Among Hamlet’s intriguing features, none is more interesting than its gravediggers’ scene, which is actually an extended parody of the obscure legal case Hales v. Petit, involving a property dispute tried in a London court in 1562. This was first recognized by the English magistrate Sir John Hawkins in the late eighteenth century, and subsequent generations of lawyers who have looked into the matter agree with Hawkins’ findings. “That this very report is plainly travestied in the ‘Hamlet,’ can admit of no possible doubt,” wrote Judge Nathaniel Holmes, a great nineteenth century American jurist and scholar.
The case report for Hales v. Petit was first printed in 1571 in Edmund Plowden’s Reports, and documented in Norman French, also called “law French”—a technical language known only to those trained in the law. The first English version of Plowden’s Reports did not appear until after 1684.
Hales vs. Petit can be briefly summarized as follows. Sir James Hales, a supporter of the Protestant reformation before Queen Mary ascended the throne in 1553, became mentally distraught after his forced conversion to Catholicism under Mary’s reign, and drowned himself in a river in 1554. After a coroner’s inquest determined that he had committed the crime of suicide, all of his lands were forfeited to the crown, which bestowed one of Hales’ former leases upon a man named Cyriac Petit. Hales’s widow wished to recover his properties, so she hired lawyers who argued on her behalf that (1) lands can only be forfeited to the crown for crimes committed by a living person, but (2) Hales wasn’t alive when he drowned himself, so (3) his lands should revert to his widow. During a protracted legal battle, lawyers on both sides of the case made arguments which “read like a skit from Monty Python’s flying circus,” noted the Oxfordian Mark Anderson in his 2005 book Shakespeare by Another Name.
Hamlet’s allusions to Hales v. Petit are readily discernible. In the gravediggers’ scene, two gravediggers discuss whether Ophelia drowned herself or whether the water drowned her. The question is important to them because if Ophelia drowned herself she can’t have a Christian burial, but if the water drowned her she may be laid ‘straight’ east to west. As the gravediggers discuss the issue they garble their legal terms, mistakenly calling the coroner a ‘crowner’ and saying ‘argal’ when they mean ergo.
First Gravedigger Is she to be buried in Christian burial, when wilfully seeks her own salvation?
Second Gravedigger I tell you she is, therefore make her grave straight. The crowner hath sat on her, and finds it Christian burial.
First Gravedigger How can that be, unless she drowned herself in her own defense?
Second Gravedigger Why, ’tis found so.
First Gravedigger It must be se offendendo; it cannot be else. For here lies the point: if I drown myself wittingly, it argues an act; and an act hath three branches—it is to act, to do, to perform; argal, she drowned herself wittingly.
The First Gravedigger’s description of suicide as an act that “hath three branches” is ridiculous, because there is no meaningful difference between acting, doing, and performing. The passage lampoons a legal argument made on behalf of Cyriac Petit, the defendant in Hales v. Petit, whose lawyers claimed that “The Act (of suicide) consists of three Parts”: “Imagination” (thinking about suicide), “Resolution” (determining to commit suicide), and “Perfection” (committing the Act). “And this Perfection consists of two Parts, vis, the Beginning and the End.”
As the gravediggers continue discussing Ophelia’s burial, they debate whether she took her own life:
Second Gravedigger Nay, but hear you, Goodman Delver--
First Gravedigger Give me leave. Here lies the water—good: here stands the man—good. If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes; mark you that. But if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself. Argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.
The First Gravedigger is parodying another argument made in Hales vs. Petit: “Sir James Hales was dead, and how came he to his death? It may be answered, by drowning. And who drowned him? Sir James Hales. And when did he drown him? In his life-time: So that Sir James Hales being alive caused Sir James to die and the act of the living was the death of a dead man.”
Second Gravedigger But is this law?
First Gravedigger Ay, marry, is’t; crowner's quest law.
Shakespeare’s familiarity with Hales v. Petit is unusually overlooked by traditional scholars (just try looking it up in the index for any mainstream biography of William Shakespeare), but it should not be so lightly dismissed. The case was heard in London in 1562, two years before William Shakespeare was born in Stratford. It was documented in Norman French, a technical language known only to lawyers and law students. There is no evidence that William had any legal training, and if he did serve as a law clerk at some point, he should have left a paper trail. Even if an Elizabethan layman somehow gained access to the case report in Plowden’s Reports—and why would he have done so?—he couldn’t have understood the Norman French terms.
Nor is it at all likely that Hales v. Petit was still the town talk of London in the late 1580s and beyond. The American lawyer J. Appleton Morgan humorously expressed the challenge Hales v. Petit poses for William’s candidacy in an 1885 scholarly article:
Plowden’s report of the Crown case of Hales v. Petit is to-day, as it was then, accessible in Norman-Latin law jargon and black-letter type, utterly unintelligible to anybody but an expert antiquarian, and utterly unattractive to anybody, least of all to lawyers, not one in ten thousand of which body of average scholars has probably read it in translation, and not one of whom could be forced by an Act of Congress to open the tiresome original. So far as I can discover, law Norman or law Latin was just as unattractive to laymen in Elizabeth’s day as it is to lawyers in ours; if possible more so. The decision in Hales v. Petit —on account of the standing of the parties’ plaintiff—might have been (as I believe some commentators have suggested) town-talk for a day or two, but that its wearying, and to us ridiculous, dialectics of the argument and decision were town-talk, seems to me the suggestion of a very simple or a very bold ignorance as to town life and manners…To suppose that the hair-splitting of a handful of counsel would remain town-talk for twenty-five years in London, in any age, is—I am willing to take the responsibility of saying—ridiculous.
Although it is nearly impossible to explain how William Shakespeare could have learned the details of Hales v. Petit, or why he would have lampooned this case in Hamlet, Thomas Sackville was a law student at the Inner Temple in London in 1562 who had ample opportunity to become familiar with the lawyers’ argu¬ments made in Hales v. Petit. It is easy to imagine Thomas Sackville and his law school friends attending the 1562 trial, then stepping into a nearby tavern to enjoy a few pots of ale while laughing over the legal silliness. Shakespeare went out of his way to lampoon this obscure legal case in Hamlet —surely it held some personal significance for him.
If all of Shakespeare’s works had been published anonymously, Hamlet’s detailed lampoon of Hales v. Petit would be viewed as a valuable clue to the author’s identity. The gravediggers’ scene suggests an author with legal training and a particular interest in this old law case, held some four decades before the canonical Hamlet was written.