by Gimbattista Giraldi Cinzio, to examine what it means for Shakespeare to stage narratives engaged in Italian Roman law within England's common law system. The essay analyzes Measure for Measure as an exemplar of the cross-cultural legal exchanges in the numerous Italian stories depicted on the English stage. Within this comparative framework, Shakespeare builds from Italian social experience in Cinzio's novella and Niccolo Machiavelli's political discourse to critique the shift from local to state legal authority occurring throughout sixteenth-century England. Specifically, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure challenges commanding perceptions of communal justice fundamental to English legal ideology and reveals law's theatrical power. Using Shakespeare's play as a case study, this essay further illustrates how transnational literature both contributes to popular early modern conceptions of law and uncovers power dynamics behind the development of legal systems.


IN the initial act of William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio invests his "absolute power" (1) in his deputy Lord Angelo, stating he will employ Angelo's strict character to contain the community's vices. (2) The Duke's strategy dramatizes the ways a Renaissance prince might use his judicial officers for his own gain and in fact stems from Italian legal and social circumstances famously illustrated in chapter seven of Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince. (3) Here, Machiavelli praises the strategy of Cesare Borgia in Cesena, who appointed Remirro de Oreo, a strict man famed for his brutality, to restore order in the community. Once de Oreo's role as an enforcer of strict laws was complete and the people were more or less subdued under the control of legal authorities, Cesare had de Oreo spectacularly executed and placed "in duo pezzi in su la piazza" or "in two pieces in the central square." (4) For Machiavelli, de Oreo's death was a perfect demonstration of princely power, which deflected any hatred in the community and also assured people that the cruel deeds done under de Oreo's authority were attributed only to him, not to the prince. (5) Angelo's authority in Shakespeare's play, like Remirro de Oreo's position in Cesena, is tenuous since his ultimate control of the legal system is subject to the prince's lethal power.

The Duke's decision to employ Angelo as a strict enforcer in Measure for Measure picks up on a broader pattern of legal strategy in Renaissance Italy, where it was commonplace to bring in an outside force to implement law in a community. The judicial structure in most of central and northern Italy, excluding Venice, employed foreign outsiders to occupy legal positions on a contractual basis. By the time of de Oreo's death in 1502, this general separation between legal authorities and communities was a part of the logic behind much of north-central Italian legal systems, where most Italianate material circulating in England originates. While scholars of early modern theater have examined the presence of Machiavelli on stage to think through the role of princely authority, (6) especially in terms of a character's Machiavellian plotting, the more subtle use of Machiavellian strategy here reveals the extent to which foreign judicial authority is vulnerable to princely power.


Using Measure for Measure as a case study, this essay explains what it means for English authors to stage narratives engaged in Italian social and legal practices that are radically different from England's common law system. Even though Shakespeare sets Measure for Measure in Vienna, the play adapts well-known Italian sources, including a novella from Giambattista Giraldi Cinzio's gli Ecatommiti (1565) and his later adapted play, Epitia. (7) Anglo-Italian scholars have noted the detailed Italian literary and social conventions present in Shakespeare's play. …

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