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English Literature

Themes

Justice and the Law

The words justice and law are frequently heard in the play [play: A dramatic composition written for performance by actors on a stage. ].

Alfieri, the lawyer, establishes that justice and the law are going to be important in the play in his opening speech. He sets the story that he is going to tell us in the context [context: The social, political and historical circumstances surrounding a text. ] of history, both ancient and modern.

"In Sicily, from where their fathers came, the law has not been a friendly idea since the Greeks were beaten.."

"I only came here when I was twenty-five. In those days, Al Capone, the greatest Carthaginian of all, was learning his trade on these pavements, and Frankie Yale himself was cut precisely in half by a machine-gun on the corner of Union Street, two blocks away."

The fact that Alfieri goes on to state that lawyers in ancient times, as well as he in modern times, were unable to prevent a "complaint" running a "bloody course" causes us to question the power and influence of the law. In other words, although justice is very important, often the law as it stands is incapable of delivering justice.

Alfieri believes that it is best to "settle for half": it is better to rely on written law as far as possible and accept it even when you are only 'half' satisfied. The written law may not always act in favour of justice yet it is better to follow the law than to take it into your own hands. In the play we see that Eddie betrays Marco and Rodolpho, there is no law to punish Eddie so Marco takes the law into his own hands, the play ends with a fight to the death. Alfieri reiterates his beliefs at the end of the play: "Most of the time now we settle for half and I like it better." Alfieri values the law more than justice, he sees that when people go against the law to assert justice it can lead to conflict [conflict: Tension caused by a disagreement between people with different opinions, facts or beliefs. ] and death.

The play encourages us to ask what is justice? What makes justice? Both Eddie and Marco have strong ideas of what is 'just' and are prepared to go to great lengths to achieve it. The characters often mistake their own desires for justice, they fail to look for a higher principle of justice seperate from their own feelings, this is what leads to conflict.

Here are some more instances in the play when justice and the law feature:

  • The story of Vinny Bolzano is an example of how someone obeying the law (as Vinny technically was when he informed on his uncle) is actually doing something unjust. Do you think the treatment of Vinny by his relations was just?
  • Alfieri tries to warn Eddie about his relationship with Catherine and argues with him to allow her to marry Rodolpho. "When the law is wrong it's because it's unnatural, but in this case it is natural and a river will drown you if you buck it now." He is suggesting that it is Eddie's feelings for Catherine that are 'unnatural'.
  • Eddie makes recourse to the law that he spurned when he telephones the Immigration Bureau. Eddie has no fixed principle of justice, his feelings dictate what he believes to be 'just'.
  • Alfieri tries to make Marco realise who is the real 'judge' of events - God. "You hear? Only God makes justice.".

Both Eddie and Marco allow their personal feelings to affect their idea of justice. They are not strong enough to take an objective view. We see that Alfieri is right, people are not strong enough to execute true justice, their desires and feeling always take a part. This is why it is better to rely on the law, which although flawed offers an objective view.

Note down other references to justice and law in the play and decide what ideas they contribute to the theme [theme: A central, unifying idea that runs through a text or performance. ].

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