English, Department of


Date of this Version



2016 The Author(s) English Literary Renaissance


In the lines above, the lawyer Tangle seems to be listing the tools of his trade, various legal documents he uses regularly. However, the list names more than just documents; it also labels the stream of blood trickling out of Tangle’s arm as he is forced into a purgative healing. Quieto, a lawyer-cum-healer, prescribes a bloodletting because Tangle’s long association with ink has infected him and the only way to cure him of poisonous legal practice is to drain him. Quieto confirms his diagnosis with the protagonist, Phoenix, who looks into the basin catching the blood and exclaims “This, why it outfrowns ink!” (15.315). Having been purged, Tangle becomes quiet and feels himself restored to truth in his words and to compassion in his heart. As Quieto explains to Tangle, the joy is that “No more shalt thou in paper quarrel” (15.328). Quieto’s ritual removes the desire to go to law from Tangle’s body, and thus provides a physical remedy for the tormented soul of the overzealous writer of writs. In this snapshot of Tangle, his illness, and his cure, Middleton’s 1604 play The Phoenix calls upon two readily repeated ideas in the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean age: first, that lawyers are thieving, greedy, selfish connivers; and second, that the proliferation of paperwork involved in early seventeenth century English law was the emblem of legal corruption.

Characters such as Tangle reflect Jacobean society’s struggle to cope with an ongoing and unprecedented increase in litigation in the latter half of the sixteenth century. More credit, debt, trade, and land transfers meant more deeds, contracts, lawsuits, more practicing attorneys in Lon- don, and more men training at the Inns of Court and Chancery.4 The concentration of economic power in London furthermore meant that city law cases accounted for about twenty percent of all common law cases between 1550 and 1640, making legal practice a booming business in the city.5 Legal historian Christopher Brooks explains that although the increase in the number of lawyers could have be seen as a general social good: “it is clear that most articulate men of the period did not see things this way. To them, the increase in litigation was a disaster, and the lawyers who brought the cases into the courts a group of dishonest tricksters who were a cancer on the body of the commonwealth. Allegations that attorneys stirred up unnecessary suits were accompanied by accusations that court officials were corrupt and charged extortionate fees. Such views have greatly influenced the picture of the legal profession and the legal system which has come down in the writings of modern historians.”6