The most significant of cultural developments in sixteenth-century England included a massive growth in the bureaucratic machinery of the English common law (including a rising contest over what the law was and how it should be made) and a dramatic increase in the writing and publication of imaginative literature. This graduate seminar asks participants to consider the various relationships of these two developments, which have left two important legacies — a body of canonical literature that continues to be read and significant foundations of law and jurisprudence in North America. The central questions of the seminar: what was law understood to be and do in early modern England, and to what extent might literary writing have shaped it? Such questions invariably involve others, most urgently what is justice, and how do law and literature contribute to both?
We will read an eclectic set of texts ranging across a century from the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516 through to the first published play in England by a woman, Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam (1613), for literature’s contributions to the imagining of law and legality in the period. On the literary front, our texts will include the canonical (such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet) as well as the little-known (such as the poet Isabella Whitney’s 1573 “Wyll to London”). We will also read key excerpts from the texts of the period’s most important legal writers, Christopher St. German, Edmund Plowden, and Edward Coke to establish our sense of how the English thought about law and its function in the early modern period. Students will be encouraged to consider how our accounts of the relationship of literature and the law in early modern England may help us understand vital aspects of our multi-faceted literary and legal inheritances in twenty-first century Canada.