Thursday, May 31, 2012

The pox of such antic, lisping, affecting Fantasticoes!

Time to stir up a bit of controversy.

Summer Shakespeare Festival season is upon us. A good time to express profound irritation about a certain ubiquitous phenomenon. Many theater companies mounting summer Shakespeare productions seem to believe that their audiences are morons. That is, instead of simply casting a show with quality actors who commit to learning the verse (such that they actually know what they are saying) and cutting the extraneous stuff readily discernible in any Shakespearean text, theater companies across this great nation feel they must prop up any and every play with a “concept.” For instance, people producing Shakespeare for summertime entertainment seem convinced that a contemporary audience will “relate” to Romeo and Juliet better if the Montagues dress up in Civil-War era Union garb while the Capulets don the trappings of the Confederacy. Meanwhile, everyone still speaks of “fair Verona” and makes other references indicating that the play is supposed to be set in medieval Italy.

I do not think most directors of Shakespeare summer-stock believe deeply in these “concepts” or come to them organically through a deep-dive into the text. I think they are just asked: “Where are we going to set x this year? How about Love’s Labours Lost in the Roaring Twenties? King Lear in Bosnia? Hamlet in Gotham City?” Because, in the execution, these concepts generally amount to little more than window-dressing—a superficial add-on that inspires no one but the set and costume designers. At best, the effort produces a nagging dissonance that audiences strain to see beyond—like the experience of watching a somber movie while a brightly clad toddler bounces in the seat in front of you.

Don’t get me wrong. Some brilliant directors have come up with “concepts” that have truly reinvigorated a play and brought new fans to Shakespeare. Peter Brook’s 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream springs to mind. I never got to see that one thus do not know precisely of which I speak. (Although I did see other Brook productions—including an amazing, stripped down version of Carmen set in a red clay mud pit.) But I am not talking about productions that are wholly and thoughtfully transformed by a directorial vision. I am talking about the mindless, routine “tack on” that distracts and alienates, thereby having the opposite of the reputed intent, which is to render Shakespeare more accessible.

This syndrome—whereby a superficial, ritualistic layer is appended to a Shakespeare play to try to make it seem more immediate, but which ultimately distances the audience, is like what lawyers do when they insist on starting motions with certain poufy incantations:


Comes now, Petitioner, a resident of X County, Texas, by and through Finch & Lincoln, his attorneys of record in the above-referenced matter, for good cause would respectfully show unto said Court the following pursuant to Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 215(b)(3):

You can still find that crap in many form documents and in far too many papers filed with actual courts. As my colleague, Wayne Schiess, has deftly explained, lawyers cling to these arcane, jargon-laden trappings for several reasons—because they (mistakenly) think that is what judges want, they just mindlessly recycle boilerplate form documents, or they fear a change will suggest that they are somehow professionally deficient, not true members of the Lawyers’ Club. These same problematic impulses are behind much “concept Shakespeare.” People do it because:

  • They (mistakenly) think that is what their audience wants.
  • They habitually take this approach without pausing to question its utility.
  • They think it is de rigueur—a requirement that reflects professional savvy.

But these things just ain’t necessarily so.

Lawyers and producers of summer Shakespeare alike should take a hard look at entrenched habits and ask: Do these habits have more to do with my own professional insecurity than with pleasing my audience who should, after all, be “the god of my idolatry”? (R & J, II.2.119). If so, perhaps it is time to abandon “the antic, lisping, affecting Fantasticoes” (id., II.4.27) and pursue some truly authentic re-conceptualizing instead.

Monday, May 28, 2012

We (Sort Of) Happy Few

Ambivalence. That has got to be one of my favorite emotional states. At the very least, it is a state with which I am intimately acquainted. Let’s take Memorial Day, for instance. (It is, after all, Memorial Day as I sit typing this.) I am ambivalent about Memorial Day. And Memorial Day itself virtually emblemizes ambivalence. Here is why: Memorial Day is supposed to commemorate those members of the US armed forces who died in battle; yet for those who are not closely connected to someone who died in that way, Memorial Day is more often a bonus day-off devoted to launching summer vacation, replete with barbeque-ing, swimming, shopping for sales, and watching basketball playoff games, perhaps topped off by cherry pie and fireworks. Kind of like the 4th of July but with even less red-white-and-blue and, here in Texas, slightly less oppressive heat.

In sum, Memorial Day is de jure a day of mourning but de facto a light-hearted tribute to fun in the sun.

So I feel the same way about Memorial Day that I do about The Life of Henry the Fifth.

There is no way around this: Henry V celebrates war. You could even say it is the finest piece of pro-war propaganda ever devised by humankind. The play’s most stirring moment comes in Act 4, scene 3, just as the English troops are poised to begin the battle of Agincourt in which they will be outnumbered by the French, 5 to 1. The scene begins as young King Henry’s officers bemoan the atrocious odds they face. The Earl of Westmoreland, for instance, grumbles “O that we now had here/ But one ten thousand of those men in England/ That do no work to-day!” Henry, who has secretly snuck up on the group, begs to differ. He calls out Westmoreland with some first-rate rhetorical chest-thumping that would not seem out of place in the context of professional wrestling:

What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark’d to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.

After that, Henry takes a quick breath and then launches into a speech so rousing that a person cannot read, let alone hear it without wanting to charge into the breach and slaughter a whole gaggle of haughty frogs:

            This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin's day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

When I read this speech, I, a quasi (must-have-a-Nazi-exception) pacifist, am ready to swing a sword and shout “Hooray” for killing, raping, pillaging in the name of any old Sovereign. And then, shortly thereafter, I feel a bit bad about having had such feelings. Which is ambivalence. And this is just the way I feel about Memorial Day—simultaneously exuberant about that summer-preview celebration that amounts to a bonus day off in late May and yet a tad guilty about how the conversation is mostly about beer and burgers and not soldiers dying on the cliffs of Normandy or dead folks all over Iraq and Afghanistan. So at least I spent part of this holiday weekend re-reading passages from my former-lawyer friend Ben Fountain’s scathing new anti-war novel: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

And what do Memorial Day and Henry V have to do with lawyers?!

Come on. Do you really need to ask such a question?  

I can hardly think of a profession about whom people are more likely to feel ambivalence. (Except for maybe dentists and undertakers.) But, truly, lawyers have to be the poster-children for ambivalence. Everyone loves to hate them—until they need them—and then they still hate them—or at least hate paying their bills.

So, henceforth, perhaps we should, in the alternative, think of Memorial Day as “St. Crispian’s Let’s (Not) Kill All the Lawyers Day.” And he/she that shares a beer with me upon this day shall be my brother—or sister—be he/she ne'er so vile, for this day shall gentle his/her condition.  And lawyers young and old shall think themselves accursed and hold their licenses cheap while others speak who were here to share a beer (or at least this blawg) with me upon this Memorial Day!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Shaking the B-Ball

Because we are in the throes of the NBA playoffs, it seems appropriate to consider the connection between Shakespeare, the law, and basketball. Perhaps you fear I may really have to stretch on this one. (And perhaps you are correct.) But stretching is good for a person. Especially when it comes to basketball.

Many years ago, when my team at the time (the Houston Rockets) was in the finals against my other team at the time (the New York Knicks), I was zealously blocking off every evening to sit glued to the tube for the duration of each game. That was no small feat back then when I had a life—or at least five part-time jobs and a play always in rehearsal or production. Somehow I found a way. But one day—June 17, 1994, to be exact—things on the television took a decidedly dark turn. With the game on the line, the broadcast was suddenly interrupted by footage of a low-speed chase underway on a Los Angeles freeway involving the police and a white Ford Bronco.

By the time of the televised “chase,” everyone mildly conscious already knew that OJ Simpson’s estranged wife and her friend had been brutally stabbed to death in the Simpson mansion. And, from my perspective at least, everyone already knew that OJ was the prime suspect. And although I was mildly irritated that the game was being interrupted in this way, I also understood why the media correctly assessed that all of America would want to fixate on that white Bronco’s trajectory.

As I watched, I distinctly remember how I was suddenly broadsided by thoughts of Othello. “My God,” I said to myself, “he is going to commit suicide on national television.”

That was the only ending I could imagine. A tragic, violent, public ending. Because, at this point, I understood the OJ story as a story of high passions run amuck—a story about the horrible way that love, control, and violence can get all mixed up in a person’s head and how that ugly confluence can be magnified when the players are celebrities—especially the kind who earned their celebrity status by displaying super-human physical prowess for others’ amusement. I thought that the story would end tragically because OJ, a tragic hero, could not will it to be otherwise. OJ had loved so fiercely and possessively that he had to destroy what he could no longer have—the porcelain goddess who had proven to be merely human:

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,—
            Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!—
It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
            And smooth as monumental alabaster.
            Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.
            Put out the light, and then put out the light[.]
(Othello, V.2.1-6). 

Like Othello, once OJ emerged from the jealousy-induced stupor that had permitted him to see his Desdemona as a little more than an unfaithful harlot, he could not possibly go on living knowing that he was capable of such monstrous thoughts and deeds.

Boy, was I wrong. OJ did not kill himself before a live TV audience. And very soon, with the help of one of the best criminal defense teams that money could buy, a potential tragedy became a very different kind of story.

Let me explain. There is a big difference between “tragedy” (an art form) and events that are simply horrible and sad. I learned this distinction years ago from the theater historian, Robert Corrigan, to whom I am mysteriously connected in several ways that I do not intend to reveal at the present moment.

Tragedy was invited by the Greeks during the Classical Age. Tragedy involves an heroic figure coming to a horrible crisis (that often includes his or her own messy death). But the crisis is brought on because of something fundamental about who he or she is. The horrible result is essentially inevitable; in fact, even when the hero tries to make choices to resist or avoid a bad outcome, that just moves him or her closer to catastrophe. Some might call this fate. Indeed, many Greeks, ancient and modern, were/are attached to this concept. And the concept of Fate works as a kind of shorthand for the reason why tragedy happens. But tragedy is not metaphysical; it is decidedly human. It shows how the very characteristics that make an individual unique and even admirable are the same things that can undo that person. In our vitality lie the seeds of our own destruction.

But OJ was not undone by the very qualities that had made him heroic; and Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals was not high-jacked by a tragic catastrophe. Instead, OJ turned his own story into a farce—or a melodrama. The story was ultimately about how clever lawyers can harness a legacy of racial iniquity to convince rational people to reject overwhelming evidence of certain facts for an explanation that, while valid as a theory to explain many other events, was wholly irrelevant to who killed Nicole Brown Simpson and her sweet gay pal Ron Goldman.

The transformation of OJ’s story from tragedy to farce/melodrama, which began during an NBA playoff game, occurred mostly with the assistance of the legal system. This is interesting for so many reasons. One reason is that the oldest extant tragedy, The Orestia, is about how an individual tragedy ultimately serves as the foundation for an important societal innovation--such that the human instinct to indulge in bloody revenge is channeled into the rule of law. The play ends with the primal goddesses, The Furies, being turned into “The Eumenides”—who conduct a trial that finally ends a cycle of revenge killings while still offering up justice.

The take-way from this ramble?!

Only a few folks have been able to create tragedies—including a handful of ancient Greeks and some guy we refer to as “William Shakespeare.” Tragedy is not the same thing as really sad or horrible or disappointing real-world events, although we use the words “tragedy” and “tragic” to describe such things all the time. When basketball games are interrupted by such events, the result will not likely be tragic in the high sense. When professional athletes commit crimes, it is not tragic—but very sad and something that can often be situated in a larger social context that merits further scrutiny. Tragedy and the legal system are mutually exclusive, but perhaps interdependent, human phenomena. This post really has nothing to do with basketball or Shakespeare. I need a vacation.

Happy Memorial Day weekend.

Go Spurs.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Undiscovered Country

All people are mortal.
Lawyers are people.
Therefore, all lawyers must die.

The classic syllogism:

Major Premise: A is B.
Minor Premise: C is A.
Conclusion: Therefore, C is B.

Aristotle taught us that certain syllogisms will produce an airtight conclusion—as reliable as any math theorem—if the variables in the two premises are correct. 

Ah, but there’s the rub, as Hamlet says.

Too many blathering politicians, talk-show-radio hosts, and sloppy lawyers exploit the syllogism’s form, offering up any old premises as if they were in fact comprised of facts when they really aren’t. The form without solid content is but the trappings of logic.

But what I am thinking about today is mortality, not syllogisms per se. Mortality is a fact that the syllogism above proves with apodictic certainty (in case you still had your doubts). I will not cheapen the particular event that prompted me to turn to this topic by discussing it here. I will just say that it is the kind of event that invariably prompts such thoughts and questions about our fundamental priorities.

That questioning is a motif that Hamlet explores through many variations without ever becoming too maudlin or whiney. At one point—a point when he seems to be past caring—he even pursues this theme in a humorous vein. At this point, he is returning home after having dodged an assassination attempt. He pretty much knows that by returning home, he is sealing his fate—since he has just lived through rather tangible proof that the step-father who has already killed Hamlet’s father is eager to see Hamlet, Jr. occupy an early grave. As Hamlet reaches his old royal stomping grounds, he comes upon a gravedigger busy preparing the ground for a fresh deposit. Hamlet marvels at the man’s jocular attitude—he sings a bawdy song as he works and blithely tosses human remains into the air. As a skull lands at Hamlet’s feet, he picks it up and muses to his old pal Horatio:

               Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer?
Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures,
and his tricks? Why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock
him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him
of his action of battery? Hum! This fellow might be in's time a
great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his
fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries. Is this the fine of
his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine
pate full of fine dirt? Will his vouchers vouch him no more of
his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth
of a pair of indentures? The very conveyances of his lands will
scarcely lie in this box; and must th' inheritor himself have no
more, ha?

Hamlet could see that death was the great equalizer. He knew that lawyers, like everyone else, are eventually reduced to dust despite their armor of logic, learned authorities, rules, procedures, justifications, social power, and personal wealth. And even with his own end rendered more tangible and immediate by circumstances, Hamlet can joke about the matter—until the human remains become even more particularized. The next skull presented to him is one to which the gravedigger assigns a name, a precise identity: Yorick, the court jester, whom Hamlet knew as a boy. On a dime, the joking stops—until a few moments later, joking is necessary:

Dost thou think Alexander look’d a’ this
Fashion i’ th’ earth?
And smelt so?
To what base uses we may return, Horatio!
Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of
Alexander, till ‘a find it stopping a bunghole?

But when the joking again wears thin, Hamlet resorts to an almost childlike rhyme:

            Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
            Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
            O that that earth which kept the world in awe
            Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw!

Somehow, the simple music of a nursery rhyme seems to capture this most painful fact about human destiny best. At least grown-ups’ tortured attempts to talk artfully about the subject may strike a child, as it recently did the wise young son of an ailing doctor, as “just things people say to make people feel better that may not be true. . . .”

Friday, May 18, 2012

Dancing with Difficulty

O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent.

T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

I have heard tell that some people don’t love Shakespeare. They find his work too frusty, too old, too impenetrable. Heaven forfend!

But this is precisely why lawyers should be up for the Shakespearean challenge.

One thing that all lawyers have in common is that they all started their professional journey in the same way: having to read frusty, old, impenetrable material. One could even say that the sense of entitlement, of special awesomeness that lawyers feel on occasion is a function of how they got started—pounding their way through a mind-numbing wall of words, embodied in arcane case law, until reading case law “suddenly” became no big deal. And then, for some, reading cases even became pleasurable—even when the judicial opinions in question are not particularly well-written.

The intellectual pleasure associated with reading cases is akin to doing puzzles. It involves identifying the building blocks of arguments, the rationale that justifies a holding, and seeing how well things hang together. Pleasure also comes from figuring out what certain seemingly magical jargon actually means by unpacking the context clues. And most importantly, cases can be fun to read because they are always the product of a concrete, decidedly human drama. Looking carefully at the specific, factual details that underlie a legal drama is the only way that a person can really understand, remember, or care about the legal proposition for which any case is supposed to stand. And reading the case so as to bring that drama to life inside your mind can be far more illuminating (and scandalous) than any made-for-tv narrative.

Most non-lawyer mortals do not realize that the law is so complex and, in a common-law system, so dynamic, that the odds are extraordinarily high that the issues addressed in a case selected at random are likely to involve rules totally unfamiliar to any given lawyer or judge. Most lawyers have to figure out what the law is anew each time they are presented with a particular legal problem. If a lawyer specializes in a particular kind of law, which most lawyers ultimately do, he or she will, of course, see patterns and note trends. And if a lawyer practices law in the same forum routinely, which some, but hardly all, lawyers do, he or she will likely master the local rules that govern protocol in that particular forum so as not to have to look them up every time. But lawyers are routinely asked to seek out difficult texts that deal with some unexplored legal issue that they must then interpret, translate, and apply to a wholly new context.

That process—of finding, interpreting, translating, and applying—is the same when it comes to any difficult text.

I’m not saying that all texts that take time to decode prove to be worth the effort, let alone entertaining. But when it comes to a text that is well-crafted, laden with worthwhile information, and difficult, wrestling with the difficulty generally delivers a satisfying payoff.

Studying law at least teaches people how to stick with difficult texts—because it is a professional obligation. And I contend that making sense out of legal texts that are difficult can be its own reward—even when the texts themselves are not difficult for any reason that ultimately gives aesthetic pleasure. Ergo, making sense out of difficult texts that are difficult because they capture some meaningful insight using complex, yet exceedingly precise, language is generally going to reward you for the effort. If you are a fan of endorphins. And of thinking. And of the human drama in which we are all participating.

Let’s see if we can get ourselves a little pleasure “real quick,” as they say here in Texas. We’ll take apart a little Shakespearian ditty that may seem tough at first glance. (At least the first time I read the passage to my daughter, she responded aggressively, “I don’t get it!”). This text is from A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the beginning of Act V:

More strange than true. I never may believe
These antic fables, nor these fairy toys.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.

This is Theseus, ruler of Athens, speaking. He has just been told a wild story about what supposedly happened the night before in the woods outside of his palace. The young lovers who have shared their adventures with him are a bit worked up. He expresses skepticism, comparing them (the lovers) to lunatics and, for good measure, poets—suggesting they all have the same cognitive problem, though it manifests itself in slightly different ways:

            One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman.

The madman imagines far more horrors than really exist.

The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.

Lovers are as juiced up as madmen, which is why they can see consummate beauty (as Helen of Troy supposedly possessed) even in a face characterized (perhaps unfairly) by super-bushy eyebrows.

            The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing
A local habitation and a name.
The poet, whose internal engine is equally overheated, can look all around and then pull from his very own head wholly knew creations. He then gives these mere fancies a concrete existence by describing them in words—such that they then seem as real as anything else.

And because all of these seemingly disparate characters—lunatics, lovers, poets—are all burdened by an overheated imagination, they all have a little trouble at times telling the difference between what they have merely imagined and what really happened:
Such tricks hath strong imagination
            That if it would but apprehend some joy,
            It comprehends some bringer of that joy;

That is, these crazy, overly excited characters—lunatics, lovers, and poets—if they experience something really vivid (like joy, ecstasy, terror), they then assume some verifiably real phenomenon caused them to have those feelings.

            Or in the night, imagining some fear,
            How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

When the mind is agitated with vivid sensations, which may really just be the product of one’s own powerful imaginings, how easy it is to impose special significance (a bear is after you) on some actually benign thing (a bush minding its own business).

If we take a little time to figure out what the hell the author is saying, when we go back and read the verse in a way that is fueled by that understanding—WOW!—it is so interesting, so stirring! It really captures the way some hyper-buttoned-up folks (like Theseus, Duke of Athens, as well as contemporary members of The Establishment) see poetic invention and lovelorn young people.

Try it for yourself:

More strange than true. I never may believe
These antic fables, nor these fairy toys.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination
            That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
            How easy is a bush supposed a bear!


After my daughter’s initial, dismissive reaction to a reading of this monologue, I took a few minutes to walk her through it, as we did here. Then, “suddenly,” she loved it. And now, at age nine, a bit of Shakespeare is one of her favorite things to hear at the end of the day. Indeed, that last rhyming couplet has become a family joke because of how I deconstructed it for her.

“Remember the other day when we were driving, and I said, ‘Oh, look at the white kitty!’ And Daddy then pointed out that it was really only a plastic bag? And I said that was because Mama loves cats so much that she imagines seeing them even when they aren’t really there.”

So now, having worked her way through the difficulty, my girl squeals with pleasure and says: “Let’s do the one about how Mama thought a plastic bag was a cat!”

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Lances are but Straws

Those of you paying attention (and I thank you for that) may remember that I sheepishly mentioned The Taming of the Shrew the other day while insisting that Shakespeare was not a misogynist. I promised to get back to that.

Now I am back. And I’m thinking that I have an explanation. Sure, I have to admit that “shrew” is a gendered insult. But I am also thinking that neither the “shrew” portrayed in that play nor the way she is “tamed” suggests unthinking woman-hating.

First, the Kate to whom we are initially introduced in that play is not a caricature—nor is she especially lovable. In fact, she is decidedly mean—especially to her sweet kid sister, Bianca, who just wants everyone to get along. So the fact that she is maligned is not totally outrageous. But her anger also makes sense: it gives her power; everyone is terrified of her. And she seems to know that she is likely to lose all that power once she is married off, as custom dictates.

Second, the guy who boasts that he will “tame” her—before they have even met—is not exactly the portrait of gentility. He is introduced as a shameless operator. That is, Petruchio is hardly a saint or a victim. He is a profoundly flawed “hero” who proves victorious in spite of his decidedly self-serving impulses. But he is clever. And nimble, learning effectively on the fly how to get what he wants after going about things all wrong at first.

Lawyers spend a lot of time trying to get other very stressed out people to do what the lawyers think is best. A really important part of the job is knowing what might be best in light of certain laws and other kinds of rules that can trip up regular folks and great big companies at every turn. But the trick is not just being knowledgeable enough to give sound advice; you have to get people to heed that advice. 

When I started practicing law, I was struck by how much of the job seemed to involve being a mother hen, scout leader, psychotherapist, or tireless nag—depending on one’s perspective.  Lots of e-mails and phone calls reminding people about pending deadlines or appointments; arranging meetings to ensure that people actually prepared for something serious like a deposition, court appearance, or board presentation; and talking people down from the ledge, i.e., their instinct to lash out, play ostrich, or run in the face of trouble or tedium. Striking the right note, while relentlessly bossing someone around, is definitely a challenge. (A challenge, I confess, I am still trying to master as both spouse and mother.)  Since someone is generally paying the lawyer to do all this nagging, that someone needs to trust that the lawyer has the client’s best interest at heart. And a lot of lawyers are never able to soothe the nagging doubts on this front….

I don’t know of any law school class purporting to teach how to be a really effective bossy-pants.  But I bet a lot of lawyers could use such a class. Or at least they could take a page out of Petruchio’s playbook.

In Shrew, when we meet Petruchio he is determined to marry up, and thereby get his hands on a substantial dowry. To achieve this goal, he is willing to take as a bride the region’s most infamous shrew, Katarina of Padua. Before meeting her, he vows to “kill [her] with kindness.” (4.1.208.)  That is, he thinks the way to tame her will be through a charm offensive, such that if “she frown, I’ll say she looks as clear/ As morning roses newly wash’d with dew.” (2.1.172-73.) When he actually meets his would-be bride, Petruchio suddenly forgets about his planned kindness-campaign. He resorts instead to unbridled verbal aggression. The moment he meets her, he rather presumptuously calls her by a nickname, “Kate;” and when she protests that “Kate” is not her name, he ups the ante:

You lie, in faith, for you are call’d plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate-Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation—
Myself am mov’d to woo thee for my wife.

The future couple then engages in one of the most delightfully venomous and bawdy battles of wit ever memorialized in English, which ends with Petruchio declaring:

Thou must be married to no man but me;
For I am he am born to tame you Kate,
And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate
Conformable as other household Kates.

(2.1.185-93). I like to think that Katarina’s ability to go toe-to-toe with Petruchio works on him, makes him realize that he really wants a relationship with this fiery, verbally adept being—not just her father’s money.  And so he again shifts gears.

While Katarina is still reeling, Petruchio hastily forges a marriage contract with her father and exits to plan the marriage feast. 

Later, Katarina, seemingly resigned to her fate, is utterly humiliated when Petruchio shows up for the ceremony exceedingly late and dressed in an outlandish costume. Then, much to her amazement, he unceremoniously carts her off to his place before she can take any part in the wedding reception supposedly arranged in her honor.

Finally, to accomplish his objective of “taming” her, Petruchio employs an ingenious paradoxical approach: “He kills her in her own humor.” (4.1.180). When they arrive at his house, Petruchio starts acting just like she used to—imperious, tyrannical, petulant, impossible to please; but he acts this way towards everyone but her—all the while seeming to be concerned only for her needs. Without confronting her directly, he holds a mirror up to her previous ways such that she is able to see just how ugly she’d been to family and servants alike before Petruchio came along. And, at least if Kate’s final submissive monologue can be taken seriously, he seems prevail in the end. He does “tame” her—but not through cowering, sucking up, criticizing, bullying, or abusing her, as he’d initially been inclined to do. Instead, he succeeds by taking her outrageous conduct to the next level so that she can see for herself that it ain’t pretty and make a change on her own.

Okay, I am not really sure how lawyers could use this paradoxical approach to lull clients into submission. But at least it illuminates a process that seems to promote self-awareness:

  • model the behavior;
  • expose the pattern;
  • refuse to react in kind; and
  • let the other person take responsibility for changing the circumstances that are making him/her feel so angry and powerless.
Because of this, I don’t see Shrew as a story about putting an uppity woman in her place so that she will be a submissive housewife. Instead, it strikes me as a parable about how equally flawed people can experiment with strategies for helping each other become more self-aware, more generous, and more optimistic. If lawyers could incorporate similar experiments into their day jobs, it couldn’t hurt their professional relationships—and might even foster mutual respect and trust.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Snatches of Old Tunes

A former colleague forwarded me (and others) a copy of a somewhat shocking motion filed recently in Texas state court in a family law matter.  The motion seeks sanctions against opposing counsel for a campaign of misogyny against the female lawyers representing other parties in the case. According to the motion, the campaign has involved repeatedly calling female attorneys working on the case names like “cunt,” “flat-chested bitch,” and “dumb shit.” I suppose it is not shocking that, even in 2012, some male lawyer is willing to call female opponents names to try to unsettle them and thereby gain some perceived advantage in an adversarial process.  What is surprising—and, in my view, admirable—is that the professionals who filed this motion were willing to make the behavior a matter of public record. As far as I know, this is not common; and it strikes me that taking the bull by a part of his anatomy in this way—soberly illustrating the cheapness of gender-based ad hominems by spelling out the facts without adding a lot of atmospherics—is a powerful strategy for combating the problem.  Roaches, after all, hate it when you turn on the lights. . . .
But thinking about this rather blatant contemporary display of misogyny prompted me to think about the degree to which that ailment, like racism and homophobia, color the legal profession in more subtle ways, which are always harder to recognize, let alone combat. These thoughts in turn prompted me to realize that I cannot think of many instances of unconscious misogyny in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Sure, Shakespeare created plenty of male characters who treat women as little more than objects to be exploited. See, e.g., the villainous Angelo in Measure for Measure, a play about which I have already blawged obsessively. But in creating characters like Angelo, Shakespeare was simply capturing a fact of life—that such characters exist; moreover, Angelo was the bad guy—and the play amounts to a critique of social systems that empower people like Angelo.
Of course, to further the thesis that Shakespeare was not a misogynist, I’d need to take on Taming of the Shrew at some point. But today I note this: considering the severely limited legal and political rights available to women in Elizabethan England, it should be a source of delight and wonder that Shakespeare created so many complex, interesting female characters—roles like Rosalind, Juliet, Portia, Cordelia, etc.—who were not simply witches, whores, or saintly virgins. Even some of Shakespeare’s witches (Macbeth’s “Weird Sisters”), whores (“Mistress Quickly”), and virgins (Measure for Measure’s Isabella) are quite nuanced. And the fact that the guy created so many fantastic female roles is even more amazing when you consider that all these roles had to be performed by young boys back in the day since the concept of “female actor” would, literally, have been synonymous with “prostitute.”
Sure, there are female characters whom male characters treat with scorn in a way that emphasizes their sexuality. The most obvious example is Hamlet and all the ugly things he has to say about his own mother, Queen Gertrude, such as:
Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on; and yet, within a month—
Let me not think on’t! Frailty, thy name is woman!
(Hamlet bemoaning that his mother, who seemed so in love with Hamlet, Sr., married his younger brother shortly after Hamlet, Sr. died at I.2.149-152).

O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
(ditto at I.2.162-163).

A bloody deed—almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
(Hamlet suggesting to Gertrude that the murder he has just committed is not as awful as what she has been doing in bed with Hamlet’s uncle at III.4.33-35).

Even though Hamlet is largely about Hamlet’s perceptions (duh), Shakespeare does not reduce Gertrude to Hamlet’s take on her. Instead, he gives her some decidedly incisive things to say, which suggests a tendency to cut through the bs—as when she succinctly urges the blathering Polonius to use “more matter, with less art” (II.2.95) and when she wryly comments on the Player Queen’s performance, observing that “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” (III.2.221). Creating a character who is more complicated than the portrait drawn of her by the play’s principal character is really hard to do. A writer can only do that if that writer respects the humanity of that individual, which, in part, requires seeing that individual as something more than a reductive stereotype.

One could even say that Hamlet is in part about how the Prince gets undone by this misogyny. At least his disgust with being of woman born and having “sullied flesh”—which he wishes would “melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew” (I.2)—is much in evidence.  This disgust prompts him to dwell a bit too much on his mother’s sexuality and to belittle his girlfriend (Ophelia) in highly sexual and degrading terms when he becomes convinced, based on flimsy evidence, that she has betrayed him. And, ultimately, one could say that these attitudes distract him from his real problems and his real enemies—making him ripe for a tragic end.

In short, one could read Hamlet as a cautionary tale about the dangers of misogyny. Certainly, I can go out on a limb and speculate that lawyers probably do a better job of lawyering when they work to see their adversaries, clients, judges, and jurors as complex individuals, not as stock figures that can be controlled by recourse to degrading, knee-jerk reductionism.