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.The second, Heir, Celebrity, Martyr, Monster: Legal and Political Legitimacy in Shakespeare and Beyond, will appear in Law and Critique 20 (2009).
The Seventeenth Century places Western political thought on a path increasingly concerned with ascertaining the legitimacy of a determinate individual, parliamentary or popular sovereign. Beginning with Shakespeare, however, a parallel literary tradition serves not to systematise, but to problematise the discourses used to assert the legitimacy with which control over law and government is exercised. This article examines discourses of legal and political legitimacy spawned in early modernity. It is argued that basic notions of 'right', 'duty', 'justice' and 'power' (corresponding, in their more vivid manifestations, to categories of 'heir', 'celebrity', 'martyr' and 'monster') combine in discrete, but always encumbered ways, to generate a variety of legitimating discourses. Whilst transcendentalist versions of those discourses begin to wane, their secular counterparts acquire steadily greater force. In addition to the Shakespearean histories, works of John Milton, Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, Friedrich Schiller and Richard Wagner are examined, along with some more contemporary or ironic renderings.