Laughing at the Law

Because law is so serious, it begs to be satirized. What better reason is there for humor?

Publishers have eagerly responded to this need with a wealth of figurative illustrations—biting, mocking, aggressive, droll, or simply entertaining.

These illustrations lift readers above the legal texts in which they appear, placing them in a critical relationship to legal rules and the language of the law.

Hi, Allen! How’s the weather up there?

The penultimate case in our digital gallery tour—“Laughing—and Crying—at the Law”—is devoted to such images (as always, mouse over for links). 

They range widely in time and place.

There’s the Politische Schnupf-Tobacs-Dose vor die wächserne Nase der Justitz, from eighteenth-century Germany. It presents legal questions in the guise of “snuff,” with the solution to each problem expelled from Justitia’s nostrils:


Or there’s the Comic Blackstone from late nineteenth-century Britain—which, like many instances of illustrated legal humor, takes aim at law books themselves:

And the great twentieth-century French satirist Joseph Hemard’s illustrated tax code:

And the wildly brilliant Illustrated iTunes Terms and Conditions by R. Sikoryak:

Many of these images are weapons of the weak. They are observations about law from outside of the legal profession—from the law’s clients who sometimes become its victims. Humorous book illustrations are instruments used to fight back against a system of “justice” that metes out injustice.

We’ll leave you with Read Hodson’s The honest man’s companion, from 1736:

Consider yon innocent and credulous (and tasty) “Clyent Sheep”:

He’s in a bit of legal trouble. But he may not receive the best advice from Attorney Wolf, Lawyer Fox, or Bailiff Bear. And Griffin Goaler would like to “come in for snacks.”

Poor Sheepie seems not to grasp what his counselors are saying—but then, how could he possibly understand the language contained in those books and case files on the wall?


Read Hodshon, The honest man’s companion, or, The family’s safeguard. Newcastle upon Tyne: Printed for the author, and sold by M. Bryson, 1736. From the collection of Anthony Taussig. Acquired with the support of the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund.

Mark S. Weiner and Mike Widener


Next up, our final stop, “Beautifying the Law.”

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