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Course examines literature on law


Theodore Ziolkowski with students in Literature and Law (Photo by Denise Applewhite)


By Caroline Moseley

Justice gazes most often into her literary mirror when she has been disheveled by the winds of social and political upheaval. -- (from The Mirror of Justice)

Literature and Law, taught by Class of 1900 Professor of Modern Languages and professor of German and Comparative literature Theodore Ziolkowski, is "an introduction to literature as a vehicle of thought about law."

The course, Comparative Literature 330, traces the evolution of law from antiquity to the present, says Ziolkowski. The nine students in the course this spring read a variety of literary works: among them, the dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles, the Biblical book of Exodus with its Ten Commandments, 13th-century Icelandic sagas, medieval fables, Shakespeare, and modern novels such as von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas and Melville's Billy Budd. They also read secondary works that introduce them to sources such as the law code of Babylonian king Hammurabi, the Corpus Juris Civilis of Roman emperor Justinian, the Napoleonic Code that regularized society after the French Revolution and the opinions of US Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. They also read selections from Ziolkowski's 1997 The Mirror of Justice: Literary Reflections of Legal Crises.

Moments of great tension

"The law is constantly changing as a result of social pressure," says Ziolkowski. "It is precisely at those moments of great tension between existing law and the prevailing public morality that literary works are produced."

As an example, he cites Sophocles' Antigone (c. 441 BCE), which portrays the conflict between customary law--expressed in Antigone's wish to bury her brother, Polyneices--and the law of the state--which decrees that, as a putative traitor, Polyneices must remain unburied.

"Creon, the ruler, is trying to impose statutory law that contravenes the conservative unwritten law," says Ziolkowski.

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596) has a similar theme, he says, but reflects "the conflict between the English common law that prevailed during the Middle Ages and the growing power of the more recent Courts of Chancery."

Another example is the Old French tale of Reynard the Fox (c. 1176), which concerns the legal manipulations whereby Reynard manages to escape punishment for a variety of malfeasances. This story reflects "the confusion caused by conflict between the old customary law of France and the new Roman legal system consulted by the king," says Ziolkowski. "One of the foolish characters is a camel who plays the role of the Roman lawyer and speaks in a kind of broken Latin."

Ancient, apparently eternal

A great deal has been written about law and literature by lawyers, "usually looking at the literary work to see how it illustrates legal problems," Ziolkowski says. In his class, "We have a different focus, which is to see how law helps to understand the literary work, and how the work itself can be located within the legal context. We're interested in the history of law, in concepts of law, not specific statutes." One of his goals is "to show students how ancient and apparently eternal these legal issues are."

A perennial favorite topic for term papers is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, but there are many possible works for the students to explore. Anina Terry '02 has decided to write on Shakespeare's Measure For Measure. "I'll be comparing it to The Merchant of Venice, which Shakespeare wrote about 10 years earlier." John Guevara '01 will write about the difference between secular and canonical law in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Linda Loyd '02 will examine Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust. "I hope to apply what I've learned throughout this semester by doing a thorough legal analysis," she says.

Goethe attended law school

Ziolkowski, who served as dean of the Graduate School from 1979 to 1992, became interested in the relation between literature and the law while teaching a graduate seminar on German Romanticism.

"One of the institutions central to Romanticism was the law," he explains. "Goethe, along with other writers of the period, attended law school--it was a fashionable thing to do at the time." As Ziolkowski informed himself about the law in Germany, he says, "I began to realize that if the law was this significant in German Romanticism, it must be in other fields as well."

He began rereading classical works and revisited the Old Norse sagas he had studied in graduate school, which "reveal a highly legalistic community." Bit by bit, he read and wrote about law and literature from classical antiquity to the present--a labor of about 10 years that informs the present course and also produced The Mirror of Justice, which one reviewer praised for its "profound erudition."

Casting net broadly

Ziolkowski calls himself "a comparatist, working from a base in German literature, with a particular interest in interdisciplinary studies." This rubric, he says with a smile, "lets me do anything I want. My tendency has been to cast my net more and more broadly."

He is perhaps uniquely qualified to lead COM 330, a course that covers several millennia (from Hammurabi in the 18th century BCE to Franz Kafka in the 20th century CE) and inevitably examines social and cultural issues along with matters legal and literary. "It is like a combination of history, English, politics and religion courses all rolled into one," says Loyd.

"I am amazed by Prof. Z's immense knowledge," she adds. "It's wonderful to be able to ask a question about any aspect of the books we are reading, the history surrounding them or even an unrelated question, and he's able to give an informative, thought-provoking response."

Still to come is discussion of Kafka's The Trial, in which "The law becomes a terrifying instrument of oppression," says Hugh Kennedy '00. "I can't wait for Prof. Z's take on this!"