LAW IN LITERATURE OR LITERATURE IN LAW?
Author: Ananya Konur, I Year of B.B.A.,LL.B from IFIM Law School, Bangalore.
1. An image of laughter is formed in our minds when we read the word ‘comedy’. Several terms like ‘funny’ and ‘humorous’ have become synonymous to ‘comedy’ in recent times, through movies and other media. However, it is surprising to know how the term is used in the field of literature. Comedy in literature essentially refers to the discussion of a social issue with a happy ending which, more often than not, is unrealistic or whimsical. To explain this, reference must be made to the legendary plays of all time by renowned playwrights such as William Shakespeare. We are compelled to think about several famous plays like The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure when playwrights like Shakespeare are discussed.
2. It becomes fascinating to note how Shakespeare addresses similar social issues irrespective of the geographical location that he refers to in his literary works. William Shakespeare has discussed matters relating to love, enmity, revenge and crime in these famous plays. Despite the difference of almost a century between the two plays, they both talk about matters that reflect in today’s society even after several centuries. This makes us question if the society has indeed evolved since the Shakespearean Era.
3. Through his celebrated plays of The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure, Shakespeare has indirectly questioned the actions of those individuals who form the upper section of the society. However, he has focused on their actions in relation to familial love, enmity between communities and the humane feeling of revenge. He has highlighted the different personality traits of humas in the English society of his day through these plays. In addition to this, he has also questioned the system followed to deliver justice and the morality of the same.
4. In The Merchant of Venice, we see a Christian, Antonio taking a loan from his enemy, Shylock (a Jew) for the sake of his friend, Bassanio who is a poor Christian incapable of approaching Shylock to ask for a loan. This simple plot displays the communal differences between the three main characters of the play, and as it can be expected, the entire play revolves around the enmity between the two communities of Christianity and Jewish. There are multiple characters who are involved in this game of justice throughout the play, including two intelligent women. It is these women who finally disguise themselves as men in the Courtroom in order to deliver a just order that would affect neither party immensely.
5. It becomes interesting to see that Shylock had asked Antonio for a pound of his flesh in case Bassanio was unable to repay the loan he had taken from the former. Towards the end of the play, we get to see that Bassanio fails to repay the loan thereby compelling Antonio to pay Shylock with a pound of his flesh. However, this is where the disguised judicial officers are introduced by Shakespeare who grant Shylock his wish of taking one pound of Antonio’s flesh at the condition that not a single drop of the latter’s blood must be dropped. Shylock’s failure to comply to the condition results in an end to the contract between Antonio and him. This in turn results in the rescue of Antonio and Bassanio from the ill intentions of Shylock.
6. Throughout the play Shakespeare not only highlights the different social issues in his land, but also subconsciously sheds light on the legal consequences of such actions. For instance, in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare brings to the forefront the role of women in a patriarchal society, the communal issues between two religions and also the repercussions of actions such as entering into a contract with ill intentions or to fulfill an illegal objective. The immoral nature of the contract between Antonio and Shylock can also be compared with the Principle of Proportionality that is followed in the field of Criminal Law in today’s world. This doctrine ensures that the punishment given to one individual is in proportion to the offence committed by him. On the same lines, it can be said that it was unfair or Shylock to demand a pound of Antonio’s flesh in turn for Bassanio’s failure to repay the loan. This not only challenges the principle of proportionality but also brings into question the breach of Humanitarian Rights.
7. Similarly, in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare portrays several concepts that fall within the ambit of justice. These include the concept of fairness, morality and finally the most debated concept of subjectivity and uniformity of law. One of the main questions in the entire play is whether it was morally right of Angelo to ask Isabella to get sexually involved with her in order to get her brother released from prison for the offence of engaging in sexual relations with a girl before marriage. Here again, Shakespeare highlights the biases between the upper and the lower sections of the society but towards to end of the play he brings in justice by acquitting Claudio and punishing Angelo for his ill intentions thereby justifying the genre of comedy. Nevertheless, the question of how this conclusion leads to fairness still remains.
8. This is where Shakespeare brings in the concept of subjectivity and uniformity of law. He portrays that even though Claudio and Juliet considered themselves to be married to each other, it was socially not accepted as they had not consummated their marriage publicly. Therefore, as far as the society and the law was concerned, Claudio had committed the offence of impregnating a woman before marriage thereby making him punishable with decapitation. This raises the question of why Claudio was held liable when Juliet and he had considered one to be wedded to the other. In order to answer this question, it becomes necessary to understand the problem with the beliefs of individuals deciding the level of their guilt.
9. It must be understood that Claudio and Juliet were the only two individuals who believed themselves to be married. The problem with this is that if one such case was excused from being punished, there is the possibility of many such cases arising in the future with a slightly different set of facts. While this might seem like a reasonable and perhaps the best way to deliver justice in a diverse society, when looked at closely it can be realized to cause chaos in the society that gives birth to it. It must be understood that the ultimate purpose of law is to maintain peace and order in the society. This can be achieved only when all members of the society are governed through a uniform set of rules so as to avoid biases and maintain fairness in the process of delivering justice. If each party is permitted to function according to their personal beliefs, the community is bound to eventually result in a chaotic civilization, which does not follow the principles of justice.
10. Thus, it becomes important to understand that irrespective of the intention of the writer, when an attempt is made to write a comical play, it always concludes with a legal remedy. This may be true either because of situation similar to those in the play actually existing in the society referred to or because it seems to be the most ideal way of solving an otherwise unsolvable issue in the community. Therefore, it can be said that whether it is law in literature or literature in law, the two form vital components of the other. Hence, the absence of one leaves the other incomplete and inefficient. Literature, be it in the form of the legal statutes or such plays that spread awareness in the society, form an extremely important part of the society and the peace and order maintained thereby. Thus, it can be said that it is no surprise that despite the evolution in societies across the world, these centuries old plays still remain relevant because the manner in which they are interpreted changes with a change in the times.