Written by Claire Hansen in Criticism and Research | 30.01.2017
Gary Watt, Shakespeare’s Acts of Will: Law, Testament and Properties of Performance, London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2016.
As we see in plays like The Merchant of Venice – and more generally in today’s incessant popularisation of legal TV drama – the performance of law is inevitably theatrical. Gary Watt’s Shakespeare’s Acts of Will: Law, Testament and Properties of Performance (London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2016) seeks to home in on the relationship between Shakespearean drama and the performance of will. Watt is ‘concerned with the cultural practices – and specifically the creative practices – that connect theatre to law and connect both theatre and law to the wider world of the witnessing public’ (p. 2). He particularly highlights the ‘imaginative dimension’ of law, defining it as a ‘creative practice’ (p. 2).
The opening chapter, ‘Performance is a kind of will or testament’, uses the quote from Timon of Athens to establish the central concerns of the book. Watt usefully steers clear of seeking to establish ‘that Shakespeare had knowledge of particular laws or that legal matters directly influenced his work’ (8). I think Watt is right to address more complex concerns, and his interest lies in Shakespeare’s recognition of ‘the dramatic power inherent in testamentary wills’ (p. 11). He quickly establishes early modern audiences as ‘witnesses’ (14), and also highlights a central theme running throughout the book: a ‘transition from the medieval world of feudal tradition to the modern world of free trade’ (p. 21, my emphasis). This tension between tradition and trade will recur throughout the work.
The second chapter focuses on Richard II, King John and ‘testament as trade’ and builds on his central argument regarding the relationship between tradition and trade. Watt connects the ‘vertical, hierarchical’ to tradition and ‘the lateral, horizontal’ to trade in both plays (p. 25). He also reiterates the role of the audience as witnesses who are ‘not passive’ but are encouraged to subject the performance ‘to a process of trial or testing’, or in legal testamentary terms, to ‘probate’ (p. 26). The chapter moves through a vast range of topics: the passing of the crown in Richard II (p. 27 onwards); Shakespeare’s own last will and testament (p. 33); religious ritual (pp. 34-5) and modern performative interpretations (p. 35); and close analysis of the word ‘farm’ (p. 40) – just to give a few examples. The chapter builds towards an argument for a movement ‘from tradition to trade’ (p.56).
The third chapter focuses on testamentary will and the comedies As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice; a link he acknowledges is not an obvious one (p. 81). A somewhat tenuous link is drawn between the two plays through the ‘melancholy’ Jacques and Antonio (pp.76-7) and the ‘distinction in each play between two worlds’ (p. 78), which Watt understand as ‘worlds of will’. He again traces a movement from hierarchical to horizontal status, from tradition to trade (p. 84), and from hierarchical tradition to ‘the emerging modern agency of “free will”’ (p. 91). Watt argues that:
‘Harmony for the early modern mind was not to be found in the absolute triumph of either tradition or trade, but in a balance, even a playful tension, between horizontal and hierarchical, at the place where new will meets the old world.’ (p. 101)
The fourth chapter focuses on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, rhetoric, stasis and movement within the play. Watt here focuses on the actor’s potential embodiment of Antony’s performance (from p. 113), an exercise which can be difficult to accomplish in this medium. His attention to the physical aspects of rhetorical style, however, is illuminating (pp. 114-15), as is his complication of physical hierarchies of the stage (p. 125). Watt’s discussion of the Invention-Arrangement-Memory-Delivery-Style (I-A-M-D-S) model is also useful (p. 129). The chapter illustrates Watt’s extended analyses of language and movement, such as his technique of ‘fractional inference’ (p.140) – although these analyses do not always deliver enough for the careful consideration given them by the author.
Chapter Five focuses on Hamlet and his tendency to be ‘subspective’ or downwards-looking (p. 150), a concept he eventually connects to the sound of ‘or’ (p. 191 onwards). This chapter deliberately does not connect with the book’s key concerns of testamentary will until p. 181, which lends a sense of digression to its trajectory. A focus on ‘subspective’ language leads Watt to ‘mining imagery’ (p. 170), and also to a discussion of Shakespeare’s sources (p. 171-2). His point on Polonius as Machiavellian (p. 177) is intriguing and offers an unusual perspective through which to view the character. Upon introducing law into the discussion, Watt offers an important broad definition of law:
'A bigger idea of law – the sort that expresses substantial matters of justice and order in practical forms and in creative performances that are open to communal participation – is an idea that must be relevant to every great work of art.' (p. 181)
The chapter also briefly overviews examples of legal references in Hamlet (p. 182) and reconnects the central themes of performance and law (p. 183). Watt also raises the interesting concept of ‘absent will’ at work in the play (p. 184). The chapter argues that:
'the key testamentary quality of Hamlet is not to be found in any technical reference to the law of wills, but in the broader idea that the performance of will is "testamentary" when it is constituted or perfected by the participation of third-party witnesses.' (p. 186)
This is based on the underlying argument that the notion of ‘testamentary’ applies to the constitution of a theatrical play as well as to the constitution of a legal last will.
The closing chapter returns to a focus on the handling of materials; from letters and early modern writing to the symbolism of rings in the comedies. Watt also considers the role of onstage witnesses, such as Hamlet’s witnessing the sealing of an order from the King of Denmark, and the Gentlewoman’s witnessing of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking behaviour (pp. 205-6). Watt argue that the sequence of folding-writing-sealing plots ‘in microcosm the tragic trajectory of the entire play’ (p. 206). As is the style of this book, the chapter moves through diverse examples and topics; from early modern letter writing to the connection between ‘seal’ and ‘zeal’ (p. 210) to the primal symbolism of white and red (p. 213 onwards), and from thence back to materials onstage, and to Shakespeare’s own biographical details (from p. 220).
Watt usefully steers clear of seeking to establish ‘that Shakespeare had knowledge of particular laws or that legal matters directly influenced his work’ (8). I think Watt is right to address more complex concerns, and his interest lies in Shakespeare’s recognition of ‘the dramatic power inherent in testamentary wills’ (p. 11). He quickly establishes early modern audiences as ‘witnesses’ (14), and also highlights a central theme running throughout the book: a ‘transition from the medieval world of feudal tradition to the modern world of free trade’ (p. 21, my emphasis).
Shakespeare’s Acts of Will is quite an ambitious monograph as it seeks to encompass not only a focus on the performativity of law, but its manifestation in twenty-first century performance, as well as what the author refers to as the ‘materiality’ of performance – by which he means various props, from gloves to rings to letters – in addition to thematic concerns including the tension between tradition and trade, and passing reflections on Shakespeare himself. Because of this, at times the chapters can seem to digress between these several points, and require the reader’s close attention. The interspersing of the analysis with analysis of modern performances at times felt slightly jarring, however the author’s legal expertise provides for some fascinating insights into early modern law and theatre.