This is the fourth post in a series in which I explore what classic film actresses in iconic roles can teach us — and, more particularly, my fast-growing daughter — about the seven classic virtues. These posts follow the order of the virtues that Dante encounters in his journey up through Purgatorio. The first post was on humility and Ingrid Bergman’s character in Casablanca. The second was “Jean Arthur and Virtue of Kindness.”  The third post examined the power of meekness through Donna Reed’s character in It’s A Wonderful Life.


By Sarah McCullough Cornwell

Katherine Hepburn’s character in Adam’s Rib builds upon Dante’s two exemplars of zeal in Purgatorio, enabling her to combat the sloth of the modern judicial system (which, in some ways, can be understood through Dante’s examples of this same vice). This conversation between a 1320 text and a 1949 film provides an odd but potentially insightful window into the nature of zeal and sloth. It’s also a means of better appreciating the complementary — as opposed to antagonistic — relationship between men and women, particularly in a marriage.


On the fourth terrace in purgatory, Dante provides two examples of zeal. The first is the Virgin Mary, immediately following her visitation by the archangel Gabriel, hastening to the hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth. In this case, Mary shows us that when called by the Lord to go and do something, we should not delay nor be deterred by a difficult journey.

The second example of zeal is Julius Caesar’s successful military campaign in Ilerda, Spain, which further led to Caesar’s ultimate defeat of his rival Pompey in Greece. The Ilerda campaign was challenging, and Caesar needed a creative strategy to be victorious. Caesar’s military campaign in Spain shows us that zeal requires creativity in the face of obstacles and a recognition that each step along the Lord’s path sets the stage for the next task he gives us.

This willingness and ingenuity to take on difficult terrain coupled with the stamina required for the long-haul is exactly what Dante’s examples of the slothful lack. On this fourth terrace, Dante and his guides encounter a mass of people engaged in perpetual, hurried activity. As a crowd rushes by, two sorry wretches bringing up the rear lament two examples of the earthly slothful: the wayward Israelites in the desert, and the Trojans who chose to abandon the mythical Aeneus partway through their arduous journey and build a life of comfort, rather than continue to press on through additional considerable hardships to found the city of Rome. The slothful Israelites and Trojans lack the fortitude required to see a journey through all its hardships and instead choose to fall back on immediate comforts.

If one watches only three quarters of the movie, Adam’s Rib may appear to simply cast the female lead as the virtuous zealot for justice and her husband as the slothful enforcer of a patriarchal status quo. However, taken as a whole, the movie portrays a subtle balance between the two sexes, and between the scales of our justice system, that remains instructively relevant today.

In the opening scene, a woman follows her husband to an apartment where she discovers him in the embrace of another woman and after taking unsteady aim, fires several shots in the illicit couple’s direction, wounding her husband. The scene changes to a contrastingly happy domestic situation where Katherine Hepburn rouses her drowsy husband, Spencer Tracy, out of bed. Hepburn reads about the shooting in the morning newspaper and she and Tracy begin a debate that lasts the entire length of the film regarding the extent that the woman who shot her husband should be held legally responsible for her actions.

Hepburn, a defense attorney, takes the position that the wronged wife, who has since been arrested for attempted murder, is as much justified in her actions as a man would be in an identical situation. She argues that society is more willing to look the other way regarding a philandering husband (“boys will be boys”), and therefore that the wronged wife’s action defending her home will be treated as wholly out of proportion. However, if a woman were the one who was keeping a lover, which would have been much more outside the societal norm, an identical action on the part of the cuckolded husband — firing a gun at the home-wrecking lover — would likely be perceived as reasonable. For Hepburn, this is not equality under the law. If a jury would return a non-guilty verdict for a man then they should also return a non-guilty verdict for a woman committing the same act.

Spencer Tracy is a prosecutor. He believes that the law is the law, and if you break it, you should go to jail. If men and women do not have the law equally applied to them, then the law should be amended to guarantee greater fairness and accountability, not equally ignored in the case of both sexes. Hepburn and Tracy’s debate moves from the abstract to the personal when Tracy is assigned to prosecute the wife who shot her husband. Upon finding this out, Hepburn arranges to be the wife’s defense counsel, which pits Hepburn and Tracy against one another in the courtroom and after hours, at home.

Hepburn employs an inexhaustible creative energy, a zeal, in mounting her defense: Instead of defending her client’s actions, she puts society’s views of women as weak and hysterical on trial, forcing Spencer Tracy to play defense for the majority of the trial. She challenges the potential prejudices of the jury, and society at large via the media coverage, by calling witnesses that demonstrate that women are men’s equals in a variety of measures and thereby deserving of the same kind of justice in a courtroom that is afforded to men. Her robust defense forces Tracy to match Hepburn’s energy. He no longer could simply prosecute a case from which his office expected a quick and easy conviction, but must instead defend the entire American justice system.

The verdict may seem a victory for one side over the other (I’ll let readers see the film for themselves to find out which), but the film eschews vapid sentimentality and does not treat it as a simple triumph of justice. There is a recognition that there are no easy solutions to complex problems that arise in human institutions that seek to justly govern a diverse polity. Following the trial, Tracy and Hepburn’s marriage is on very rocky ground and, in a risky but creative move, Tracy gets Hepburn to admit that she agrees with his point of view regarding the guilt under the law of her client. Does this mean that Hepburn was wrong in all of her efforts and that Tracy was right all along?  Again, the film reminds us that these complex questions of societal norms and law and order do not break down into simple categories.

What the film shows us, and what Hepburn and Tracy realize by the end, is that each of their arguments has merit complementing the merit of the other’s argument, and each line of reasoning has flaws which are compensated for by the other’s point of view. Yes, Hepburn’s client was guilty of breaking the law and yes, Hepburn’s client should be given the same kind of sentence or acquittal that a man would get in an identical situation. However, in a functioning system of justice, anyone, male or female, who breaks the law should be found guilty and held accountable. To continue to not hold men and women accountable for their illegal actions further compromises a flawed justice system and moves society a further step away from a just polity.

Zeal requires both a faithful energetic immediacy — Mary setting out on her uphill journey to visit Elizabeth directly following her encounter with the archangel — as well as a steadfast long-term commitment to take the next step in a journey and not quit when one has only gone partway. But Dante shows us that self-sacrifice (Aeneas), creative tactics (Caesar), and an appreciation for the ways in each step lays the ground — be it rocky or stable — for the next step are necessary as well. In other words, zeal must balance “leap before you look” with “look before you leap” — the sin of sloth can lead to both slovenly inaction and a kind of lazy impulsivity.

Hepburn and Tracy’s marriage contains this zealous balance. What at first appears to be a competition between contrasting ideas, in fact revealed itself to be a balance between two different but equally necessary halves to a greater whole. Hepburn is like Mary: immediately setting out on an uphill journey to take on a judicial system that has become slothfully comfortable with the incomplete justice it meets out on the public. Her zeal, in turn, inspired the zeal in Tracy who complemented her perspective with the long-term vision of where the present needed to direct itself to arrive at a more equitable and ideal form of justice.

Similarly, at the end, both Hepburn and Tracy have different but complementary roles to play in bringing about a reconciliation between them.   Tracy begins to weep in the divorce lawyer’s office, which prompts Hepburn to cancel the proceedings and lead Tracy out of the office.  (One might read this as a fun little twist on the gender norms of the time where it was usually women who were portrayed as emotional and men as the ones who take charge.)  In this case, both actions—the weeping and the steering towards the door—were needed in the immediate short-term to keep Hepburn and Tracy’s long-term, lifelong marital journey on course.  In marriage, even though the roles you play differ, the couple is still walking side-by-side, either up to the altar, or, perhaps later, out of a divorce attorney’s office, refusing to quit because the road is tough.

In City of God, St. Augustine highlights the detail that God created woman from Adam’s rib. Woman was not created from Adam’s head — which could imply female elevation or superiority over men — nor was woman created from a bone in the foot — which could instead imply her inferiority. The rib is at the center of the body and thus signifies equality between men and women. Right up until the end of Adam’s Rib, Hepburn and Tracy continue their debate, continue their dance. Women should be held equally accountable for their actions, the same as a man, but there is at least a small difference between men and women, which, while not interfering with the equality between the two, does not render the two sexes as interchangeable. However, the little difference between men and women — and I will leave it to others to continue Hepburn and Tracy’s debate as to what that is — does not need to lead to a permanent rift between the sexes.

Hepburn’s zealous defense of her client revealed the flaws in a judicial system that had grown slothful in its duty to its citizenry. Tracy’s zealous defense of what the judicial system is meant to be provided a way forward to a more just future in which Hepburn’s line of defense would be unnecessary. Both would agree that this conclusion would be a “win” for women and society at large. Theirs is a marriage of ideas which will require a long-term immediacy of energy and creativity — zeal — to see their journey through to the very end.

Sarah Cornwell is a laywoman, ballet teacher, and homeschooling mother of five.  She lives with her husband in the Hudson Valley north of New York City.

About The Author

Sarah Cornwell is a laywoman, ballet teacher, and the mother of six children.

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