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The Legal System, Legal Responsibility, and Sweeney Todd

This legal look at Sweeney Todd is by Oxford Law Division Editorial Assistant Michelle Lipinski.

The legend of Sweeney Todd has been trimmed and altered with the passage of time. The characters have also changed and their narratives fleshed-out. One point, though, remaining fairly static in the legend is the presence of lawmakers and legal defenders – starting with the creation of Sweeney Todd in The String of Pearls: A Romance, and all the way up to director Tim Burton’s newest cinematic installment based upon Sondheim’s musical adaptation, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

In The String of Pearls, a “penny blood” version of the Sweeney Todd legend lawyers are the customers feasting at 9780199543441.jpgMrs. Lovett’s pie shop, as “there was such a rush of the legal profession to obtain” the pies (29). Ironically, the lawyers are unwittingly committing obstruction of justice – they are destroying, by devouring it, the evidentiary trail that could have led them straight to Todd’s murderous activity. The fun made at the lawyer’s expense in the original story isn’t always so subtle. At one point, Todd’s apprentice tells a lawyer at the pie shop: “I have gone into another line: instead of being a lawyer, and helping to shave the clients, I am going to shave lawyers now” (31).

Lawyers, common fodder for literary and theatrical torment (e.g., Henry VI’s “first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”), are an apt target in Todd’s story. The view of legal professionals and the law is an unflattering one in all of the versions of Sweeney Todd, and the aversion to the profession amplifies with each new adaptation. Tim Burton is no exception, adding new intricacies and heft to a classic horror narrative in his film version. And thus with razor sharp eyes, let’s turn to Tim Burton’s cinematic interpretation. Burton employs his satirical bent to position the lawyers, judiciary, and the rule of the law in London as destructive and corrupted organs in an unfair governing body – a body that Johnny Depp’s character, Todd, would no doubt like to drain of blood and make into utter mincemeat.

To explain Todd’s metamorphosis into the demon barber, Burton’s film exposes a warped legal system. The powerful Judge Turpin is played by the deliciously devilish Alan Rickman. It is Turpin’s abuse of legal power that sparks the Todd’s vengeance. Not only does Judge Turpin create a false charge and extradite Todd to Australia, he rapes Todd’s wife and takes advantage of the cockeyed London legal system to dub himself the guardian of Johanna, Todd’s daughter and now Turpin’s closely held “ward.”

A pious vulture of the law,
Who, with a gesture of his claw,
Removed the barber from his plate,
Then there was nothing but to wait

Turpin’s character is completely unforgivable. In one courtroom scene, he lays down a death sentence and the camera quickly pans to show a mere child in the defendant’s chair. All of this adds a flare of hilarity to his role while simultaneously cementing his undiscriminating villainy. Yet the Judge’s absolute corruption makes him more of a caricature and less of a believable real-life judge, similar to the cartoon-like show of tomato-red blood spurting from the necks of Todd’s victims. London law is corrupt by extension for allowing the indiscretions of Judge Turpin to continue unabated, making it easy for viewers to agree with Todd when he sings: “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit / and the vermin of the world inhabit it / and its morals aren’t worth what a pin can spit / and it goes by the name of London.”

Burton’s Todd is completely disenchanted by a legal system that took advantage of his innocent and naïve nature. His anger and lust for revenge could be argued as an unfortunate by-product of the legal system. The question of blame is complicated because it asks viewers to ponder the outcome of legal penal policy, responsibility, and any resulting vengeance – in other words, are we truly free from blame when our system unfairly punishes? Because this is a debatable point, Burton gives the audience the opportunity to identify with Todd, and almost partially forgive his ruthless, throat-slashing tirades. Almost.

By the midpoint of the movie and once all respect for the law is shattered, Todd has freed himself from the respect for the law to practice his grim philosophy, which he candidly explains to Mrs. Lovett:

The history of the world, my sweet —
Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat
It’s a matter of “just deserts.”

Judges and lawyers are easy targets as savory ingredients for Sweeney Todd, who sings “Lawyer’s rather nice. / If it’s for a price,” as Mrs. Lovett chimes in: “Order something else, though to follow, / Since no one should shallow it twice!” Later in the same number, Todd exclaims: “I’ll come again when you have JUDGE on the menu!”
Because of the lack of a working justice system, justice in Burton’s film is meted out vigilante style. And because it is at the legal system’s expense, Burton’s film is all the more enjoyable.

So what should the balance be between legal responsibility and punishment? For more information, check out:
Law without Justice: Why Criminal Law Doesn’t Give People What They Deserve, Paul H. Robinson and Michael T. Cahill. Look for Robinson’s newest book, Principles for the Distribution of Criminal Liability & Punishment: A Practical Theory, later this year.
Controversies in Criminal Justice, Contemporary readings, Scott H. Decker
The Habits of Legality: Criminal Justice and the Rule of Law, Francis A. Allen.
Overcriminalization: The Limits of the Criminal Law, Douglas Husak

And to get a fairer and more favorable account of the legal profession, check out these books:
Law 101: Everything You Need to Know About the American Legal System, Jay M. Feinman
Access to Justice, Deborah L. Rhode

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