Legal Characters

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Introduction to Character Type

The designation "legal" describes a large group of stock characters within the collection of plays. The frequency of recurrence and the degree of satire of this particular type may be attributed in some ways to the fact that the major playwrights (George Colman the Elder, Samuel Foote, David Garrick, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan) studied law in London before turning to the stage. The playwrights' ease in manipulating legal language within the characters' speeches speaks to their high levels of education, while the typically boring and unhelpful nature of the legal characters offers insight about potential causes for the playwrights' ultimate career choices.

Members of this group are distinguished by their use of legal language in their colloquial speech, particularly by their reliance upon Latin terms, which they use with unparalleled liberality. Legal characters do not often take major roles in the collection of plays, but generally serve as counselors to the plots' main participants. Characters grouped under this banner range in profession from lawyer's clerk (e.g. Scribble, in Polly Honeycombe (1760)) to judge (e.g. Justice Woodcock, in Love in a Village (1762; published 1763)). The legal characters often use the terminology particular to their profession outside of professional contexts; for instance, Scribble speaks in Standard English until he is exposed as a mere clerk, at which point he threatens to execute legal vengeance on Mr. Honeycombe in a speech rife with specific terms. Despite the variation between ranks within the profession, all legal characters employ the same linguistic traits. The particular terminology is often difficult to understand, as in this example from The Englishman Return'd from Paris (1756):

Latitat. Why, Mr. Crab , as you are already possess'd of a Probat, and Letters of Administration de Bonis, are granted, you may sue, or be sued; I hold it sound Doctrine, for no Executor to discharge Debts, without a Receipt upon Record: This can be obtain'd by no Means, but by an Action. Now Actions, Sir, are of various Kinds: There are special Actions, Actions on the Case, or Assumpsit's ; Actions of Trover, Actions of Clausum fregit , Actions of Battery, Actions of---

Crab. Hey, the Devil, where's the Fellow running now?---But heark'ee, Latitat , why I thought all our Law Proceedings were directed to be in English (Foote 10).

As this excerpt demonstrates, the stock legal characters are insensitive to the general public's unawareness of the meanings of legal language's specific terms. This group of characters is most self-conscious about its use of language, as is shown in a debate about an Indian legal term in Foote's The Nabob (1772; published 1778). Despite professional requirements for clarity and precision, the careful word choice and specific terminology of the legal characters often proves to be annoying to others:

Justice. Why zounds! Madam, how durst you talk so, if you have no respect for your husband, I should think unus quorum might command a little deference.

Bridget. Don't tell me---Unus findlestick, you ought to be asham'd to shew your face at the sessions, you'll be a laughing stock to the whole bench, and a byeword with all the pig-tail'd Lawyers, and bag-wig'd Attornies about town (Sheridan 21).

Further, because of their pedantic qualities, legal characters are often the butts of satire. A particularly biting example by Foote is his portrayal of the legal oratory style in The Orators (1762):

COUNSELLOR stops the Clerk short. May it please your worship---hem---I am counsel in this cause for the ghost---hem---and before I can permit her to plead, I have an objection to make, that is---hem---I shall object to her pleading at all---hem---it is the standing law of this country---hem---and has ---hem---always been so allow'd, deem'd, and practis'd that---hem---all criminals should be try'd per pares , by their equals---hem---that is---hem---by a jury of equal rank with themselves. Now, if this be the case, as the case it is; I---hem---I should be glad to know, how my client can be try'd in this here manner (Foote 38).

The lawyer's ridiculous seriousness about protecting his spectral client's rights and his frequent hemming and hawing would undoubtedly have been appreciated by the audience; these qualities conform to the recognizable stereotypical character type of the lawyer. Another recurring character type within this group is that of the paternal Justice, which is found in Bickerstaff's Love in a Village (1762; published 1763) and in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's St. Patrick's Day (1775; published 1788); this character is irascible, peevish and mocked at the play's conclusion. In contrast, Manlove, the enlightened guardian of Cumberland's The Choleric Man (1774; published 1775) is a kindly and resourceful character whose thriving legal practice reflects his good character.

The legal characters' main character and linguistic traits include a penchant for pedantry, an obsession with Latin terms, and a lack of real involvement in the development of the plot. As noted above, the playwrights' particularly satirical portrayals of legal characters may have been influenced by their personal experiences as law students. The frequency of recurrence of this character type suggests that the London audience recognized and appreciated the social commentary associated with this stock character.

Works Cited:

Foote, Samuel.The Englishman Return'd from Paris. London: Paul Vaillant, 1756. Literature Online. 12 August 2008.

---. The Orators. London: J. Coote, G. Kearsly, and T. Davies, 1762. Literature Online. 12 August 2008.

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. St. Patrick's Day. London: for the Booksellers, 1788. Literature Online. 12 August 2008.

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List of Plays

Love in a Village (Bickerstaff)

Polly Honeycombe (Colman)

The Clandestine Marriage (Colman and Garrick)

The Choleric Man (Cumberland)

False Impressions (Cumberland)

The Englishman Return'd from Paris (Foote)

The Orators (Foote)

The Trial of Samuel Foote, Esq. (Foote)

The Nabob (Foote)

The Upholsterer (Murphy)

St. Patrick's Day (R.B. Sheridan)

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©2008 Arden Hegele