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Legal Reform in English Renaissance Literature

Virginia Lee Strain

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The first study of legal reform and literature in early modern England

This book investigates rhetorical and representational practices that were used to monitor English law at the turn of the seventeenth century. The late-Elizabethan and early-Jacobean surge in the policies and enforcement of the reformation of manners has been well-documented. What has gone unnoticed, however, is the degree to which the law itself was the focus of reform for legislators, the judiciary, preachers, and writers alike. While the majority of law and literature studies characterize the law as a force of coercion and subjugation, this book instead treats in greater depth the law’s own vulnerability, both to corruption and to correction. In readings of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the Gesta Grayorum, Donne’s ‘Satyre V’, and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and The Winter’s Tale, Strain argues that the terms and techniques of legal reform provided modes of analysis through which legal authorities and literary writers alike imagined and evaluated form and character.

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Contents

Introduction
1. ‘Perpetuall Reformation’ in Book V of The Faerie Queene
Part I: Perfection
2. Snaring Statutes and the General Pardon in the Gesta Grayorum
3. Legal Excess in John Donne’s ‘Satyre V’
Part II: Execution
4. The Assize Circuitry of Measure for Measure
5. The Winter’s Tale and the Oracle of the Law
Bibliography.

About the Author

Virginia Lee Strain is Assistant Professor of English at Loyola University Chicago. She has held fellowships at The Huntington Library, Vanderbilt University, and Washington University in St. Louis. Her articles have appeared in ELH and Literature Compass, and in several essay volumes, including The Oxford Handbook of English Law and Literature, 1500-1700 (OUP, 2017), Shakespeare and Judgment (EUP, 2016), and Taking Exception to the Law (UTP, 2015). Her dissertation won the J. Leeds Barroll Dissertation Prize from the Shakespeare Association of America (2011).

Reviews

In this richly conceived and tightly argued study of legal reform as one index of law’s openness and ongoing potential, Virginia Lee Strain details how Elizabethan poets and dramatists exploited the formal resources of genre, plot, and language to reimagine and even re-authorize the attempts at law, both professional and political, to bring greater efficiency and consistency to the administration of justice. A terrific achievement.

- Bradin Cormack, Princeton University

In this richly conceived and tightly argued study of legal reform as one index of law’s openness and ongoing potential, Virginia Strain details how Elizabethan poets and dramatists exploited the formal resources of genre, plot, and language to reimagine and even re-authorize the attempts at law, both professional and political, to bring greater efficiency and consistency to the administration of justice. A terrific achievement.

- Bradin Cormack, Princeton University

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