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Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.

Note to Hamlet, 5.1.22: "crowner's quest"


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Hamlet,
Act 5, Scene 1, line 22
In the first scholarly edition of Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson's of 1765, there appears the following note, attributed to Johnson's friend, Mr. Hawkins:
      I strongly suspect that this is a ridicule on the case of Dame Hales reported by Plowden in his commentaries as determined in 3. Eliz.
     It seems her husband Sir James Hales had drowned himself in a river, and the question was, whether by this act a forfeiture of a lease from the dean and chapter of Canterbury, which he was possessed of, did not accrue to the crown; an inquisition was found before the coroner, which found him felo de se [a suicide; literally, "felon against himself"]. The legal and logical subtilties, arising in the course of the argument of this case, gave a very fair opportunity for a sneer at Crowner's quest Law. The expression a little before that, an act hath three branches, &c. is so pointed an allusion to the case I mention that I cannot doubt but that Shakespeare was acquainted with and meant to laugh at it.
Source:
William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson. "APPENDIX to VOL. VIII,"The plays of William Shakespeare in eight volumes: with the corrections and illustrations of various commentators; to which are added notes by Sam Johnson, Volume 8. Printed for J. and R. Tonson, 1765. note for p. 278.
There are good reasons to doubt that Shakespeare had access to Plowden's Commentaries, but no reason to doubt that Shakespeare is poking fun at the language and thought of lawyers, as can be seen by comparing the speeches of First Clown with the passage Hawkins refers to:
On the contrary it was argued by Walsh, Cholmly, Bendloe, and Carus, Serjeants, that the Forfeiture of the Goods and Chattles, real and personal, shall have Relation to the Act done in the Party's Life-time, which was the Cause of his Death; and upon this the Parts of the Act are to be considered. And Walsh said, that the Act consists of three Parts. The first is the Imagination, which is a Reflection or Meditation of the Mind, whether or no it is convenient for him to destroy himself, and what Way it can be done. The second is the Resolution, which is a Determination of the Mind to destroy himself, and to do it in this or that particular Way. The third is the Perfection, which is the Execution of what the Mind has resolved to do. And this Perfection consists of two Parts, viz. the Beginning and the End. The Beginning is the doing of the Act which causes the Death, and the End is the Death, which is only a Sequel to the Act. And of all the Parts the doing of the Act is the greatest in the Judgment of our Law, and it is in Effect the whole and the only Part that the Law looks upon to be material. For the Imagination of the Mind to do Wrong, without an Act done, is not punishable in our Law, neither is the Resolution to do that Wrong, which he does not, punishable, but the doing of the Act is the only Point which the Law regards; for until the Act is done it cannot be an Offence to the World, and when the Act is done it is punishable. Then here the Act done by Sir James Hales, which is evil and the Cause of his Death, is the throwing himself into the Water, and the Death is but a Sequel thereof, and this evil Act ought some Way to be punished. And if the Forfeiture shall not have Relation to the doing of the Act then the Act shall not be punished at all, for inasmuch as the Person who did the Act is dead, his Person cannot be punished, and therefore there is no Way else to punish him but by the Forfeiture of those Things which were his own at the Time of the Act done, and the Act was done in his Life time and therefore the Forfeiture shall have Relation to his Life-time, viz. to that Time of his Life in which he did the Act that took away his Life. And Bendloe said, if the Forfeiture shall only have Relation to the Death, and the Death be taken to precede the Forfeiture, then he shall forfeit nothing; for when he is dead the Goods are not his own, for a dead Man can have no Property, and such Forfeiture would be a Prejudice to others who ought to have the Goods then, and not to the Party himself; for which Reason it is inconsistent to say that his Act shall forfeit the Goods which are not his own, but it is more fit to say that his evil Act shall forfeit the Things which are his own, and that cannot be unless the Forfeiture shall have Relation to that Time of his Life when the Offence was committed, and when the Goods were his own.
Source:
Edmund Plowden. The Commentaries or Reports of Edmund Plowden: . . . containing Divers Cases upon matters of law, argued and adjudged in the several reigns of King Edward VI., Queen Mary, King and Queen Philip And Mary, and Queen Elizabeth [1548-1579]. Vol. I, 259-259a.  Originally published in 1571 as Les comentaries ou les reportes de Edmunde Plowden.