April 1, 2007

Hamlet on Trial

From the NewsHour:
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy presided over a "trial" of Hamlet in a Kennedy Center production taking place during a six-month celebration of Shakespeare in Washington, D.C.

COURTROOM ANNOUNCER: In the matter of the Crown v. Prince Hamlet...

JEFFREY BROWN: It was a trial 400 years in the making. The courtroom was actually a stage at Washington's Kennedy Center. The defendant was a fictional character: Hamlet, prince of Denmark, he of "to be or not to be."

The judge was real, but Anthony Kennedy usually hears cases as a justice on the Supreme Court. Justice Kennedy first had the idea for "The Trial of Hamlet" some 13 years ago.

JUSTICE ANTHONY KENNEDY, U.S. Supreme Court: Prosecution here; defense here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Recently, he approached Michael Kahn, head of the Shakespeare Theater here, about staging it as part of a six-month celebration of the bard now underway in Washington, using real-life lawyers, expert witnesses, and a jury of adults, college and high school students.

At the Supreme Court a few hours before the event, I had a chance to ask Justice Kennedy: Why try Hamlet?

JUSTICE ANTHONY KENNEDY: It seemed to be, number one, an excellent way to get young people interested in Shakespeare and to understand the value of our literary heritage.

Then, too, there are some similarities between the law and literature. We in the law seek to find order in a disordered reality; we seek to find rationality in a world that seems chaotic. And the artist does the same thing, and Hamlet's trying to do the same thing. So there's a parallel.
MSN News reports:
In Shakespeare's play, the killing of Polonius occurs shortly after Hamlet returns to Denmark for the funeral of his father, the king of Denmark. A grieving Hamlet learns that his mother has married his uncle Claudius, the new king. A ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius murdered his father, and an enraged Hamlet vows revenge.

But Hamlet's plans go awry. He stabs Polonius, the councilor to the king, after hearing a noise behind a curtain and mistakenly thinking it is Claudius eavesdropping.

The split verdict by the 12 jurors, who were selected beforehand and deliberated for about 20 minutes, was a major blow for the four lawyers who argued the case.

"No Dane is above the law," San Francisco attorney Miles Ehrlich said in opening statements. "When you pick and choose your time to kill, you are in control."

In arguing that Hamlet was not insane, Ehrlich noted that Hamlet plotted to kill Claudius and nearly did so in a chapel while Claudius was praying. Hamlet decided to wait because he didn't want to send Claudius to heaven.

Alan Stone, a Harvard University professor of law and psychiatry, testified for the prosecution that Hamlet did not have a clear mental illness. Thousands of people have studied Hamlet's thoughts, the former president of the American Psychiatric Association said, "not because he was a madman but because he was brilliant."

Hamlet's vision of a ghost was not delusional, he argued, but was likely normal for his culture.

He said Hamlet was plotting to kill.

"Many of his puns are filled with anger and rage," Stone said. "He seems to think there is an audience."

In a heated exchange with Stone, Hamlet's attorneys argued that Hamlet, who sat silently through the proceedings and refused to take the stand in his own defense, showed clear signs of insanity.

"He talks to himself a lot, like a crazy person," said lawyer Abbe Lowell, whose clients have included convicted former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. "What about the soliloquies and the asides?"

But Stone rejected Lowell's claim that Hamlet's words, such as "To be or not to be?" were signs of a "suicidal funk."

Columbia University psychiatry professor Jeffrey Lieberman, testifying for the defense, said Hamlet's question "To be or not to be?" was one of history's best examples of ambivalence — a cardinal symptom of psychosis.

Lieberman said the voices Hamlet heard while suffering hallucinations were "as real as your voice is being perceived by me."

Kennedy conceived the production for the fourth time. Prior juries in Boston, Chicago and Washington have found Hamlet sane. The show was hosted by Michael Kahn, artistic director of Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company.
The verdict?
The question of Hamlet's sanity remains unanswered after a Washington jury delivered an evenly split verdict on whether he should be held criminally responsible for the fatal stabbing of Polonius.
The Washington Post notes:
Almost every year since 1994, at least one Supreme Court justice has participated in a mock trial that uses a Shakespeare play to explore the American legal system.

No comments: