Solon and Thespis

Law and Theater in the English Renaissance

Edited by Dennis Kezar

In the archetypal confrontation between the Athenian lawmaker Solon and the Greek poet Thespis, Solon confronts Thespis after seeing him act in a tragedy. He asks Thespis if he is not ashamed to tell so many lies before so many people. In response to Thespis’s reply—that it was no harm to say or do so in a play—Solon vehemently blames Thespis for a professional deceit that threatens to pervade society.

Solon’s criticism of Thespis points to a fundamental motivation for Solon and Thespis: an exploration of the long-standing antagonism between law and theater, between drama’s inconsequential fiction and the real world’s socially consequential fact, at a crucial moment—the sixteenth century—in England’s cultural and legal formation.

The literary critics and historians in this volume examine that antagonism and find it revelatory of English Renaissance law and Renaissance theater’s institutional connections and interdependences at a time when both were emerging as powerful forces in English society. Renaissance legal processes were subject to dramatic and public representation, appropriation, and evaluation. Renaissance commercial theater, often populated by law students and practitioners, was both subject to the law and subversive of it. The contributors demonstrate that theater and law were not simply relevant to each other in the early modern period; they explore the physical spaces in which early modern law and drama were performed, the social and imaginative practices that energized such spaces, and the rhetorical patterns that make the two institutions far less discrete and far more collaborative than has previously been recognized.

DENNIS KEZAR is associate professor of English at Vanderbilt University.

CONTRIBUTORS: Matthew Greenfield, Paul Cantor, Frances Teague, Heather Dubrow, Ernest Gilman, Dennis Kezar, Debora Shuger, Karen J. Cunningham, Luke Wilson, and Deak Nabers.

“The diversity of topics explored in this excellent collection makes it a valuable addition to the burgeoning field of early modern law, theater, and literature studies. The essays included here touch on a wide range of material—from Dekker to Shakespeare to Chapman and Bacon; and in doing so, they explore the tensions between Solon and Thespis in such a way as to make the work of analyzing the relationship between literature and the law seem not only fruitful, but in fact essential to a deeper understanding of both.” —Jeremy Lopez, University of Toronto


“The recent ‘law and literature’ movement has produced several intriguing studies of the relation between these discourses and Solon and Thespis . . . [is an] exciting addition to that corpus. It suggests that fiction and the law are mutually determining. The essays collected in Solon and Thespis focus on the complicated relation of the law and the theatre in Early Modern England. . . . [The] analyses are incisive and warnings timely.” — Times Literary Supplement

“. . . the introduction admirably outlines the field within which the essays examine the negotiations between law and theatre; it also pre-empts worries about randomness by foregrounding its conscious decision to represent the variety of critical negotiations addressing and extending the diversity of the interrelation.” — The Review of English Studies

“Kezar offers nine essays, plus an introduction and epilogue, which investigate connections and interactions between English law and the theater in the 16th and 17th centuries. As one might expect, half the essays deal with plays by Shakespeare and Jonson, with contributions on lesser writers such as Chapman and Sackville rounding out the collection. The essays avoid the standard legal concerns of the Renaissance theater and instead investigate more subtle connections.” — Choice

“The collection explores the relation between law and drama in the plays of Shakespeare, Jonson, Marston, and others. The title of the collection comes from a meeting between Solon, an Athenian lawmaker, and Thespis, a Greek poet and actor, over whether lies in a play lead to falsehood in society. Role-playing and the relation between art and life are central in this debate.” — The Renaissance Quarterly

“Dennis Kezar’s superb collection of essays Solon and Thespis: Law and Theater in the English Renaissance also interrogates the extent to which theater’s ‘professional deceit’ can do any more than debase ‘privileged truth.’ Taken as a whole, this volume is the place to send both undergraduates and graduates who want to get up to speed on this fascinating field of early modern studies.” — Studies in English Literature 1500-1900