Measure for Measure: Intersections of Law, Literature and Language

Home/ Measure for Measure: Intersections of Law, Literature and Language
Course TypeCourse CodeNo. Of Credits
Foundation ElectiveNA4

Semester and Year Offered: Monsoon semester 2019

Course Coordinator and Team: Lawrence Liang

Email of course coordinator: lawrence[at]aud[dot]ac[dot]in

Pre-requisites: None

Aim: Legal Theory is a product not just of our legal and political will but also of our narrative imagination

- Robin West

Law and legal interpretation resides within the world of language and to that extent legal worlds are simultaneously literary worlds. In many ways the law and literature movement was the first serious inter disciplinary foray within legal studies. The movement successfully dislodged the place of law from its canonical existence within legal texts and doctrinal analysis to look at the various public forms in which the legal imaginary circulates. It argued for the importance of looking at literary texts both as a mirror of social relations as well as a critique of institutions of law and justice. Both legal and literary texts constitute discourses that reflect and construct our normative worlds, and both are embedded within larger cultural contexts. Bringing the two discourses together opens up challenging new ways of thinking about law and justice. The focus of this course will be on the constitution and reconstitution of language within legal and literary practice. It begins with the premise that language is never stable but changing and that it is perpetually remade by its speakers, who are themselves remade, both as individuals and as communities, through what they say. This course tracks changes in the meaning of language and of the world: about the ways in which words come to have their meanings and to hold or to lose them and how they acquire new meanings in the world of law and literature.

Course Outcomes:

The course will equip students with

  1. An understanding of the law and literature movement
  2. An analytical framework to understand the relationship between law, language and literature
  3. A way of approaching legal questions simultaneously as aesthetic questions

Overall structure:



             Measure for Measure: Intersections of Law, Literature and Language      


Syllabus with List of Readings



Module 1: Recomposing the legal archive


In November, 1781, the captain of a slave ship Zong ordered 150 Africans to be drowned so that the ship's owners could collect insurance monies. The 500 word legal decision of Gregson vs Gilbert (1783) remains the only extant public document related to the massacre of these African slaves. For ten years, the lawyer and poet Marlene NourbeSe Philip worked with the text of the judgment to finally write Zong!, a collection of poems composed entirely of the language of the judgment. Using Zong!  as the central text  this module  will lay out the conceptual terrain of this course and  survey the key debates within law & literature.





Gregson vs Gilbert (1783)

Marlene NourbeSe Philip, Zong (Zongs Number 1, 7, 11, 14, 17 & 24)

Wallace Stevens, Men made out of words (Poem)

Anne Carson, Autobiography of red, pp.3-7 (Poem)

James Boyd White, Judicial Opinion and the Poem: Ways of Reading, Ways of Life in Ledwon, Lenora. Law and Literature: Text and Theory. 1995

James Boyd White, Law as language, 60 Tex. L. Rev. 415 (1981)

Shoshana Felman, Introduction to The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century. Harvard University Press, 2002

Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller from Illuminations, Schocken Books, 1969 pp.84-110

Robert Cover, Violence and the word, 95 Yale L.J.1601.


Additional Readings

Teresa Godwin Phelps , Law and Literature is More Important Than Ever in Austin Sarat Ed., Law and Literature Reconsidered, Studies In Law, Politics, And Society Volume 43

Thomas C. Grey, The Wallace Stevens Case: Law and the Practice of Poetry

David Kader & Michael Stanford, Poetry of the Law: From Chaucer to the Present

Leland de la Durantaye, Introduction: Lolita, and a Hitherto Little Remarked-upon Reader from Style Is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov, Cornell University Press, 2010



Module 2. Tragic Justice : Shakespeare, Law and Remaking the world

Law and ideas of justice play an essential role in much of Shakespeare’s work. In many plays, characters refer to contemporary laws and legal institutions; and the plays raise larger questions about justice and the workings of the law. By reading his plays as a conceptual lexicon of law and justice, we ask what it may mean to think of the relationship between language, poetic measure and the ‘measure of justice’. We examine Shakespeare's representations of justice and its connections to social and political order, crime and the law. This is an enquiry situated both within modern conceptions of justice as it is within Shakespeare's dramatic vocabularies.



2.1       “I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so”

In which two stars crossed lovers invite us to think about the contemporaneity of Shakespeare as an inventor of language and concepts

2.2 “Though well we may not pass upon his life/ Without the form of justice”

In which a senile old king and his meditations on life invite us to think about tragedy and the im(possibilities) of justice

2.3 "Give me the Ocular Proof"/ "If you dare not trust that you see, confess not that you know"

In which we look at the gathering of evidence and establishment of guilt in Othello and Measure for Measure

2.4“By the bloody books of the law”

In which a man’s suspicion of his wife’s fidelity raises questions of world destroying doubt and scepticism

2.5 “Fair is foul and foul is fair”

In which a couple’s ruthless ambition becomes an opportunity to think of violence, sacrifice and justice


King Lear by William Shakespeare

Othello by William Shakespeare

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Additional Readings

Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare (Chapters 1, 2 & 7)

Ian Ward, Shakespeare and the Legal Imagination, pp.1-20

Regina Mara Schwartz, Loving Justice, Living Shakespeare, pp.1-16

Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (Extracts relevant to the three plays)


Module 3: Archives of Authority and Justice

In this module, following Shoshana Felman, we approach literature as an archive which encapsulates not closure but precisely what in a given case refuses to be closed. This module will focus on the set of legal cases read along with literary texts  and examine how the two archives  staged overlapping,  if differential dramaturges of power and justice.




Harper Lee, To kill a mockingbird, Harper Modern Classics, 2002.

James Miller,  Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial. Princeton University Press, 2009.

Susan Glaspell, A  jury of her peers,, 2005 

Extra Judl.Exec.Victim Families vs Union Of India, AIR 2016 SC 1213

Mahashveta, Draupadi in  Mahasweta Devi Breast Stories. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Seagull Books, 1997

Siddharth Chauhan, Representations of the Indian emergency in popular fiction

Karla Fc Holloway, Chapter 2: Bodies as Evidence (of Things Not Seen) in Legal Fictions: Constituting Race, Composing Literature, Duke University Press Books, 2014,

Extracts from Rohinton Mistry, A Fine balance, Vintage International, 1997


Module 4 : Everyday life of law and literature


Outside of the realm of ‘law as exception’ is the world of the everyday life of law, and in this module we examine the quotidian life of the law in literature. In particular we focus on how the ordinary is transformed when it becomes a legal event even as the legal event also gets folded within the logic of the ordinary temporal logic and rhythm of courtrooms. If the domain of public legal debates generally focus on prominent constitutional cases or on issues of moral dilemmas with a capital M, in this module we ask what it means to inhabit the commonplace of the law as it unfolds in the nooks and corners of statutes as well as courtrooms.








Kafka, Franz. The Trial. Simon & Brown, 2016.

K by Giorgio Agamben in Clemens, Justin, et al., editors. The Work of Giorgio Agamben: Law, Literature, Life. Edinburgh University Press, 2011.

Mayur Suresh, The “Paper Case”: Evidence and Narrative of a Terrorism Trial in Delhi, Law & Society Review, Vol. 53(1) (2018)

Ravit Reichman, The Affective Life of Law: Legal Modernism and the Literary Imagination. Stanford Law Books, 2009.

Vijay Tendular, Silence; The court is in session,Oxford India Paperbacks, 1996

Tahima Annam, The Courthouse fromA Golden Age, Harper Perennial, 2009. (Extracts)

Additional Readings

Benjamin Balint, Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy. Norton & Co, 2019. (Extracts)



Module 5: Foundational Violence in law & literature

Robert Cover says  that “Legal interpretation takes place in a field of pain and death” and legal interpretive acts signal and occasion the imposition of violence upon others. And yet this experience of pain is often condemned to the life of a legally sanctioned amnesia. A life taken and a few freedoms lost to the force of law are reduced to cases, that will be studied, cited and discarded once their utility is over. And if the unworthy lives are expelled where do we retrieve their memory. The historical archive is clearly one of the sources and scholars like Radhika Singha and Shahid Amin have successfully retrieved many narratives of violence and pain from these archives. The literary archive however remains a bit of a mystery to legal scholars interested in understanding the arena of law as a field of pain and death. This module attempts to unearth through an analysis of literary texts a narrative that returns violence to its rightful origins: the place of law.



Donald Barthelme, Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby. Penguin, 2011.

Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading. Penguin UK, 2012. (Extracts)

Paul Dunbar, The Lynching Of Jube Benson

Jayanandita Kasibathla, Constituting the Exception: Law, Literature and the State of Emergency in Postcolonial India. UMI Dissertation Services, 2006. (Chapter 2)

Saadat Hassan Manto, Selected partition stories from Manto, Mottled Dawn. Penguin Books India, 2011.




Module 5. Modernism on trial

In the last module, we turn from the life of law in literature to  the legal careers of literature,  or specifically of a literary movement  namely Modernism. Modernist literature is inextricable from the history of obscenity. The trials of figures like James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence (including in India)  remain significant events in  the history of twentieth century literature.  These trials reveals how modernist obscenity reflected a contest  not just over the  idea of  obscenity,  but also of ideas of the literary in the face of new media technologies.  The module also returns us back to the core concerns of this course via an examination of  modernism’s reinvention of  literary language .  If on the one hand obscenity laws attempted to discipline literary experimentation,  then at the same time authors  were compelled to employ euphemism, irony, or silence in order to avoid legal consequences,  resulting in newer forms of writing and expression.




Ranjit D. Udeshi v. State of Maharashtra. AIR 1965 SC 881

Chris Forster, Chapter 1 & 2 Filthy Material: Modernism and the Media of Obscenity. OUP, 2018.

Kevin  Birmingham, Extracts from The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Head of Zeus, 2014.

Extracts from Robert Spoo, Modernism and the Law. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018.

Kajri Jain, Taking and Making Offence Husain and the Politics of Desecrationin Ramaswamy, Sumathi, Ed. Barefoot across the Nation: M F Husain and the Idea of India, Routledge, 2019.









  1. Instructional design 
The course will be a combination of lectures, thematic discussions and 

  2. Special needs (facilities, requirements in terms of software, studio, lab, clinic, 
library, classroom/others instructional space; any other – please specify) 

  3. Expertise in AUD faculty or outside 
: Within

Assessment Structure:

A combination of mid term examination, books reviews, response essays, presentations, final exam

Rough break up:

  1. Short Response Papers/Quizzes in Class: 10% x 2 =20%
  2. Mid Term Exam: 30 %
  3. End Term Written Exam: 40 %
  4. Participation & Presentations: 10 %


  1. Modifications on the basis of deliberations in the Board of Studies may be incorporated and the revised proposal should be submitted to the Academic Council.
  2. Courses which are meant to be part of more than one programme, and are to be shared across schools, may need to be taken through the Boards of Studies of the respective schools.
  3. In certain special cases, where a course does not belong to any particular school, the proposal may be submitted directly to the Academic Council.