Legal Publics in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Jessica D. Ward


Widely known for its famous soliloquies, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is often argued to stress the importance of the individual experience. Although these arguments are persuasive, they leave out the essential evidence within the play for collaboration and public spaces. This essay considers how Hamlet illuminates Shakespeare’s account of selfhood, which I will suggest is collaborative rather than individual.  It does so by proposing that Hamlet models a legal public. This legal public consists of juries that are made up not only by characters within the play but also by audience members and are formed in order to provide answers to the wealth of epistemological questions posed by the play. To make this argument, I will first reflect on the relationship between the law and the theater in early modern England and how these fields were growing in analogous ways. The resources I will draw upon to illustrate the legal-theatrical relationship will be scholarly accounts that provide a wealth of knowledge in regards to the rising popularity of forensic evidence, trial by jury, and the commercial theater. I will then explore the concept of Habermas’s public sphere to articulate how the juries created in Hamlet make up a legal public and how that term should be defined. My final move will be to relate all of this information back to the play itself. Through a close reading from this perspective, I will relay how the characters attempt to answer the major questions of the play through collaborative forms of knowledge. To sum up, I will bring the Theory of the Public Sphere to bear on Hamlet’s legal themes in order to make an argument that the play models a legal public as part of its larger concern with collaboration and sociality.


Shakespeare; Law

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