Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Like A Fountain Stirred"

This post is a shameless plug for an event this Wednesday (May 2) at Book People here in Austin.  The plug is for my pal Ben Fountain whose new book, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, has just been released.  The shameless part is that I secretly want you to be impressed that I have such happening, talented friends. 

Ben is a writer of tremendous integrity.  His collection of short stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, received rave reviews from all quarters.  Malcolm Gladwell even wrote a story about Ben for The New Yorker, which celebrates his career and the fact that it has been enabled, in part, by Ben’s terrifically supportive tax-lawyer wife, Sharon (aka Sharie)—who is also a friend, in case anyone is keeping track.  Ben’s story nicely confirms one of Mr. Gladwell’s pet theories regarding how a person manages to accomplish something noteworthy in this life.  According to one of Mr. Gladwell’s little best-sellers, Outliers, success has something to do with the “10,000-Hour Rule.”  Gladwell postulates that success (in virtually any field) can be attributed to a person’s having beaten his or her head against the same wall for something like 10,000 hours.  And in the New Yorker article, Gladwell explains how Ben became a literary success in a way that seemed, deceptively, to have occurred overnight but was actually the product of years of head-banging.

The trick now is for me to find a way to suggest that plugging Ben’s new novel about heroism, abuse, and oblivion in Texas in the Iraq War’s shadows is somehow relevant to this blog about Shakespeare and the law.  Let me propose the following (modified) syllogism as a means to illustrate the airtight connection among these phenomena:

  • Shakespeare was a writer who referred repeatedly to law and lawyers.
  • My friend Ben Fountain is a writer who used to be a lawyer.
  • Ergo, a post about Ben includes the set of things that have something to do with both Shakespeare and Law and are thus relevant to this blawg.

How is it that you know Ben Fountain?!--you must be longing to ask. 

So I will tell you.  Ben and I met at the end of the last century when we were each at a critical crossroad in our careers.  Back then, Ben was just another depressed, underappreciated, talented writer, toiling away in a vacuum.  Thus, he and I shared a few things—in particular, the “depressed” and “toiling” characteristics.  But not long thereafter, Ben managed to get himself a hot-shot agent, ink a publishing deal, win countless awards (including the prestigious Hemingway Foundation/PEN award) and even sign a few options with filmmakers smart enough to see that his fiction was crying out for cinematic translation.  Meanwhile, I, the wild-eyed thespian, pursued a different trajectory.  The path I decided to take not long after meeting Ben was hardly “a road less traveled.”  Indeed, it was a path that Ben himself had taken, although he had taken that path in the ordinary course—or rather, in the “proper season.”  The course to which I refer is law school.

Law school seemed appealing because I’d finally started to tire of a diet of show tunes and Riceroni.  I’d spent years trying to bring innovative, consciousness-raising live theater to Dallas, Texas.  Had a little theater company that took on the Big Issues—postmodern degradation, mental illness, incest, AIDS, political correctness, and the little known health benefits of military-industrial-new-world-order paranoia.  And we’d made sure that each show was not “just about us” by earmarking a percentage of each production’s measly ticket sales to some other non-profit group working locally to further a cause that shared some thematic connection with the particular show.  (The Masters and Ph.D. I earned during this same period were not in Business Administration.) 

During this time, I had failed to keep in mind that Dallas is a city best known for Neiman Marcus, Mary Kay Cosmetics, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, a dead Kennedy, and “Urgent Care Clinics” offering drive-through “Botox NOW.” 

And so, not long after taking my last artistic stand in a Beckett play before a crowd of at least five people, a random conversation with a friend inspired me to consider a radically conventional mission instead:  Go to law school, get a real job, see if economic stability might follow.  (You see that my story involves lots of pain and suffering.)  The last person in my circle with whom I shared the big news regarding this mid-term career correction was Ben.  Why was Ben the last to know?  Because I had no doubt that he would be appalled by the idea. 

Ben had been a lawyer and had precious few good things to say about the whole experience at that time—even though he’d been a rock star, a law school stud.  He’d gone to Duke, made Law Review, graduated Order of the Coif (which is elitist code for top-ten percent).  He’d earned a slew of other badges of success, including a job with Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, a multi-national firm based in Dallas where he’d shined as both a litigator and a real estate deal-maker.  

That was all years before I met Ben.  He’d walked away from Big Law just before he came up for partnership consideration.  Knowing Ben, he would have been a shoe-in.  But he wanted to write fiction.  Serious fiction.  Not just motions, briefs, and deal due diligence.  The Dallas cost of living and the income of his saintly, successful, tax lawyer wife meant they could live well and provide for their kids even if Ben gave up the steady paycheck and instead used his ferocious discipline to beat his head against a wall in the service of art for 10,000-plus hours until he “suddenly” became a literary superstar.

One day before Ben’s big break-through, we met for a quick lunch.  It was scheduled between one of my three or four teaching gigs for the day.  I quickly broke the news, “Uh, Ben, I’ve been meaning to tell you something.  I have applied to law school.” 

I swear I could see real tears well up in his saucer-sized blue eyes.  He must have felt I was betraying the cause of struggling Bohemians everywhere.  And I think he was genuinely concerned about what the law school experience might do to a character like me, considering my “advanced years” and modest iconoclastic streak.  But Ben was too gentle to try to talk me out of it once he saw how adamant I was.  And so, not long after voicing great trepidation, he became one of my most-reliable sounding boards and cheerleaders during the dark days when I contracted the peculiar ailment known as “1-L” status. 

Although the law school quick-fix is an antidote that has appealed to many lost souls—mostly young overachievers with no specific career convictions or no appetite for poverty—my mid-life quest was different.  I embraced the idea of law school for truly mercenary and idealistic reasons.  I’d became obsessed with the idea of abandoning my dreams of artistic integrity (aka those 10,000-plus hours of head-beating) and trading those dreams in for a shot at gainful employment because I was tired of feeling like a Spokesmodel for Narcissstic Personality Disorder and wanted to adopt a kid.  (Who knew I would end up liking both studying and practicing law?) 

Besides, it all sounded so easy for a change:  Get into a good school, make good grades, get a challenging job paying a six-figure salary—with health insurance to boot!  Sure, there would be some serious expectations in the hard work department.  But I had ample experience with, and appetite for, obsessive work.  Therefore, I concluded that I could do it!  I could leave behind the bright lights performing in no-name venues and take up residence in the shadows of the quasi-respectable legal profession.  I could sell out, sell my soul (if it was still worth anything), and seize some unassuming place in the rat race.  Why the hell not?!  Being able to buy a little peace of mind (and groceries) could be its own reward.  I left my friends back in Dallas and my husband reeling as I headed to Austin to attend the University of Texas School of Law in a broken-down Mazda pick-up packed full of cats and my Riverside Shakespeare, which I feared was soon to become little more than an awkward doorstop.

Now, a dozen years later, I am a lawyer.  But I have also finagled things such that I again have time for occasional deep-dives into Shakespeare and to celebrate other heroic talents, like my very adorable, brilliant friend, Ben Fountain. 

So to anyone reading this I say: Buy Ben’s book, pretty please.  You will not regret it.

And to Ben himself I say, courtesy of WS:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste[.]
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

Sonnet 30

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Dressed Up Like A Friar

My husband says I need to be “less academic,” which is a really funny thing to say to a person blawging within the confines of a university.

“Gretch, no one wants to read long passages from Shakespeare in a blog.  They’ll just skip over them.”

Hmm.  Perhaps he has a point.  And, upon reflection, it is actually a complex point. 

In fact, my long-suffering husband’s observation spawns two epiphanies. 

First, I am reminded that this advice is similar to what most practicing lawyers (and legal writing professors) will tell would-be lawyers: “Do not use block quotations.  They are too overwhelming.  Sure, the language of the statute you are asking the court to interpret is incredibly important.  We have to get the words just right.  But if you stick a big block of quoted text on the page, no one will read it.  Instead, you have to spoon-feed the relevant bits to your reader in digestible morsels.”

Second, my husband’s observation suggests that a successful blog/blawg involves a special kind of deception.  If the thing is going to be more than a narcissistic exercise, it has to involve something bigger than a person’s private musings.  You have to trick people into thinking that the exercise is not all about you.  But if anyone other than a handful of sympathetic compadres is going to read it—or stick with it—the readers ultimately have to find your idiosyncratic musings at least as interesting as the source material about which you write. 

So I’ll admit that Shakespeare gives me cover to pursue all manner of things rattling around in my head, and I’d like to share the agony.  To wit: that theme at work in Measure for Measure about which I have been obsessing.  That theme is the sense that the easiest way “to make the law a tyrant” (2.4.123) is to require a precise tit for tat.  And the most likely tyrants are those who convince themselves that working justice is like doing arithmetic—at least when it comes to everyone but themselves.

These realizations—that truth and appearance can be quite different and that deceptive appearances can serve both good and bad purposes—somewhat obsessed our man Shakespeare.  Part of this obsession is not hard to understand.  We all hate hypocrisy.  And we can easily relate to those characters who struggle to get at the truth beneath the surface (see Hamlet).  Shakespeare was haunted by how hard it is to know what is true and how easy it is to succumb to illusions and intentional deceptions.  Yet he also seems to have relished deception.  (He was, after all, a man of the theater.)  His work reflects a belief that a certain kind of deception is, perhaps, the most effective way of getting at the truth, of “holding a mirror up to nature” (Hamlet, 3.2.22). 

I wonder how different the law would be—especially the criminal justice system—if more people bought into the Shakespearean model of justice (which is not the “measure for measure” model).  All of us, like Isabella, value the concept of “justice, justice, justice, justice.”  But too often, unbridled emotion takes over.  And we conflate “justice” with “revenge” or “retribution.”  Or else we just let those languishing in prisons or those who have suffered from abuses by those in power operate beyond our gaze, creating the circumstances whereby power is more readily abused.  And yet we also admire characters, like Isabella, who have been wronged yet find a way to forgive.  We are moved, for instance, by the wrongly convicted prisoner who gets exonerated after 15 years in prison and yet does not rush out and murder the prosecutor who intentionally repressed exculpatory DNA evidence.  Likewise, many of us are unsettled by laws that, in practice, blur the line that distinguishes murder, manslaughter, and self-defense such that some guy on a neighborhood watch squad is able to stalk and then kill a kid who had the audacity to walk around after dark with a bag of Skittles wearing a hoodie and black skin.  We want the law to be above us, better than us.  But it is of us. And, therefore, terribly compromised.  So those who make the law, enforce the law, adjudicate legal disputes, or serve as officers of the court need to be monitored—just as the Duke in Measure secretly watched over his community.  But how exactly do we simulate that?  How do we monitor the law’s operations in a way that does not involve surveillance cameras, but is instead more like sneaking around in a borrowed friar’s costume in search of true complaints about injustice?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Artful v. Inartful Deception

Today President Obama suggested that Romney can't say "Everything I've said for the last six months, I didn't really mean. "  The idea being: people can't get away with that because either (1) it's just not right or, more likely, (2) it just won't fly with the American electorate.  Assuming we are talking about (2), the President also seemed to imply that politics in the YouTube age has undergone some kind of sea-change.  (See Ariel's song in The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.)

That is, Obama seems to think that a classic (and very reliable) rhetorical strategy--framing a message to cater to a particular audience--has lost its efficacy because it is now so easy for people to compare conflicting presentations.  But the same technology that enables us to compare messages--and thereby detect substantive shifts--has virtually guaranteed that most of us are drowning in messages.  The postmodern condition has arrived; there is now so much information at our disposal that the odds do not favor betting that people will have the time or inclination to sort through the morass to get at The Truth.

Betting on information overload.  Not really a new strategy.  In fact, that is what Angelo was banking on at the end of Measure for Measure.  (Yes, I am still harping on that one play!)

In case anybody reading this is dying to know what I mean by information overload at the end of Measure for Measure, here are the highlights from the play's climactic final scene:
·         Isabella-the-chaste tells all.
·         Angelo-the-tyrant denies everything.
·         Mariana-the-scorned appears and confirms Isabella’s story and explains that she’s the one who turned up in Angelo’s bed the night before and thus now considers them truly married.
·         Angelo accuses the women of a vast conspiracy against him.
·         Someone brings up the mysterious friar who seemed to have “had a hand in all this.”
·         The Duke says to Angelo that he will punish the women and the friar “to your height of pleasure” and then excuses himself.
·         The Duke returns, wearing his friar outfit.
·         The “friar” gets accused of suborning perjury.
·         Angelo looks on as three innocent people are about to be hauled off to prison.
·         In the nick of time, the Duke reveals himself.  Angelo then promptly confesses and asks to be sentenced to death.  The Duke orders him to marry Mariana first.
·         After the hasty ceremony, Mariana pleads for mercy for Angelo; when the Duke seems unmoved, Mariana begs Isabella to join her petition.
·        Isabella gives (what I think is) a very unconvincing speech about how, even though Angelo condemned her brother Claudio to die for the same offense, Angelo is not really as guilty as Claudio because he did not do the misdeed he intended, so he should be spared.
·         The Duke, still enjoying his little game, tries to comfort Isabella by telling her that at least the brother she thinks is dead is now in a happier place.  Once she agrees, he then produces the “newly married” Claudio, not dead after all. 
·         The Duke proposes to Isabella.

Really.  All this happens in one scene.  Which is why this ditty is not, perhaps, Shakespeare’s most elegant.  Indeed, scholars tend to put it in the “problem play” category because it is neither fish nor fowl, neither comedy nor tragedy.  Also, the play ends with a weird cliffhanger since Isabella is rendered speechless by the Duke’s sudden, slightly creepy marriage proposal—as if she hadn’t had enough surprises for one afternoon!  The play ends with the Duke inviting her—the would-be nun—back to his place to share in all that he has to offer:

Dear Isabel,
I have a motion much imports your good;
Whereto if you'll a willing ear incline,
What's mine is yours and what is yours is mine.
So, bring us to our palace; where we'll show
What's yet behind, that's meet you all should know. 

But what makes this play so interesting is what it says implicitly about the distinction between the law and true justice, which is quite different from what the main character says explicitly.  For instance, as the Duke condemns Angelo to die, he says the following—ending with a rather strained rhyming couplet for extra emphasis: 

The very mercy of the law cries out
Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
'An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!'
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and MEASURE still FOR MEASURE.

In other words, the Duke suggests that, to be merciful, the law requires “measure for measure”—i.e., “an eye for an eye”—that Old Testament standard.  And “measure for measure” is, of course, the play’s title.  But “measure for measure” is not the solution upon which the Duke ultimately settles.  Even as he says these words, he knows that Angelo can’t die “for Claudio” because Claudio is still alive.  And the Duke knows this because he is the one who helped prevent the execution.

What’s up with that?  The very name of the play is a deception!  The play is not about obtaining justice by seeking “an eye or an eye” or “measure for measure.”  The play is about the opposite.  It is about how “mercy seasons justice” (See Portia in Merchant of Venice).

In the end, the justice that the Duke dispenses has little to do with the actual law, due process, the rule of reason, or transparency  Instead, when it comes to fixing the misery that Angelo inflicted, the Duke resorts exclusively to (well-intentioned) artifice; he manipulates, lies, wears a disguise, encourages others to pretend to be someone they are not, and incites bending various rules—including the proper way to conduct an execution.  That is, in working to counter and eventually expose the harm caused by Angelo’s insistence that others suffer the full wrath of the law while he puts himself above the law, the Duke relies on a categorically different kind of deception; a more artful, more noble kind.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Truth about the "True Complaint"

Two days and I am still trying to explain why this blawg is called “True Complaint.” 

The “true complaint” belongs to Isabella.  In Measure for Measure, Isabella, the righteous virgin, gets justice for herself, her brother, and for another woman—but as part of a massive subterfuge.  At the urging of a mysterious friar, she leads Angelo to believe that she is going to go through with the forced liaison he has proposed after all.  Meanwhile, with the help of some dim lighting, dark cloaks, and other devices, the woman who actually shows up in Angelo’s bedroom at the appointed hour is someone else.  She has a history with Angelo.  Her name is Mariana.  Turns out Angelo had already ruined her life five years earlier.  He broke a marriage contract when he found out the dowry wasn’t going to be hefty enough for his liking.  For some crazy reason, which probably only makes sense because a man wrote the play, Mariana agrees to go along with this bait-and-switch.  Later, she even claims that she still loves Angelo.  Or, at the very least, she pretends that she can tolerate the guy.

The mysterious friar who helps Isabella orchestrate this subterfuge is actually Duke Vincentio in disguise.  That is, the Duke never really left town.  After putting Angelo in charge, he must have had some inkling that things might go awry.  In any event, by snooping around the court, the prison, and all about town, the Duke knows that Claudio has been condemned to death, that Isabella has pleaded for his life, and that Angelo has responded to that plea by proposing an unseemly bit of quid pro quo.  Yet the Duke does not reveal himself or openly intervene.  Instead, he is the one who tracks down Mariana and proposes the subterfuge to Isabella, who doesn’t know his true identity.

After the subterfuge is executed flawlessly, Angelo reneges on his promise to pardon Isabella’s brother Claudio anyway.  So behind the scenes, the mysterious friar orchestrates another bit of trickery such that some more deserving reprobate is sent to the executioner in Claudio’s place while Claudio is secretly kept alive.  Then, in the play’s final scene, the Duke abandons his disguise and pretends to return to town.  He also pretends to rejoice at his reunion with the “worthy” Angelo:

My very worthy cousin, fairly met! 
Our old and faithful friend, we are glad to see you. 

In fact, the Duke lays it on rather thick:

We have made inquiry of you; and we hear
Such goodness of your justice, that our soul  
Cannot but yield you forth to public thanks, 
Forerunning more requital. 

While the Duke goes on and on about his gratitude to Angelo for his service, Isabella enters.  She throws herself at the Duke’s feet and proceeds to sue for justice.  In fact, she uses the word “justice” five times in the short speech that launches her “true complaint”:

Justice, O royal duke! Vail your regard 
Upon a wrong'd, I would fain have said, a maid!  
O worthy prince, dishonour not your eye 
By throwing it on any other object 
Till you have heard me in my true complaint
And given me justice, justice, justice, justice! 

The Duke, of course, knows exactly why Isabella is so worked up.  But he continues to play dumb, referring her to Angelo who is, at the moment, still the titular head of state:

Relate your wrongs; in what? by whom? be brief. 
Here is Lord Angelo shall give you justice: 
Reveal yourself to him. 

O worthy duke, 
You bid me seek redemption of the devil: 
Hear me yourself; for that which I must speak 
Must either punish me, not being believed, 
Or wring redress from you. Hear me, O hear me, here! 

Angelo responses by accusing his accuser of having “infirm wits.”  And he uses an unfortunate metaphor to explain that she probably became unhinged after her brother was “[c]ut off by course of justice.”  He then tries to inoculate himself against further charges by predicting that “she will speak most bitterly and strange” because she is angry about his refusal to save her brother from the executioner’s blade. 

Isabella is not, however, so easily silenced.  She admits that the things she has to say are definitely “strange”—but they are strange because of the depth and breadth of Angelo’s hypocrisy:

Most strange, but yet most truly, will I speak:
That Angelo's forsworn; is it not strange? 
That Angelo's a murderer; is 't not strange? 
That Angelo is an adulterous thief, 
An hypocrite, a virgin-violator; 
Is it not strange and strange?

Nay, it is ten times strange. 

It is not truer he is Angelo 
Than this is all as true as it is strange: 
Nay, it is ten times true; for truth is truth 
To the end of reckoning.

The Duke, who really seems to get off on pushing his deception to the brink, pretends that he does not believe Isabella.  He calls for guards to carry her off to the madhouse:  “Away with her!  Poor soul,/She speaks this in the infirmity of sense.”  Isabella, however, holds her ground, arguing that the only problem is that she cannot find words sufficient to capture the full scope of Angelo’s villainy:

O prince, I conjure thee, as thou believest 
There is another comfort than this world, 
That thou neglect me not, with that opinion
That I am touch'd with madness! Make not impossible 
That which but seems unlike: 'tis not impossible 
But one, the wicked'st caitiff on the ground, 
May seem as shy, as grave, as just, as absolute 
As Angelo; even so may Angelo, 
In all his dressings, caracts, titles, forms, 
Be an arch-villain, believe it, royal Prince: 
If he be less, he's nothing; but he's more, 
Had I more name for badness.

Things are not as they seem, she complains.  And at last, the Duke relents and permits her to explain.  She then urges him to use his “reason” to “make the truth appear, where it seems hid,/And hid the false [that] seems true.”  In other words, Isabella asks for permission to disclose the facts that, when viewed through the lens of reason, will reveal the truth and expose the fake veneer that is currently masquerading as the truth.  That is certainly a principle objective of a legal proceeding: use reason to make the truth that seems hidden appear and then try to make right some of the “badness.”  But, unfortunately, in practice, making, enforcing, and adjudicating the law are all compromised operations.  Complaints that are filed are not always true; true complaints are not always pursued; true complaints that are pursued do not always result in righting wrongs; and even true complaints that are litigated successfully do not ever make the wronged parties truly whole again.  That reality—that the law is a blunt instrument that can easily be abused and yet is something we can’t live without—is, I think, the complex message that Measure for Measure teaches. 

But this post is already too long.  So I will continue after a break.

Shakespeare's "Measure" Presages California's Measure

Word is out that California, with the nation’s largest death row, is now going to have an initiative on the ballot this November to abolish the death penalty in that state.  And some clever abolitionists came up with this snazzy title for the bill:  “Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act,” i.e., the “SAFE California Act.”  This is a brilliant example of lawyers moving the frame so that people can see an argument in a larger, different context that suddenly makes a thesis more accessible.  Instead of the debate being “the death penalty is evil v. the death penalty is a worthy option,” the California approach redescribes it in terms that are not so morally loaded and hopelessly abstract.  No one armed with the facts could fail to see that implementing the death penalty costs a state a ton of money, which raises the specter of all the other things a state has to give up to cling to that measure.  And that in turn requires thinking about criminal justice in more nuanced fashion in these times when folks are obsessed with government debt and deficits.

So now I am really, really convinced that we need to drill down into Measure for Measure for answers about the complex nature of dispensing true justice.  But since the three of you who may be reading this blawg may not have that particular play rattling around in your head, here’s some background:

In Measure for Measure, the leader of a particular community, Duke Vincentio, decides that he may be better suited for the monastic life than for politics.  To test this hunch, the Duke arranges to deputize a loyal compatriot, Angelo.  The play begins as the Duke asks Angelo to take charge, to embody the law itself by being “morality and mercy,” while the Duke takes a leave of absence.  Angelo is the Duke’s choice because he is known far and wide as a super-buttoned-up man of piety.  Once in charge, Angelo, unlike the Duke, is not reluctant to enforce the laws that are already on the books:

We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror. 

Soon, the prisons are full to bursting.  Among those who are promptly rounded up for breaking the law is a young fellow named Claudio.  Claudio has been indicted and swiftly convicted for “fornication.”  He can hardly put on much of a defense since the rather obviously pregnant girlfriend at his side is walking proof of his transgression.  The law says that the proper punishment for this offense—knocking someone up outside the confines of marriage—is death.  And so Angelo sentences Claudio to death per the sentencing guidelines. 

The plot gets really interesting when Claudio’s lovely, younger sister enters the picture.  Claudio’s friends convince her to take a hiatus from the convent (where she is about to take a vow of eternal chastity) to pursue an appeal on her brother’s behalf.  Who could imagine a more effective advocate?—a pious, virginal beauty who is ready to concede that her brother has indeed committed a crime, but who can also speak with some authority about how God may think executing the guy for this particular sin is a bit much.

Things get even more interesting when we see how Angelo responds to Isabella’s petition.  He does not grant it outright.  Instead, he makes her an ex parte proposition:  If she will sleep with him, he’ll grant her brother a full pardon. 

Shocking, huh?  If she will submit to a real sex crime, then he, the perpetrator, promises to use his power to spare her brother.  Angelo can offer this plea bargain only because his reputation for virtue led to his being put in charge of dispensing justice.  Meanwhile, the man Angelo has sentenced to death has merely engaged in consensual, extramarital sex with a woman Claudio would happily marry if the state would simply refrain from killing him.  Understandably, Isabella finds Angelo’s offer distasteful.  To make matters worse, when she goes to the prison to tell her brother the bad news, he tries to convince her to go through with this icky sacrifice because, well, he thinks a little rape is not so bad when a life (i.e., his) hangs in the balance.

Because this play is supposed to be a “comedy,” justice has to prevail in the end.  And it sort of does.  The justice that is ultimately meted out, though, captures the moral complexity of the situation in a way that applying the law strictly could not do.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Happy Bday, WS

Here I am blogging.  It is April 23.  I picked this date to start my quixotic enterprise because today is the day that scholars have long deemed “Shakespeare’s birthday.”  No record demonstrates precisely when that guy from Stratford was born, however.  We just have a record of a christening date; and we know that Elizabethans liked to get the kiddos baptized muy pronto back then because, sadly, many did not make it to their first birthday.  Besides, British scholars like the date because April 23 is also St. George’s Day, which honors England’s patron saint.  And here’s another nice fortuity:  In a call-to-arms that would rouse even the most staunch pacifist, Shakespeare has young King Henry V, in the eponymous play, fire up the troops before the Battle of Agincourt by urging them to: “Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’”  That confluence—whereby England’s greatest poet wrote words for one of England’s greatest historical figures invoking the memory of England’s legendary patron—seems like a sufficient basis to accept that April 23 is Shakespeare’s birthday, at least if there is any poetic justice in this world.

Speaking of justice and poetry, that is what this blog is going to be about.  More specifically, I plan to use the Bard’s words as the impetus for blogging about the law.  Like any self-respecting blogger, most of my observations will be hopelessly anecdotal; my conclusions mired in all manner of cognitive biases.  And I am sure to blame the blog format for any and all typos and spelling errors.  Nevertheless, I hope this exercise will occasionally illuminate something out here in the darkness—at least for me.

The name of this blog/blawg comes from Measure for Measure.  More than any of Will’s plays I know of (except maybe A Merchant in Venice), Measure for Measure is explicitly about the law.  In particular, the play is about the difficult balance between the letter of the law and actual justice.  Shakespeare seems to acknowledge that, if a community is not required to adhere to legal rules about which it has notice, that community will grow cynical.  And The Law will suffer as a result.  But if those in power seek to stick it to the community for failing to tow the line with regard to laws that are too draconian, that too will have a demoralizing effect on The Law.  And when the folks in power who are trying to stick it to the little guy for failing to obey the letter of the law turn out to be flagrant hypocrites, well, that is a formula for all hell to break loose.

Therefore, Measure for Measure seems like a good place for this blawgger to start—although it will probably take several posts to get to the point about what constitutes a “true complaint.”  That in itself is a tad ironic since lawyers are supposed to front-load their conclusions and give away the punchlines.  Then again, as I hope to explain at some point, Measure for Measure is all about the challenge of practicing what you preach.