Several of Shakespeare’s plays use epistolary events as central plot devices. For instance, a letter sent to the banished Romeo, as he languishes in Mantua, misinforms him that his Juliet is dead, while a slower-moving letter from Friar Lawrence, reporting the truth, fails to reach him. In two of Will’s best comedies—Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It—letters play similar, though inverse roles. In Much Ado, a group of characters write fake letters from Beatrice that they leave strewn about in a courtyard for Benedick to find—all to try to trick the latter into thinking that the former is secretly in love with him (which she is, though she herself does not yet recognize this fact). In As You Like It, Orlando leaves letters full of bad love poetry lying around Arden Forest for Rosalind to find, which prompts Rosalind, disguised as a boy, to give Orlando some badly needed writing lessons so that he will do a better job of courting her (although she already knows that she is in love with him despite his inability to match her in a game of wits).
Letters, as plot devices, can simply convey information that is itself what matters; or letters can be elevated or intimate acts of expression that have potency because of the style as much as the content.
Literary correspondence, sadly, is just not something that people—even most writers—engage in much anymore. Sure, we email, text, and tweet all day long. But that hardly counts. These are not the kind of missives that anyone will want to gather later in an archive for future fans or historians to pour over.
Lawyers still send plenty of letters—mostly email—each and every day. And occasionally they still get to draft letters where the style as much as the content can stir emotions, trigger actions, spark longings. I am thinking primarily of the “nastygram” that has particular punch primarily because it comes to a recipient on a lawyer’s letterhead. When a lawyer writes such a letter to urge some bad actor to cease doing something that is hurting the lawyer’s client or to start doing something to which the client has a legal right to expect replete with supporting facts and legal authorities— Well, those are happy days. At least when the letter hits the right note and sounds on non-deaf ears. Alas, some recipients of such letters can’t be shamed into submission. But most people really don’t like the idea that they have been caught operating “ultra vires.” And that is comforting—that lawyers’ letters, like letters in a Shakespeare play—can still induce people to spring into action. It is also sobering.