Lecture. “The Shakespearean Circle: Lawyers, Literary Criticism, and Professional Self-Fashioning in Late Imperial Russia.”
Yana Arnold, doctoral candidate in Slavic languages and literatures, U-M. Sponsor: Institute for the Humanities.
This talk explores the literary activities of Russian lawyers within the Shakespearean circle, a literary body which was founded by the prominent lawyer Vladimir Spasovich in 1874 and remained active in the intellectual life of Saint-Petersburg for over two decades. The profession of the lawyer, introduced in Russia by the legal reform of 1864, was a novel cultural phenomenon. Their remarkable success as court speakers in widely publicized trials gradually transformed Russian lawyers into true celebrities whose defense speeches were read by their contemporaries on par with the best fiction by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. At the same time, the popularity of lawyers, combined with their status as the champions of individual rights in the context of absolutism, gave rise to a powerful wave of criticism by conservatives and liberals alike.
In her talk, Arnold suggests that the lawyers saw participation in the literary life of the time as the main avenue for self-fashioning against the grain of public opinion. Their literary activities enabled them to shift the dubious image of their profession towards a more positive one: as lovers of literature, civically minded intellectuals, and men of honor. By looking at the literary criticism penned by lawyers, along with their lore of self-fashioning, Arnold draws the conclusion that literary criticism helped the lawyer to position himself on the public podium right next to the Russian writer, the traditional defender of the little man against the arbitrary authority of the Russian state.