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Literature and Crime

Examples Old And New

Whatever the reason, literature relies heavily on crime, but not always in the same way. Fiction writers use crime in their work in two different ways. In one type, represented by Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, crime and its consequences are the primary focus. In the other, crime is a subordinate though often crucial theme of the literary work. Examples of both kinds of crime literature abound and go far back in time.

The Bible brims over with disobedience and punishment. Adam and Eve committed the first crime by disobeying God's order not to eat the forbidden fruit. The first couple's son Cain murders his innocent brother Abel. Soon humans so degenerate into evil that God feels it necessary to wipe out the whole race except for one extended family, which He saves on the Ark. But in time a massive crime problem again blights whole cities, which God obliterates, leaving the names of Sodom and Gomorrah to echo evilly through the millennia. And on and on, including evil King Ahab and Jezebel, the genocidal Haman, and even great King David with his weakness for Bathsheba.

Ancient Greek culture also laced its literature with crime. The Iliad and The Odyssey grew out of Paris's crime of adultery and kidnapping of another man's wife. Picking up where Homer leaves off, Aeschylus's Oresteia and Sophocles's Electra portray first the murder of the Greek King Agamemnon by his unfaithful wife Clytemnestra and her draft-dodging lover Aegisthus, then Orestes's fatal revenge, and finally the forgiveness of Orestes after mental torture by the Furies.

The Greeks did not stop there. Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus concerns a crime like Adam and Eve's. Prometheus disobeys the gods by bringing fire to humans, which resembles the fire of knowledge Adam and Eve acquired from the forbidden fruit. For his violation, Prometheus earns eternal punishment. Sophocles's Oedipus the King portrays the crimes of parricide and incest, the struggle between fate and free will, and the guilt and expiation that follow. In Antigone, Sophocles raises the issue of civil disobedience, that is, when a higher law requires you to disobey the law of the state. In Euripides's Medea the main character murders her children because her husband has left her.

Dante's three-part Divine Comedy, completed shortly before the author's death in 1321, is an allegory about crime, punishment, and redemption. In The Inferno, Dante and his guide Virgil go through the horrors of the nine circles of Hell, where anguished men and women expiate earthly sins of lust and greed, violence, malice, fraud, and betrayal, in varying degrees of memorable punishment suited to each crime. It is a journey to the depths of evil. Purgatorio and Paradiso allow for the possibility (but not certainty) of redemption after penance, suffering, and atonement. But it is Dante's Inferno, with its vivid descriptions of sinners and their exquisite punishments, that stays in the mind (for example, the Envious have their eyes sewn shut, the Gluttonous starve).

Shakespeare's plays are a whole course in criminal law. At the core of Measure for Measure, for example, lies the question: How much should law be used to enforce morality? In the play, a strict law banning nonmarital sex is enforced against an engaged couple. Embedded in the discussion are basic issues of privacy. According to a character in the play, criminal laws need widespread public respect, lest they become "more mocked than feared," so that "liberty plucks Justice by the nose" (act 1, scene 3). But, as the play demonstrates, wooden enforcement of a bad law does not breed respect. One question in the play, which still nettles lawyers, is whether a criminal statute that has neither been enforced nor obeyed for many years can suddenly be resurrected and applied. Shakespeare's antifornication law carries a death penalty, so that Measure for Measure also raises the issue of appropriate punishment.

The most basic legal theme in Hamlet explores the struggle for the rule of law. Hamlet depicts the uncertain battle within human nature between the punitive passion for revenge and the more civilized law against individual retaliation. Hamlet's indecision about whether to kill Claudius for murdering Hamlet's father, for which Hamlet has been often criticized, can be seen as an effort not to yield to the passion for revenge. It is a step in the evolution of law.

Even the insanity defense is part of Hamlet. Hamlet pleads it when Laertes, unhampered by the hesitancy that so plagues Hamlet, seeks revenge for the death of Polonius, his father. Face to face with Laertes's wrath, Hamlet claims to be beset "with sore distraction" and "madness" (act 5, sc. 2). But Hamlet also at times feigns his "antic disposition" (act 1, sc. 5).

Richard III, as portrayed by Shakespeare, is almost everyone's favorite villain. No less hateful is Iago, who schemes and plots to destroy Othello and Desdemona. In King Lear, Edmund spends his life contriving treachery against his family. Macbeth, goaded by his ambitious wife, betrays and murders his king and benefactor. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare shows us how law should be flexible rather than rigid, how hatred could lead a law-abiding man to criminal revenge, how pervasive prejudice could then mar his trial and lead to inappropriate punishments (such as forced religious conversion), and how an eloquent plea for "the quality of mercy" should not be rejected (act 4, sc. 1). Julius Caesar depends on a conspiracy to murder.

About fifty years after Shakespeare's death, John Milton wrote the only other epic poem to rival Dante's, and it also has crime and sin at its center. In Paradise Lost, Milton depicted disobedience on human and cosmic levels. The human disobedience was of course the fall of Adam and Eve, and in that regard Milton discusses free will and determinism. But the arch-criminal in Paradise Lost is not Adam or Eve; it is Satan, the apostate angel cast out of Heaven after leading an unsuccessful rebellion against God. Significantly, the poet makes Satan the strongest, most unforgettable, and most vital character in the poem. Milton's Satan is the predecessor of another literary fallen angel: the Romantic outlaw.

The Romantic outlaw came on the cultural scene in the early nineteenth century. He grew out of the fertile soil of Romanticism, with its stress on introspective individualism. The Romantic outlaw is an outcast, brooding, moody, wronged by society or flawed in some deep way but has, like Milton's fallen angel, redeeming qualities that fascinate us. The protagonists in Byron's great poems—Manfred, Childe Harold, and Cain, for instance—are the quintessential Romantic outlaws. Like Byron himself, the Byronic hero is often irresistible precisely because he is "mad, bad and dangerous to know" as Lady Caroline Lamb confided to her diary, quoted in Berjan Evans, "Lord Byron's Pilgrimage," in Byron's Poetry 344 (Frank D. McConnell, ed. 1978)).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawLiterature and Crime - Some Reasons Why, Examples Old And New, The Mystery Novel, Prison, The Criminal Mind