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Shakespeare's Acts of Will

Gary Watt

DOI: 10.5040/9781474217880

ISBN: 9781474217859

Shakespeare was born into a new age of will, in which individual intent had the potential to overcome dynastic expectation. The 1540 Statute of Wills had liberated testamentary disposition of land and thus marked a turning point from hierarchical feudal tradition to horizontal free trade. Focusing on Shakespeare's late Elizabethan plays, Gary Watt demonstrates Shakespeare's appreciation of testamentary tensions and his ability to exploit the inherent drama of performing will.

Drawing on years of experience delivering rhetoric workshops for the Royal Shakespeare Company and as a prize-winning teacher of law, Gary Watt shows that Shakespeare is playful with legal technicality rather than obedient to it. The author demonstrates how Shakespeare transformed lawyers' manual book rhetoric into powerful drama through a stirring combination of word, metre, movement and physical stage material, producing a mode of performance that was truly testamentary in its power to engage the witnessing public.

Published on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's last will and testament, this is a major contribution to the growing interdisciplinary field of law and humanities.

'Through a strong analysis of six plays-Richard II, King John, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet-Watt extends the definition of legal terms (“will,” “testament,” “executor,” “probate,” “witness”) to highlight the rhetorical and performative crossover between law and theater, or the ways in which words “express” and “move” will … Watt, a professor of law at the University of Warwick, presents a careful and caring study of will in Shakespeare's plays. Watt's thorough rendering of rhetoric and performance is provocative and fully worth study.' Renaissance Quarterly

'A fiercely intelligent but nimbly written book that maintains a spirit of intellectual generosity throughout.' Studies in English Literature 1500-1900

'Shakespeare's plays take shape in a space between the medieval and modern worlds, a space in which a divinely sanctioned hierarchy was fast losing ground to an order defined by individual will and contract. Watt (Univ. of Warwick, UK) focuses specifically on the legal aspects of this transformation, providing scholarly studies of Richard II, King John, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. Comparing the theater to a courtroom in which the audience is called on to render a verdict, Watt explores the various ways in which “performance is a kind of will or testament” (a quote from Timon of Athens that serves as the title of chapter 1). Watt explores both the specific use of legal language-especially in plays such as As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice-and the broader way in which will (or the failure of will) drives the plot and characters in plays such as Richard II and Hamlet. Throughout, Watt usefully engages current literary scholarship. Although Watt's prose is accessible, the rather narrow perspective of the book limits its audience to scholars. Summing Up: Recommended.' CHOICE

'Probing the analogy between the conditions of performance and the structure of testamentary action, Gary Watt's book offers an original, minutely researched, and provocative thesis. Tracing 'testament' to its Latin etymology - suggesting the presence of a witness to the mind - Watt offers a new way of understanding the exchange between performers and audience that defines the theatrical event. What is more, he suggests that exchange leads to change - transformations of abiding social significance.' Early Theatre