Courtroom Drama: Background information when reading Defending Jacob

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Defending Jacob

A Novel

by William Landay

Defending Jacob by William Landay X
Defending Jacob by William Landay
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2012, 432 pages
    Feb 2013, 496 pages

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Beyond the Book:
Courtroom Drama

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The thrill of watching a trial unfold - the impassioned speeches, quick-witted lawyers, surprise witnesses, the piecing together of clues, not knowing if justice will prevail - it can all make for exciting, and in some cases legendary, storytelling. "Courtroom drama", a subgenre of "legal drama", is a term used to describe dramatic fiction in which legal litigation plays out with suspenseful and climactic courtroom scenes. In modern times, these scenes usually take place in what we recognize as legal courtrooms (hence the name), though in older texts the "courtrooms" might actually have looked like public forums or gatherings.

Though we often associate the genre with television (e.g. Perry Mason or Law and Order) or film (think of Jack Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth!" moment in A Few Good Men), courtroom drama is overwhelmingly popular in literature as well. [Indeed, it predates television and film by a couple thousand years; one of the first written works that we would now label as "courtroom drama" is The Eumenides, a Greek tragedy written by Aeschylus and performed in 458 BC. In it, Athena acted as judge, and Apollo, the defense attorney.]

scene from The Merchant of Venice

According to author Catherine C. Mambretti, "In the West, it was not until literacy became widespread (after the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century) that fictional trials can be found." From William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in which Antonio and Shylock go to court over an unpaid debt, to Charles Dickens's Bleak House in which feuding family members argue over inheritance; from Franz Kafka's existentialist The Trial to Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men and Harper Lee's beloved classic To Kill a Mockingbird, courtroom drama has been delicious fodder for literary greats throughout the ages.

The popularity of courtroom dramas increased in the 20th century, perhaps because legal cases had more media coverage than ever before. The infamous Nuremberg Trials, in which WWII Allied forces took members of the Nazi party to court in 1945-1946, emphasized the idea that justice could be obtained via law and order rather than violence. The rise of television and film accentuated the drama in legal cases, making them all the more entertaining to literary and viewing audiences. For example, in the video below, Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, directed by Robert Mulligan (1962).

Today, courtroom drama is often written by lawyers-turned-authors, such as Scott Turow, John Grisham, and William Landay, author of Defending Jacob.

This article was originally published in February 2012, and has been updated for the February 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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