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Shakespeare on Bankruptcy Reform

posted by Buce

Sir, I am a true labourer: I earn that I eat, get
that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man's
happiness, glad of other men's good, content
with my harm, and the greatest of my pride
is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck.

Every law professor believes that every other subject is a subset of his own. I agree: there is a bankruptcy angle to everything.

Example:  I’ve been spending some happy hours with James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (link), in particular Shapiro's instructive discussion of Shakespeare's As You Like It. Readers (and viewers) will remember this play as the one in which the boys and girls all go to the woods and discover the equivocal ironies of the pastoral life. But as Wood makes clear, there is a not-so-gentle back-story rooted in Shakespeare’s own past, and in the world around him.

Shakespeare calls his locale “The Forest of Arden.” It’s fictional, but in fact, Shakespeare himself grew up in “The Forest of Arden,”—more precisely, Shakespeare's mother was an “Arden,” and he spent a good deal of his own spare time trying to traffick in his distinguished family connections. Shapiro expands on the point:

Writing about [Arden] in As You Like It must have stirred conflicting feelings in Shakespeare, for the play, in its disorienting shifts between woodland and pastoral landscapes, juxtaposes the romanticized Arden that stirred his imagination as a child with the realistic Arden that Shakespeare, sharp observer of land and people, witnessed as an adult. This helps explain the radically different Arden settings in the play. Four scenes in the play are set in the woods … the forest of ancient oak, streams, caves, and herds of deer, of men dressed as outlaws and “the old Robin Hood of England” (I.1.112). Twelve other scenes set in the Forest of Arden offer an alternative landscape, a world of enclosure, of sheep and shepherds, landlords and farmers, landed peasants and the less fortunate wage-earners, where “green cornfield” and “acres of the rye” are now established (5.3.17, 21)

Consider Corin the shepherd, above. As Shapiro says, Shakespeare “could have represented [him as] a successful tenant farmer who made a living tending to his landlord’s sheep and tilling the land adjoining his rented cottage. What we get instead is the grim fate, unexpected in a comedy, of a character so impoverished that he can’t even feed or lodge his guests.

But I am shepherd to another man
And do not shear the fleeces that I graze:
My master is of churlish disposition
And little recks to find the way to heaven
By doing deeds of hospitality...

But the master, aside from being “churlish,” has his own problems:

Besides, his cote, his flocks and bounds of feed
Are now on sale, and at our sheepcote now,
By reason of his absence, there is nothing
That you will feed on...

Indeed, the offer of another character “to buy the farm and mend Corin’s wages is the all that stands between him and the highway.”

Granted, this is not, strictly speaking, a bankruptcy story—bankruptcy, for all practical purposes, not yet having been invented. Still, Shapiro continues:

Shakespeare knew that there were more Corins around than ever before, left, as the historian Victor Skipp puts it, “with no alternative but to take to the road and ultimately to die on it.”

No flippancy here: another character faced with “vagrancy and hunger,” asks:

What, wouldst thou have me go and beg my food?
Or with a base and boist’rous sword enforce
A thievish living on the common road?

Fortunately, this is a comedy, so the fates are not so severe.


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