When considering the different characters in the works of Shakespeare, one may instantly think of the traditional monarchs, patricians, and the fools that are found in the majority of his plays. Eric Heinze, Professor of Law at Queen Mary, University of London, however, chooses instead to focus on a less obvious type of character – that of the lawyer.
Beginning his lecture, Eric drew our attention to Act 5 Scene 1 of Hamlet where the titular character comes across two skulls and muses on the possible lives of their owners. The first he considers to have belonged to either a ‘politician’ or a ‘courtier’, upon which he delivers conventional remarks about each of the professions. When finding the second skull Hamlet breaks into a curious lecture about the role of the lawyer in his time, which Eric suggests may link to the increasing dominance of legal power over the more martial power which is seen to be exercised in Shakespeare’s history plays about Classical Rome and England. Hamlet, having been arguably out-manoeuvred by Claudius in inheriting his father’s crown, feels an antipathy to this legal system that is supporting his uncle’s reign.
Before continuing to discuss Hamlet’s feeling towards this new legal framework that was emerging in the early Modern period, Eric looked back at one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays Henry VI part 2 and its dealing with law in a late Medieval setting. Focusing on the trial of the jurist Lord Saye by the peasant rebel Jack Cade, Eric demonstrated the conflict between absolute martial power – ironically welded by the peasant Jack Cade and the newer legal authority epitomised by Saye. Taking place in Act IV Scene 7, Eric demonstrated the mock trial where Saye’s commitment to legalism spells his doom when coming up against Cade. His belief in the authority of his language and law is shown to be foolish when Saye is without the ability to enforce his judgements in Cade’s kangaroo court. His unwise use of Latin confuses and scares the court (who believe it to be related to the demonic) whilst his rhetorical defence of himself is shown to be equally foolish in Cade’s absolutist court. Indeed during Act IV Scene 7, all Saye can do is “say” his defence, any power he had to save himself has migrated to Cade who autocratically declares “my mouth shall be the parliament of England”. Act IV Scene 7 serves as a medieval reaction against this rhetoric and belief in the rule of law that would come to prominence in the time period of Hamlet’s setting.
Returning to Act 5 Scene 1 of Hamlet, Eric discussed how Hamlet’s conversation with the gravediggers is reflective of the dialectics of law, only in this case – rather than spelling the doom of Lord Saye- it serves to readdress the class difference between the Hamlet and the digger. Eric demonstrated that this movement, from the murder of Lord Saye to the gravedigger’s ability to trip up Hamlet, represents the decline of the martial exercises of power categorised in the English history plays to the fledgling power of linguistics and language that characterise Hamlet’s historical period.
In this examination of both Hamlet and Henry VI part 2, Eric demonstrated a historical shift from a world of power coming directly from the sword to a world where power is supplied through legal machinations and linguistics.
Sam is a student on the Research Masters in Literature and Cultural History Programme, researching the work on early-twentieth-century novelist Maud Diver and her fiction about the British in India.