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The Invention of Suspicion: Law and Mimesis in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama.

Lorna Hutson. The Invention of Suspicion: Law and Mimesis in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. x + 382 pp. index. illus. bibl. n.p. ISBN: 978-0-19-921243-9.

Lorna Hutson ascribes the growing sophistication of late sixteenth-century drama in England to the growth of "evidential awareness" (45) in an increasingly wider segment of the English population. Any familiarity with medieval legal records will show that criminal investigations were detailed and thorough, but the gathering and analysis of facts at the time was the province of a few. Hutson's point is that in the period under study, jurors were more and more being called upon by the criminal justice system to weigh facts and to draw inferences from them; and in fact they were better trained to decode rhetorical devices used by litigants and accused persons alike to create a sense of verisimilitude. As a result, theater audiences were more prepared and eager to follow the deceptive practices of stage villains in tragedy and comic figures in plays of intrigue.

In making her case, Hutson displays an impressively detailed grasp of classical, medieval, and Renaissance literature and law, tracing reciprocal developments in rhetoric, theater, and legal history up through the late sixteenth century. An especially interesting line of inquiry that demonstrates these relationships proceeds from Roman intrigue comedy through George Gascoigne' Supposes and Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. Usefully and informatively, Hutson frames her project, which is essentially an exercise in epistemology, within current critical theory and practice, contextualizing both her methodologies and her conclusions.

Early on, Hutson traces the history of criminal law as practiced in Ecclesiastical and Common Law courts from the thirteenth century on. The ordeal gave way to confession (in the former) and to jury trial (in the latter) as ways of ascertaining guilt; local knowledge of circumstances gave way to written evidence; and the extension of royal power, in the form of the growing authority of Justices of the Peace in the sixteenth century, co-opted local systems and offered an organizational mechanism for bringing evidence to juries. (In one fascinating section, Hutson sets into dialogue pamphlets by Thomas More and Christopher St. German, in which ecclesiastical and Common Law methods of evaluating evidence and of assessing intent are brilliantly debated.)

Hutson traces changes in the ways degrees of guilt and the punishments appropriate to them were assessed. Catholicism worked out a "complex penal system of the afterlife" (25) within which it was possible for sin (culpa) to be effaced by contrition, while punishment (poena), directed by a priest, could be imposed on earth and in Purgatory, where the demand for justice was mitigated. Common Law increasingly challenged the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts, especially after the Reformation, during which a penitential theology of shrift, good deeds, and mercy gave way to a Protestant theology of self-examination and repentance. In this competition, the evidential procedures of the Common Law courts acquired a kind of spiritual authority (44) to compete with that of the church, with authority shifting from penance to the detective work of Justices of the Peace, constables, and juries.

Hutson argues that these developments caused dramatists of the 1590s to interest themselves in how--and how reliably--characters in their plays gathered and interpreted information and made judgments about each other. The playwrights used the struggles of their characters to create the effect of dramatic naturalism and the illusion of psychological depth and "character." One form this might take is the spectacle of a character in doubt, struggling to evaluate dubious evidence and to gain knowledge that is already possessed by the audience. Examples offered include The Spanish Tragedy, 1 and 2 Henry VI, Titus Andronicus, and Hamlet, among others, and in many cases produce fresh readings of these works. Hutson also cultivates circumstances in which the audience is also left to judge the truth of an event, as in Hotspur's narrative of the dainty courtier visiting the battlefield, offered as a quasi-legal defense against the charge of disobedience. Hutson relates the role of judicial oratory--advancing a particular interpretation of disputed facts by giving a rhetorically vivid, economical, and convincing account of them to a jury--to the self-descriptions of characters in plays, which are designed to advance their dramatic agendas and to convince others, sometimes including the audience, of the veracity of their accounts of events. She differentiates Jonson's comic celebration of such oratory--in the form of narrations by successfully opportunistic characters in Every Man in His Humor, for example--from Shakespeare's "demonization of such forensic techniques" (309) in his mature tragedies, in which it is the likes of lago, Polonius, and Edmund who most often use them.

Hutson is on very strong ground when arguing the connection between legal and theatrical culture, as they clearly overlapped in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, though, as she concedes, this is but one development among many that led to greater epistemological sophistication, skepticism, and empiricism in the period. But this deeply researched and engaging book stands as an important contribution to the study of the many fascinating relationships between law and literature in the Renaissance.


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Author:Keyishian, Harry
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2008
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