To speak of justice in Shakespeare's plays without speaking of the sovereign may seem like playing Hamlet without the Prince. In Shakespeare's time, the sovereign was the ultimate symbolic source of justice, as seen in the iconographic conflation of Queen Elizabeth I with Astraea, the goddess of Justice. Perhaps Shakespeare's deepest meditation on what makes a just ruler lies in the four plays scholars have dubbed the Henriad (Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V). In these plays, we follow the development of the dissolute youth Prince Hal as he matures into the paradigmatic good ruler, Henry V.
The four plays have an epic structure (the tetralogy is called the Henriad to mimic the Iliad), telling the story of three successive sovereigns. Richard II is a weak king deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV. Henry IV finds little solace in the crown, as he feels immense guilt for having seized it from an anointed sovereign. He also worries about his own successor: his oldest son Prince Hal is reckless, spending all his time in the tavern world of Eastcheap. While Hal is the heir apparent, he has exchanged his seat in the Privy Council for a stint in prison for striking the Lord Chief Justice. Hal's surrogate father figure in the tavern is one of Shakespeare's most glorious creations, Falstaff. Yet Hal knows he must someday leave that demimonde to assume the throne. After Henry IV dies, Hal becomes Henry V. Delighted at this turn of events, Falstaff rides to London to collect the perks of cronyism. But Hal cuts him dead, saying "I know thee not, old man." Falstaff dies offstage of a broken heart in Henry V. In that play, the new King Henry V conquers France in the legendary battle of Agincourt.
The Choice of the Four Fathers: Henry IV, Falstaff, the Lord Chief Justice, and the King of France in the Henriad,
Yale J.L. & Human.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol22/iss2/8