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.
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