With more of his lines devoted to lawyers than any other profession, it’s probably fair to say that Shakespeare had a fascination with lawyers. And there is no doubt that lawyers have a fondness for citing Shakespeare. Many of the quotations published on this site have been cited by lawyers and judges previously (I have marked the courts and/or cases where the information was available to me).

In 2016, The Economist published Literature and the Law. Why lawyers love Shakespeare.1 It begins with a reference to the Oscar Pistorius trial, where the presiding judge described the case as “a human tragedy of Shakespearean proportions”. Other cases include that before the British High Court in 2012, where King Lear was evoked in a ruling that social media users “are free to speak not what they ought to say, but what they feel”. Hamlet was cited in a boundary dispute (“a little patch of ground that has no profit in it but the name”); Henry VIII was quoted during the Watergate hearings. A line from Julius Caesar (“the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”) was used to condemn one of the orchestrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

And the list goes on. So many have turned to Shakespeare.

In The Bard and the Bench: An Opinion and Brief Writer’s Guide to Shakespeare2, Robert W Peterson pointed out that all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays had been quoted by US courts in over 800 judicial opinions at that time (1999). The most frequently cited play was Hamlet, the most frequently cited passage “What’s in a name?” from Romeo and Juliet. In Peterson’s view, when the reference is apt, legal writing gains stature from the association: “The beauty, flair and uniqueness of language accounts for much of Shakespeare’s popularity in briefs and opinions. (…) Shakespeare just says it better.”

Scott Dodson and Ami Dodson at UC Hastings College of the Law published A Top 10 Ranking of the US Supreme Court Literary Justice in 2015.3 In the ‘fun’ results of their survey of opinions from justices living at that time (limited to “high” literature), William Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll tied in first place, each with 16 references. But with so many references unattributed, who knows what the results would have been had they included allusions that have become embedded into our everyday language (see “You are Quoting Shakespeare“).

To put this into perspective, only 24 of the 282 references to Much Ado about Nothing in The Bard and the Bench mentioned Shakespeare as the source. Only in 35 of the 289 cases where “pound of flesh” was used did the judges attribute it to Shakespeare. This one is a great example: “Whether (b)(2) or not (b)(2) is indeed the question.”4.

Shakespeare has also made his way into European court decisions. One study5 determines when, how and for what reasons literature – and more specifically Shakespeare – is used by judges in the European courts. The study focused on decisions written in English (although not all from native English speakers). From my own mini-straw poll it seems that Dutch lawyers understand and prefer to cite Shakespeare in English.

Shakespeare was first cited by the US Supreme Court in 1893.6 And we know that after 400 years, his words are as popular as ever with lawyers. Perhaps it is because his status as an “embodiment of high culture”, as Peterson describes it, invests a judgment or argument with credibility. Or the idea that the gravitas of Shakespeare’s name may tilt the scales.

Maybe it is because of his universality. Or simply because there are so many phrases in Shakespeare that are worth quoting – even the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations devotes more than twice as many pages to Shakespeare than to the Bible!

Or maybe, as Peterson says, Shakespeare just says it better.

  1. Why lawyers love Shakespeare, The Economist, 8 January 2016
  2. Robert W. Peterson, The Bard and the Bench: An Opinion and Brief Writer’s Guide to Shakespeare, 39 Santa Clara L. Rev. 789 (1999)
  3. Dodson, Scott and Dodson, Ami, Literary Justice (August 26, 2015). 18 Green Bag 2d 429 (2015)
  4. Wetzel v. Liberty Mutual Ins. Co., 508 F.2d 239, 248 (3d Cir. 1975) cert. denied, 421 U.S. 1011 (1976)
  5. Géraldine Gadbin-George, To quote or not to quote: “Literature in law” in European court decisions and legal English teaching, ASp, 64 | 2013, 75-93
  6. Magone v Heller, 150 US 70 (1893) Determining the definition of ‘expressly’, quoted “…I am sent expressly to your lordship.” (Timon, Act 2, Scene 2, Timon of Athens)