Academic journal article Studies in Philology

On Judges and the Art of Judicature: Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

On Judges and the Art of Judicature: Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2

Article excerpt

In the late sixteenth century; the common law experienced a phenomenal growth, both in the number of practitioners and jurisdictional power. A comparison of popular and professional literature on legal administration or judicature reveals the complex and ambivalent cultural response to the "rise" of the common law. Despite the usual praise for the common law as that which distinguished England from France, Italy, and other countries using civil law, many questioned the law's ability to deliver justice. Popular writing on justice, produced by preachers, moral essayists, and dramatists, centered on the law's failure to protect the poor, weak, and otherwise marginalized members of society. While popular legal commentators lacked the power to reform legal practices, they attempted to shape the public's perception of the law and lawyers through the writing of legal character. Authors of assize sermons and character books defined the character of a "good magistrate" as a "loving" father. In contrast, legal writing by lawyers suppressed the language of love and placed the emphasis on reason. This article investigates the resulting friction between professional and popular representations of judges and judicature and examines its impact on Shakespearean drama. In Henry IV, Part 2, Shakespeare explores the dissonance and irresolution within the cultural discourse on legal administration, and in so doing, expresses a tragic truth about the paucity of justice in a world consumed by law.

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DURING the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the English common law gained historic strength, as witnessed in the concentration of jurisdictional power in the central courts and in the sharp increase in civil litigation. (1) Consequently, the number of legal officers tasked with the administration of the law grew steadily, as did the rate of matriculation at the Inns. According to Louis A. Knafla, the years 1579 to 1584 marked the first of several periods of "highly accelerated growth" for the Inns of Court. (2) Although contemporaries lacked access to the numerical data of modern historians, they were acutely aware and deeply critical of the structural transformation of the law, especially with respect to the exponential growth of lawyers in a relatively short span of time.

A comparison of how legal professionals and nonprofessionals witnessed the rise of the common law reveals starkly different worldviews. Lawyers took pride in the growth of their profession. "The posterity of Lawyers hath more flourished then that either of the Clergy or Citisens," remarked the lawyer and diarist John Manningham. (3) But the phenomenal growth of the legal profession also provoked negative responses. Indeed, many suspected that lawyers got rich by entrapping their clients within law's intricate procedures. In an unpublished 1603 assize sermon, George Closse (a preacher from Black Torrington, Devon) sharply criticized lawyers for their unethical practices. Closse recounts the following story: a man of the cloth asks a lawyer what "law is," and the lawyer replies that law is "a pretty tricke to catche mony w[i]t[h]all." Closse quips, "and indeed a man may beleve it to be a principall point in the p[ro]fession." (4) He reminds his audience that "our lawes are not cobwebbes to catche Ayes, & let great birdes breake theron them." (5) The image of the spider's web, as Hugh Adlington explains in his study of early modern assize sermons, comes from Plutarch's biography of Solon, and preachers often used it "to illustrate inequitable judicial procedure." (6) People used the courts--and sought the counsel of lawyers--but they resented the experience. Not surprisingly, antipathy toward the legal profession spawned numerous verse satires and plays. (7)

The explosion of anti-lawyer complaints and satires, however, did not signal a mass protest against the law itself. (8) Rather, the complaints were chiefly directed against the officers of the law. …

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