Law and Literature: Shakespeare Part II

January 1, 2022 | By Shane Phelps Law
Law and Literature: Shakespeare Part II

In our first part of the Law & Literature: Shakespeare series, we discussed the basis of Shakespeare’s writing and the historical context for his works. To recap, William Shakespeare was a master of prose in 14th century Britain. At this time, justice was primal and punishment was severe. As an artist and with possible legal experience, Shakespeare combined themes of justice with philosophy both of which play a significant role in the continued perception of the legal system.

As a result of his influence and body of work, many people consider the justice system to be black and white. However, the truth is much more nuanced than even Shakespeare could understand.

Understanding Perception

The court of public opinion is often just as if not more powerful as the court system. People’s perceptions guide them in all things and unfortunately, the overwhelming perception of the law is that there are bad guys and good guys and when a person does something bad, they must be punished.

Shakespeare’s works play into this notion by crafting a narrative where the wrongdoers always get their comeuppance. As mentioned in our first article on the subject, works like Hamlet and Measure for Measure present a clear picture of justice as the natural karmic function of the universe – it is inevitable and orderly.

Framing justice with this lense, while helpful when introducing the philosophical concept, is overwhelmingly damaging to the reality of crime, criminals, and the court. When people view the system and the verdicts that result from a criminal trial, they believe that it is simply a matter of fact that the bad guy goes to prison. Jurors who think this way may approach a verdict two-dimensionally, leaving all of the amorphousness of human nature out of the equation.

Perception vs. Reality

As mentioned in the previous section, the perception of justice in America is two-dimensional: it’s a struggle between the bad guys and good guys where the wrongdoer gets what they deserve. However, the reality is not only vastly different, but it is also far more tragic.

Most laws are created to address an issue or infraction that threatens public safety. Because these regulations apply to a group instead of individuals, there are always variables to consider. For example, a driver who rear-ends another motorist at a stoplight is usually at fault and may face penalties. However, they may not be to blame if the car in front stopped suddenly, or slammed on the brakes to avoid another vehicle running a red light at an intersection. In these cases, evidence is necessary to prove fault and establish how much each party is to blame.

In criminal cases, evidence is vital to due process. The court must hear all admissible evidence within the context of the case along with witness testimonies to understand the big picture. Without evidence, jurors and judges cannot legally make an informed decision. The reality is that people are not only driven by nature, they are prone to errors – a fact that plagues many criminal cases historically.

The OJ Simpson trial was bogged down by improper handling of evidence, coerced testimonies, and biased jurors all of which muddled the case to the point where the case drifted away from the fatalities to an entirely different focus.

When these variables affect a case, the court must parse out the significance of each one and decide how impactful they will be in the trial. Most criminal cases are not necessarily bad vs. good but rather compromised vs. uncompromised or desperate vs. privileged.

Real-World Consequences

While the wonderful world of Shakespeare offers a rich tapestry of philosophy and narrative on justice, the consequences of focusing on perception instead acknowledging grey areas can be dire. Just because someone is accused of a crime does not mean they are guilty of it and even if they are, the sentence may not reflect the truth.

According to the Innocence Project, 18 people have been proven innocent after serving time on death row. These inmates were not only innocent but they were also forced to serve years of their sentence with the threat of death. These 18 people were sentenced to a combined 229 years in prison.

In the case of Julius Jones, an inmate on Oklahoma’s death row, the court approached his case with a biased lens instead of evaluating the whole story. Jones was accused of murdering a girl in 1999 and served a death row sentence that spanned his entire adulthood. Criminal justice reform advocates found that key pieces of evidence in his case were ignored and were not presented to the court during his trial. Not only does this evidence prove that it was most likely a setup, but bit it also proved his innocence.

Public perception of Jones at the time of his trial blinded the court to the truth – that there was a much more complicated backstory to the crime than was originally thought. Thousands of people each year are sentenced to decades or more in prison for crimes they didn’t commit or the court handed down a sentence that did not fit the crime.

IN some cases, a defendant may be definitively guilty of committing a crime, but they could be coerced by another party or forced to commit the crime out of desperation. It is the duty of the court to take these factors into account and avoid falling prey to popular perception.

If you have been accused of a crime, contact Shane Phelps Law.