Article Title

Intending to Act


Lorna Hutson


Luke Wilson, Theaters of Intention.- Drama and Law in Early Modern England, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. Pp. x, 362. $49.50.

Theaters of Intention has the makings of a major book. Its farreaching claims about the relationship between law and theater in early modern England are both intricately argued and meticulously substantiated. It is a demanding book, too; partly, of course, because of the often-attested resistance of common-law terminology to being translated into layman's terms, but also, I think, because, as Wilson points out, "discussions of intention" themselves must derive from "a range of disciplinary contexts." The book proposes that what the institutions of law and theater primarily share in early modern England is a preoccupation with the problems of representing human action as intentional. Neither the discipline of literary criticism, nor that of legal history, however, has ever exactly theorized intention as a problem relating to the representation of action in this way. So the book's complexity arises from the fact that the relationship of similarity and difference between early modern legal and theatrical investments in representing intentional action can only be explored by using the analytical tools of a range of disciplines: literary criticism, poststructuralist literary theory, theater studies, legal history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy of language, and the history of classical rhetoric, to name just a few.

The idea that both the law and the theater might have an interest, in a certain historical moment, in representing human action as intentional is powerfully innovative in itself. It forces one to think of intention not as necessarily antecedent to and causative of human action, but as a problem. The idea runs against our common sense ways of talking both about dramatic fiction and about legal liability. In the case of drama, especially Shakespearean drama, the remarkable post-Bradleyan and post-poststructuralist tenacity of character criticism attests to our investment in ascribing intentions to the agents of dramatic plot, rather than seeing their actions as rhetorically instrumental within the fiction (New Historicism, seeing characters as cultural symptoms rather than poetic achievements, hardly challenges this kind of common sense). Similarly, our tendency to think of homicide cases as mysteries on the models of Agatha Christie and Inspector Morse urges us to organize our ideas about evidence, proof, and legal liability around a reconstruction of motives and intentions-the revelation of the guilty mind that planned it all. In both instances it is assumed that actions - sometimes only retrospectively signified (by corpses, murder weapons, ghosts) - have agents, and that agents have intentions. So what does it mean to talk about the representation of intentional action as a problem for legal practice and dramatic composition in the sixteenth century?