Paul Raffield, Shakespeare’s Strangers and English Law, A Book Review by Andy Lowry @hartpublishing @PaulDR1957

Paul Raffield, Shakespeare’s Strangers and English Law (Hart Pub. 2023)

A Review by Andy Lowry

The third of Paul Raffield’s[1] monographs on Shakespeare and English law “attempt[s] to provide a wide-ranging examination and analysis of strangers and their legal status in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean England,” taking “stranger” in a broad sense not only of non-English visitors or immigrants, but also of English persons such as Catholics or actors who were, in some sense, “strangers” to the law. The book’s five chapters are each focused on a play,[2] but Raffield also presents texts from law, religion, politics, philosophy, and more. The book is “wide-ranging” indeed.

The strengths and limitations of Raffield’s approach may be illustrated by considering his first chapter, which looks at “Actors, Fornicators, and Other Transgressors of Law” in the context of Measure for Measure. He begins with a 1597 Elizabethan statute[3] punishing “Rogues Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars,” whose scope in fact extended to (among others) fortunetellers, importunate scholars, and actors not sponsored by some noble. Considering why actors might be banned, Raffield looks to contemporary polemics against the acting of plays, which Puritanical critics thought encouraged sin by depicting misconduct. He then notes the closing of playhouses during times of plague, which he compares to the prevalence of venereal disease in the “Vienna” setting of Measure for Measure. A closer examination of the play follows, focusing on the “frauds” and “counterfeits” exposed in the play, with esoteric  comparison to contemporary issues of false coinage, which some treated as metaphorically akin to homosexual practice (or “sodomy,” a broader term).

This bare summary does poor justice to a text that does not wear its learning lightly. We are treated to recipes for plague remedies, the London-area brothels operated profitably by the Bishop of Winchester, the injunction against lawyers’ gowns being “any …, but such as were of a sad colour,” the symbolism of light and darkness in Renaissance painting, etc. Raffield’s manner of presentation is itself reminiscent of the style familiar from the same period: an “anatomy” that piles up examples, as in Montaigne or Burton, without troubling overmuch about tying them together. What much of this has to do with the theme of “strangers” is often left as an exercise for the reader. (Such digressions as his segue from the Imagery 101 topic of “light” and “dark” in Measure for Measure into the soteriology of the Gospel According to John are, if not forced, at least contrived.)

Raffield’s rummaging in the fascinating warehouse of Tudor antiquities has true delights, but it does not invariably support any sort of thesis. Perhaps the law-oriented reader will feel frustrated that much has been suggested but nothing demonstrated. The reader approaching Raffield’s book from a literary or historical perspective may be more receptive towards inspecting what curious treasures his rummaging has yielded and enjoying them for their own sake. It’s a commonplace that Shakespeare’s plays somehow present, not a thesis or an ideology, but life itself. One insight I gained from Raffield’s book is that the Tudor age, when England joined the Renaissance, is the first epoch (in English, anyway) to have a similar effect on the reader: the multifariousness of life peeps out at us here and there in the melodramatic history of the Plantagenets, but the bold, boisterous, anxious inhabitants of Tudor England come alive for us because, for the first time, they have written enough about themselves that we readily see ourselves in them.

In later chapters, Raffield cleverly analogizes the present-day travails of Mediterranean emigrants to the background of the separated twins in The Comedy of Errors, which he tries to connect to the economic anxieties of London apprentices, the teachings of Aristotle on friendship, the preoccupations of James I with witchcraft, and the emergence of Christianity from paganism. He discusses Troilus and Cressida in the context of the Tudor conceit of London as a new Troy and of the theatrical pastimes of the Inns of Court. As one might expect, The Merchant of Venice provides more direct grist for Raffield’s mill on the topic of the “stranger,” followed by a more ambitious treatment of King Lear as depicting how the failure of good government renders everyone a stranger. In each chapter, the same bric-a-brac approach combines material of direct relevance to the book’s theme with oddities and footnotes whose intrinsic curiosity does not self-evidently advance the book’s ostensible subject.

Nothing is more repugnant than criticizing an author for writing his own book rather than the one imagined by the reviewer. But given how Raffield opens with a discussion of the Tudor legislation against “sturdy beggars,” I was somewhat surprised that his thoroughness did not extend to a major background of those statutes: the beginning of the landlords’ “enclosures,” whereby tenant farmers were evicted from the plots their forefathers had plowed in order to make way for the increasingly lucrative pasturing of sheep, whose wool was clamored for by continental merchants. Families with no experience of any life besides agriculture were uprooted and forced to seek sustenance as best they could, often in cities, particularly London, whose population tripled in the sixteenth century.[4] The Tudor vagabondage statutes (vagrancy being, indeed, a ruthless sort of “bondage”) aimed at forcing these desperate refugees into returning to their home parishes to find work, the very lack of which had driven them out. If ever people were “strangers” in their own land, surely these were. And Raffield includes King Lear in his scope, but draws no connection between the fugitive Edgar’s impersonation of “Poor Tom,” who has literally had his most intimate property, himself, taken over by devils, and the enclosure movement that exiled thousands of beggars to the roads, some doubtless driven mad like “Poor Tom” himself.

Shakespeare’s Strangers can be recommended to those who appreciate Tudor and Elizabethan history or the Shakespearean world, who will find much of interest and many sources to pursue further.



Shakespeare's Strangers and English Law cover



Andy Lowry, a practicing lawyer, graduated from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 2002 after taking degrees in philosophy and in literature from Millsaps College and Mississippi State University.


[N.B.: Mr. Lowry received a free copy of Paul Raffield, Shakespeare’s Strangers and English Law in exchange for his honest review. –Ed.]

[1] Professor, School of Law, University of Warwick.

[2] Measure for Measure, The Comedy of Errors, Troilus and Cressida, The Merchant of Venice, and King Lear.

[3] The author does not mention that the 1597 statute largely reenacted 14 Eliz. I., c.5 (1572), which has materially the same language regarding “Comon Players in Enterludes & Minstrels, not belonging to any Baron of this Realme.” This omission to the statutory background is unfortunate, as I suggest below.

[4] Susan Brigden, New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485–1603, at 295 (Penguin 2000).