The letter of the law v. the spirit of the law: a study of the binary's representation in literature

Open Access
Beltz, Laura Ann
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Rosa A Eberly, Thesis Supervisor
  • Lisa Ruth Sternlieb, Honors Advisor
  • law
  • literature
  • spirit of the law
  • letter of the law
  • Shakespeare
  • Melville
This paper examines one of the most important binaries in the study of law: making judicial rulings based on the letter of the law v. the spirit of the law. The Code of Hammurabi, the Twelve Tables, and the Bible were chosen as the foundational texts that have most significantly influenced Western Law. While scholars have studied the legal contributions of these texts in the past, this paper specifically examines the way these codes founded the issue of letter v. spirit of the law. One way that they founded the letter v. spirit of the law debate is by influencing the way the general public would perceive the binary, which would surface in popular Western literature. Shakespeare and Melville, though both focusing on the letter v. spirit debate in their works, portray the binary differently because of their specific historical and cultural contexts. Public perception of this binary is therefore dynamic and dependent upon an individual’s attitude regarding the social good.