Power Politics and the Rule of Law: Shakespeare's First Historical Tetralogy and Law's 'Foundations'
Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 29, 2009
39 Pages Posted: 26 Feb 2009
Date Written: February 26, 2009
Abstract. Legal scholars' interest in Shakespeare has often focused on conventional legal rules and procedures, such as those of The Merchant of Venice or Measure for Measure. Those plays certainly reveal systemic injustice, but within stable, prosperous societies, which enjoy a generally well-functioning legal order. By contrast, Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy explores the conditions for the very possibility of a legal system, in terms not unlike those described by Hobbes a half-century later. The first tetralogy's deeply collapsed, quasi-anarchic society lacks any functioning legal regime. Its power politics are not, as in many of Shakespeare's other plays, merely latent, surreptitiously lurking beneath the patina of an otherwise functioning legal order. They pervade all of society. Dissenting from a long critical tradition, this article suggests that the figure of Henry VI does not merely represent antiquated medievalism or inept rule. Through Henry's constant recourse to legal process, arbitration, and anti-militarism, the first tetralogy goes beyond questions about how to establish a functioning legal order. It examines the possibility, and meaning, of a just one.
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