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Nicholas Luke
The University of Queensland
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A Lawful Magic: A New World of Precedent in Mabo and Shakespeare’s Late Plays

This paper explores how Shakespeare’s late plays and the Mabo
(No. 2) decision make creative – and in many ways unprecedented – attempts to break from tragic repetition.

A collage of an Inigo Jones sketch, a hand print and a map of Mabo’s birth place Mer island (Murray Island)

The project takes the somewhat unusual step of placing Shakespeare’s late plays in dialogue with the High Court of Australia’s landmark Mabo (No. 2) decision. In recognising a form of Indigenous 'native title', the court travelled back to the very beginnings of Australia’s legal history to rethink the nature of its settlement, sovereignty and land law. I analyse this time-travel by linking it to a Shakespearean time-travel that also seeks to change the law and thereby transform past, present and future. What is at stake in this connection is not a specific law but the question of how the law changes. For Shakespeare’s late plays and the Mabo decision are making creative – in many ways unprecedented – attempts to break from tragic repetition. And both are doing so in strained and shame-filled ways. In their (very different) reactions against past injustice, both centre around what Alain Badiou calls an event: a moment when existing orders of language, law and knowledge begin to break down and something new emerges. These texts both retroactively, even anachronistically, rewrite the past by recognising something that has been shamefully ignored. As such, they raise timely questions about how the creative and artful magic of shame may interrupt the tragic law that repeats the horrors of the past.

Image: A collage of an Inigo Jones sketch, a hand print and a map of Mabo’s birth place Mer island (Murray Island). The Map of Mer with traditional districts and villages by Alfred C. Haddon (c.1908) is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.