A Legal Analysis Of The Pirates of Penzance

Keith
6 min readFeb 19, 2024

Having recently been cast as a random pirate (official character name: “Sponge Bob”) in a community theater production of The Pirates of Penzance, I set out to apply my legal acumen to address the core question of law presented in this musical farce. As I previously did with The Wizard of Oz I present this as a mock decision by a judge in court.

In Her Majesty’s Court of Common Pleas.

Frederick

v.

Pirate King

Decision And Order of the Court On Cross Motions For Summary Judgment

Judge Sergeant Presiding,

Introduction

The matter before this court involves a series of complex, and often absurd, events recorded in the documentary The Pirates of Penzance by William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. The parties in this matter have stipulated this documentary is substantially accurate. This court takes judicial notice as to the accuracy of this documentary and rules as a matter of law on cross motions for summary judgment as there remain no material facts in dispute.

Facts And Positions of the Parties

When Frederick was a little lad his nurse, Ruth, was tasked to have him apprenticed in the honorable trade of a ship’s pilot. Alas, being hard of hearing, Ruth (by all accounts an honest error) misheard the directive and apprenticed him instead as a pirate. Ruth contractually bound Frederick for a term defined as until his 21st birthday.

That Frederick was born on a leap day of a leap year creates a most ingenious paradox central to the dispute in this case. Frederick was born February 29th some 21 years prior to the court the hearing this case. As noted in the documentary, a year with the date of February 29th occurs but once every four years. Thus, while Frederick is indisputably 21 years of age, he has had but five “birthdays.”

Plaintiff, Frederick, comes to the court seeking declaratory judgment that he has fulfilled the terms of his indenturement and is thereby released from any service or obligation to the Pirate King.

Defendant, Pirate King, urges this court to apply the terms of the contract as they are plainly written. Pirate King seeks his own declaratory judgment that Frederick remains indentured as a pirate and will remain so until he has experienced 21 actual birthdays. Under the Pirate King’s interpretation the contract is a effectively for life as Frederick will be in his mid-80s (long past functioning pirate years) before having 21 “birthdays.”

Analysis

Contract legality issues and Frederick’s waiver.

There are three legal elephants in this contractual room that this court must address. These well established judicial pachyderms should result in this contract being regarded as a complete nullity, as void from the beginning.

The first of these problems is that Frederick was bound by this “contract” as a minor when he lacked legal capacity to enter contracts. It is well established that contracts entered into by minors are void and unenforceable by either party. While Ruth, as part of the pirate gang, argues she contractually bound Frederick en loco parentis, such a binding can persist only so long as she has en loco parentis power over Frederick. As he is an adult, she no longer does.

The second problem is that the contract is for indenturement, aka slavery. Slavery has long been abolished in England. We are, after all, a civilized nation, very much unlike the former Colonies now called “America.” A contract for slavery is thus void as it is a contract to violate public law and policy.

Which brings us to the related third problem. The contract is also for piracy. There can be no doubt that piracy is an illegal enterprise, and an illegal profession. Again, it is well established that a contract for an illegal enterprise is no contract at all and must be treated as void by any of Her Majesty’s courts. A contract for the indenturement of a pirate is no more valid or enforceable in law than a contract to a hire a murderer.

The barrier to ruling in Frederick’s favor, and dismissing this case on the above (very solid) grounds, is Frederick himself. Frederick insists that he is an honorable slave to duty and that he waives the above arguments. Frederick seeks a ruling on the merits of the core question related to leap years discussed above. When the court advised Frederick of its uncertainty that some of the above legal principles can be waived, Frederick insisted that if the court rules on those grounds that he will regard himself as continued in his indentureship.

The court finds that Frederick is a stickler for nonsense, but the court will, nonetheless, opine on this core question, in part because it leads to the same result.

The Core Question

Thus, the court arrives at addressing the paradox created by awkward phrasing of the term for this piratic contract. The Pirate King invokes the self serving doctrine that “it is it is a glorious thing to be a Pirate King.” Alas, all are equal before Her Majesty’s Court of Common Pleas, as the Pirate King in the court’s hearing on this matter reluctantly conceded.

This court is bound to give effect to the intent of the parties and to apply standard rules of contractual interpretation in doing so.

Among these rules is the doctrine of contra proferentem, that ambiguities in contractual terms are interpreted against the drafter of the contract. By that measure it is clear from the record that the contract was drafted by Ruth (now a pirate) and the pirates. It certainly was not drafted by Frederick who was but a lad at the time.

Had the drafters intended to indenture Frederick for life they could have done so much more easily than the awkward phrasing of “21 birthdays.” Nothing in the contract makes explicit mention of the leap year issue strongly suggesting that the drafters of the contract did not have that in mind when they did so. Rather, the more parsimonious interpretation is that the contract would last for 21 years and the court finds that was the likely intent when the contract was drafted.

Such interpretation is also supported by the fact that Ruth (as discussed above) could only legally bind Frederick, acting en loco parentis, until he was no longer a minor. Ruth’s authority en loco parentis extends only until Frederick is of age that the law deems him competent to contractually obligate himself. Regardless of how birthdays are counted it is indisputable that Frederick is at that stage now. Contracts should be interpreted in a manner that conforms to other aspects of law.

Finally, the course of performance under this contract conclusively establishes that the drafters themselves intended that Frederick be released from his indentures when turned 21 years of age, not on the 21st occasion of his experiencing a February 29th.

The pirates, including the Pirate King himself, made this absolutely clear, declaring that they wished Frederick well in his ventures as he was now out of his indentures. This rousing declaration was sealed over boisterous toasts of pirates sherry. With this the pirates, including the Pirate King, however reluctantly, released their former colleague and let him wander away. It was only later, with the hands of pretty maidens to parsonify and conjugally matrimonify on the line, that the Pirate King and Ruth sought to revoke their own prior interpretation of the clause at issue.

It is well established that the course of performance of a contract is relevant to ascertaining the meaning to specific terms of an agreement. See Uniform Commercial Code § 1–303(d).

The Pirate King’s specific release of Frederick, by the doctrine of estoppel, bars the Pirate King from now seeking to revoke that release. Put another way, the Pirate King’s release of Frederick waives any argument by the Pirate King now that the contract was understood to extend for the duration he now urges this court to adopt.

Judgement

Accordingly, this court declares that Frederick has fully satisfied the terms of contract with the Pirate King and is hereby released from all of its terms. Frederick is free to resist the Pirate King’s efforts to compel the farewell to the felicity of maiden domesticity if he so chooses.

The court grants in full Frederick’s motion for summary judgement and denies the Pirate King’s motion for summary judgment in full.

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Keith

Retired lawyer & Army vet in The Villages of Florida. Lifelong: Republican (pre-Trump), Constitution buff, science nerd & dog lover. Twitter: @KeithDB80