Finding joy, and law, in literature from Shakespeare to Goldilocks
Shylock :: Al Pacino as Shylock. Image courtesy www.pacinoworldwide.com
At the end of 2008, six people met at the Cardozo School of Law’s moot courtroom in New York. They included the free speech expert, Floyd Abrams; a sitting judge the United States Court of Appeals, Richard Posner; a judge of the New York state Supreme Court’s appellate division; a professor of law and novelist, Bernard Schlink; and a professor of literature. They were there to decide what appeared to be a simple case concerning a loan default.
This case was unusual. For one thing, it was 400 years old. And the lender wasn’t a bank. It was Shylock, the villain of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”. Representing Shylock, a major law firm’s partner argued that his client was entitled to repayment, with all accrued interest. He did not, however, press for specific performance — the pound of flesh — saying that, after four centuries of reflection, he had decided against it. His opponent, from another law firm, attacked the agreement itself, saying it was illegal in its inception. Here’s the exchange, as reported by Lizzie Widdicombe in the New Yorker:
“If it please the court,” Kornstein said, “this is a case about an illegal contract.”
“What’s illegal about it?” Judge Rakoff interrupted. “As you well know, there is a virtual obesity epidemic in this country, and to remove a pound of flesh is wholly to the public good.”
The verdict was not unanimous. Five to two, they held for Shylock, some differing on the issue of interest. Judge Posner was particularly harsh on Antonio, saying it was “completely irresponsible” for him not to have insured his cargo.
It is a pity we don’t have such a tradition in India, perhaps because lawyers and judges tend to take themselves far too seriously. Sometimes, a law school will host a re-hearing of a legendary case, as the ILS Law College did in January 2010, when it invited Anil Divan and Tehmtan Andhyarujina to reargue the famous Kesavananda Bharati case in honour of Nani Palkhivala. But we never look to literature for inspiration.
There’s certainly no shortage of material. The Mahabharata, that rollicking roller-coaster epic (or assemblage of epics), has more than enough in itself. There’s the question of the law on wagering contracts (M/s Pandava Bros. V/s Mr Shakuni & 100 ors.), a topic which, incidentally, is also the subject matter of leading cases in law. There are issues of criminal law and “outraging the modesty of a woman”, paternity, rules of engagement in armed conflict, and the Nuremberg defence (“I was just following the orders of my superiors”). One can even see a PIL on environmental law, raising Constitutional issues of environmental protection, intergenerational equity, the public trust doctrine and sustainable development in regard to the destruction of the Khandava forests for the creation of the Indraprastha SEZ.
Nursery tales are another possible source: Cinderella, about child labour; Little Red Riding Hood (abduction, guardianship, habeas corpus); Goldilocks (house trespass, house breaking, the Juvenile Justice Act, theft); or Rapunzel (unlawful confinement, culpable homicide).
Goldilocks :: Minimalist posters for nursery tales. Image courtesy brainpickings.org
Little Red Riding Hood :: Minimalist posters for nursery tales. Image courtesy brainpickings.org
Rapunzel :: Minimalist posters for nursery tales. Image courtesy brainpickings.org
Best of all, there’s Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. This might well be a Writ Petition (TLP Rehvasi Sangh v BBW) about slum rehabilitation, encroachments, municipal demolitions, “Wednesbury unreasonableness”, arbitrariness under Article 14 and the right to life under Article 21, which includes the right to shelter (Olga Tellis v BMC is cited by the petitioners). The BBW argues that houses of straw or sticks are ‘unauthorised temporary structures’ liable to be demolished, but that it cannot demolish pukka ones of brick. Judgement for the petitioners, perhaps?
Three Little Pigs :: Minimalist posters for nursery tales. Image courtesy brainpickings.org
At the end of 2008, six people met at the Cardozo School of Law's moot courtroom in New York. They included the free speech expert, Floyd Abrams; a sitting judge the United States Court of Appeals, Richard Posner; a judge of the New York state Supreme Court's appellate division; a professor of law and novelist, Bernard Schlink; and a professor of literature. They were there to decide what appeared to be a simple case concerning a loan default.