Book: Communal Justice in Shakespeare’s England

Jacket cover of Communal Justice. The original painting hangs in the Carnegie Museum of Art. I’d like to see it one day!

2021.05 | My monograph Communal Justice in Shakespeare’s England: Drama, Law, Emotion (University of Toronto Press, 2021) is out now in hardcover and as an e-book. It’s available for purchase at the press’s website or on (I recommend buying it from UTP itself for the discount and fast shipping).

What’s it about?

The sixteenth century was a turning point for both law and drama. Relentless professionalization of the common law set off a cascade of lawyerly self-fashioning – resulting in blunt attacks on lay judgment. English playwrights, including Shakespeare, resisted the forces of legal professionalization by casting legal expertise as a detriment to moral feeling. They celebrated the ability of individuals, guided by conscience and working alongside members of their community, to restore justice. Playwrights used the participatory nature of drama to deepen public understanding of and respect for communal justice. In plays such as King Lear and Macbeth, laypeople accomplish the work of magistracy: conscience structures legal judgment, neighbourly care shapes the coroner’s inquest, and communal emotions give meaning to confession and repentance.

Why did I write this book?

I wrote the book because I believe it’s important that we know more about the history and literature that shaped modern beliefs and practices of law, punishment, witnessing, and judgment. I also wanted to challenge the idea that “law” was made for and by the professional class. This book proves that the Anglo-American common law was infused, from the beginning of its existence, by the popular legal imagination which centered on ideas of “lay legalism” and “participatory justice.” Drama—particularly Shakespeare’s plays— incubated those ideas and theater infused them with life.

Who did you work with on the publishing front?

Research in progress.

As a first-time author who was also experiencing tenure-related pressure, I found the whole book-writing endeavor to be mysterious, opaque, and stressful. Fortunately, people in the field were very generous with their time. They gave me free advice and shared their stories every time I (dared) to ask. I learned, for example, that some people strongly believed in the value of meeting your acquisitions editor at a field’s conference. Others said they were connected to their acquisitions editor by a colleague or a friend. Others said, nah, just cold-email an editor you’re interested in. You don’t need an introduction. The approach that I came up with combined cold-emailing and an introduction by a friend/colleague. I like meeting people, so I made a point of point of speaking to potential editors at the MLA and RSA conferences. All the editors I met were friendly, knowledgeable, prepared, sensitive, and professional. In the end, I worked with Suzanne Rancourt at the University of Toronto Press (UTP). She guided my manuscript through the different stages of review, production, and post-production. The whole process took nearly 2 years (which is typical of an academic book). When the pandemic struck, she kept the project rolling. I am grateful to Suzanne and the whole UTP team for the meticulous care they took with my book.

There should be greater transparency in the academic publishing world. Until then, I recommend talking to people in your field (the vast majority of people, myself included, are happy to share their stories), following the acquisitions editor Laura Portwood-Stacer (@lportwoodstacer) on Twitter, reading the MLA guideline on publication, and reading recent essays or articles on the technical side to academic publishing. I’ve listed a few resources below.

Resources (in no particular order)

Modern Language Association, “Advice for Authors, Reviewers, Publishers, and Editors of Literary Scholarship.” No date.

Siobhan McMenemy, “Ask an Editor: What are the Types of Editors at University Presses? Part One: Acquiring Editors,” Wilfred Laurier University Press website. Feb. 14, 2018.

Rob Kohlmeier, “Ask an Editor: What are the Types of Editors at University Presses? Part Two: Managing Editors,” Wilfred Laurier University Press website. Mar. 28, 2018.

Gerald Jackson, Getting Published: Comments and Advice for Academic Authors.

Bill Harnum, “Reflections on University Press Publishing,” April 9, 2009.

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