Power Politics and the Rule of Law: Shakespeare's First Historical Tetralogy and Law's ‘Foundations’
30 Pages Posted: 17 Mar 2009 Last revised: 18 Jan 2016
Date Written: Spring 2009
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. In 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, 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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