Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years: W.S. Gilbert and the Fantasy of Justice

By Kertzer, Jon | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2003 | Go to article overview

Life Plus Ninety-Nine Years: W.S. Gilbert and the Fantasy of Justice


Kertzer, Jon, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Gilbert and Sullivan's operas are satires about the law illustrating how judicial reasoning stretches into fantasy to fulfill a logical demand for a symbolic, redemptive accord between crime and punishment. The disjunction between justice and law provokes confusion resolved imperfectly but delightfully through the legal absurdities and musical harmonies of romantic comedy.

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By "the fantasy of justice" I mean the reasoning that leads to bizarre yet fair judicial punishments such as three life sentences to be served concurrently, or life plus ninety-nine years in prison. Ninety-nine is a magical number whose efficacy is symbolic rather than practical. It illustrates how justice summons imagination to satisfy a logic of atonement by calculating the extraordinary punishment commensurate with an appalling crime. The judicious merges with the fantastic, not in defiance of reason, but in fulfillment of it; or, as Pierre Bourdieu observes, "the most rigorously rationalized law is never anything more than an act of social magic which works" (42).

My purpose is to investigate how justice "works" in literature by drawing on the Savoy operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Gilbert, who was called to the Bar in 1863 and appointed justice of the peace in 1891 (Stedman 20,281), was fascinated by the impudence of jurisprudence. He sensed, as Max Keith Sutton perceptively remarks, that "the law had some primal connection with humor" (23), because its theatricality (wigs, woolsacks, Latin phrases) inspires reverence in all-too-fallible authorities. Virtually every opera satirizes abuses of the British legal system: its maze of incomprehensible regulations, its courtroom solemnities concealing bias or incompetence. My concern is less with abuses of a just system, however, than with inconsistencies evident within the system when justice and legality are at odds--an oddity that Gilbert elaborates by lampooning the conventions of romantic comedy with its promise of poetic justice. More specifically, I argue that a logic of proportional substitution whereby crime is matched symbolically with a punishment that achieves atonement through suffering forces the reach of justice to exceed its grasp. Justice reaches upward to divinity and downward to nature but cannot find a secure foundation in either because it relies on the unruly discourses of legality, which are guilty of the very crimes they mean to correct.

For Bourdieu, the magic of the law is its quasi-divine power of command, which compels faith in judicial authority and assent on matters of life and death: "Legal discourse is a creative speech which brings into existence that which it utters. It is the limit aimed at by all performative utterances--blessings, curses, orders, wishes or insults. In other words, it is the divine word, the word of divine right" (42). As a divine word, the law can project itself beyond death (life plus ninety-nine years), but only by drawing on the resources of art. To explore the interdependence of reason and magic I first call witnesses from three sources: theological, sociological, and literary.

First is Moses Maimonides, who explains in The Guide for the Perplexed that laws are never self-sufficient but must derive authority from a prophetic angel bearing the word of God: "Even Moses our Teacher received his first prophecy through an angel. 'And an angel of the Lord appeared to him in the flame of fire' (Exod. iii). It is therefore clear that the belief in the existence of angels precedes the belief in prophecy, and the latter precedes the belief in the Law" (356). This sequence--God-angel-prophecy-law--anchors legality in morality, and morality in divinity. The law is true and just only because it is God's Law, which, however, is not immediately knowable but requires a line of transmission urged by revelation, recorded in scripture, and sustained by faith.

My second witness is Bourdieu, who desanctifies this sequence, which he calls "symbolic power," by replacing divine prophecy with human "ministry," which is "the delegation by virtue of which an individual--king, priest or spokesperson--is mandated to speak and act on behalf of a group, thus constituted in him and by him" (75). …

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