Some time ago, I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Shakespeare as Life Coach”, which opined, among other things, that “Romeo and Juliet” was not so much about the two young lovers but about their families, who were so caught up in their own agendas that they were neglectful of the pressing, immediate needs of their children. Had they been acting as parents, they could have possibly averted disaster by providing advice and counsel to their children, around whom events were spiraling out of control.
The plays of Shakespeare offer similar life-lessons for lawyers, and several examples are provided here. These legal case-studies are presented in no particular order; nor is this list exhaustive: you may find more.
“Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”: If you have ever represented a smart, dark, angry and brooding young man who poses a danger to himself and to others, you know Hamlet. You may have even represented a Hamlet in juvenile or criminal court. I am of the opinion, not originally my own, that the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who haunts young Hamlet and encourages him to kill his step-father, is not so much intended to be a real ghost, but is a device utilized to show Prince Hamlet’s unhinged frame of mind. His love of his deceased father and his hatred of his step-father morph into a directive by his father’s ghost for revenge.
The mayhem that ensues is not all Hamlet’s doing, but most of it is. By the time this play is over, Hamlet has killed Polonius, and has caused Ophelia, Polonius’s daughter and Hamlet’s fragile girlfriend, to kill herself. Hamlet and Laertes have mortally wounded each other with poisoned swords. Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, has accidentally consumed poison that was meant for Hamlet; and Hamlet finally accomplishes his initial goal of killing his step-father prior to succumbing to the Laertes’ poisoned sword. And oh yes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.
Domestic violence plays the leading roll in “Othello, The Moor of Venice” as well: In “Othello”, Shakespeare mines the darkest corners of the male id. Whether or not you are familiar with the play, you know this story: A passionate, whirlwind romance results in a quick wedding. Othello’s passion for his wife, Desdemona, quickly morphs into unfounded, insane jealousy, then physical abuse, until the domestic violence culminates in Othello’s murder of his wife.
The writer uses Othello’s racial minority status to accentuate his isolation. Desdemona’s father is angry at the pairing of his daughter with Othello; therefore, her family is unavailable to help her. Othello’s information and counsel comes from the villain Iago, who vengefully and gleefully feeds Othello’s suspicions and conjures his demons (the term “green-eyed monster” has its origin in this play). But the real villain is Othello himself, whose insecurities, self-doubt and male pride serve to turn Desdemona’s life into a living hell culminating in a brutal death. Unable to see his own depraved heart, Othello in the end describes himself as “one that loved not wisely but too well.”
A modern-day Desdemona has more and better options. She might now be empowered to pull away from an abusive situation and sue for divorce in order to escape the escalating violence. Charitable organizations such as the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults and the Children’s Advocacy Center provide front-line emergency assistance to people in abusive family situations; we attorneys then steer them through the legal system, obtaining protective orders, orders of support, and ultimately a judgment for divorce. In your law practice, you may have represented an Othello or a Desdemona in divorce court, and you may have helped to save a life.
“King Lear”: On its face, “King Lear” appears to be about age and dementia, but it is really about the ugly family dynamics that arise when the patriarch is in his winter years and there is a fortune to be had. How do Lear’s daughters respond to his age and dementia? Two sisters revive a life-long rivalry with the third which culminates in the disinheritance of the third daughter and the seizure and appropriation of Lear’s power and his wealth. Lear, meanwhile, is rendered homeless, hungry, and exposed to the elements, a raging, angry old man.
“King Lear” is a case study on how not to treat an aging parent. Elder-law and estate-planning attorneys assist in protecting would-be Lears from exploitation, abuse, and their own future insanity through powers of attorney, wills, trusts, non-objection clauses, spendthrift clauses, and a myriad of other legal tools. Powers of attorney serve to put control into one child over the others. Conservatorship actions help restore order when the elderly are being exploited.
“The Merchant of Venice”: Much of this play takes place at the negotiation table and in the courtroom, and this is the most overtly-legal of Shakespeare’s plays (and, if you don’t know this already, it is also cringingly anti-Semitic): It focuses on a loan transaction containing a particularly draconian contract clause, and the play’s climax is a full-blown courtroom drama regarding the enforcement of the lender’s contractual remedies.
Our naïve hero, Bassanio, has entered into a loan agreement with a business rival, the villain Shylock. Shylock has reasons to see Bassanio dead and to further see to it that the loan defaults. Shylock’s contract states that if the borrowed money is not paid back by a date certain, the penalty is a “pound of his fair flesh to be cut off and taken in what part of his body pleaseth Shylock.”
Spoiler alert: If you are suddenly compelled to read “The Merchant of Venice”, stop here because I am about to give away the play’s surprise ending. As the drama unfolds in open court, Bassanio is saved by a technicality: Faced with a legally enforceable, executed contract (this is a stage play in the year 1595 – just go with it), the court finds that it has no choice but to award Shylock his pound of flesh; but the judge further decrees that in taking that pound of flesh, Shylock must not spill one drop of Bassanio’s blood, blood and flesh being separate and severable in the eyes of the court. This, of course, renders Shylock’s award unenforceable.
It is also a prime example of the rule of contract interpretation which provides that ambiguous contract language will be construed against the drafter of the agreement.
Shakespeare’s most famous reference to lawyers is in “Henry VI, Part 2”: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” This line is often played for laughs as a 500-year lawyer joke, but in context, the character speaking is Jake the Butcher, a plotter in a gang of militant insurgents. Knowing that the rights of individuals find their greatest protection in the rule of law, Jake proposes eliminating the power of the people by exterminating the people’s advocates. As Justice John Paul Stevens once said, “Shakespeare insightfully realized that disposing of lawyers is a step in the direction of a totalitarian form of government.”
Quotes are often used out of context, and Shakespeare’s purported “lawyer joke” is a fine example of that.