Monday, May 7, 2012

What Would William Do?

Even when toiling away for an audience of three—as a practicing lawyer or a lonely blogger, I like to comfort myself by noting that, as a writer, I can at least say that I play on the same team as Shakespeare, mystery man though he may have been.  I am certainly not suggesting that I—or any lawyer—is in the same league with Shakespeare, of course.  But late at night, while wrestling with that unglamorous motion to dismiss for lack personal jurisdiction, it can, perhaps, help to recall that we lawyers have a few things in common with Will.

One motivation for this blawg is a desire to further an even more radical thesis: that Shakespeare’s canon is a legitimate source for law-practice-specific revelations.  Today I turn to one of Shakespeare’s most famous history plays:  The Tragedy of Richard III.  This is the one about the really evil dude who stops at nothing to get to the top—including murder, incest, spying, lying, and pandering to religious factions.  I submit that Richard III can be read as a parable about one of legal writing’s most fundamental maxims:  “An honest tale speeds best being plainly told.”   That is, Shakespeare’s play about a crafty, malcontent hunchback and his audacious pursuit of the English throne is really about the degree to which honesty and verbal clarity are concepts that need to overlap.  This play also illustrates that, although getting the words right can be a fierce challenge, those who intentionally use words to obscure—or who simply do not try hard enough to be accurate—may get away with murder for a while, but “like a drunken sailor on a mast,” will eventually “tumble down.” 

Perhaps a little more context will help.  Richard III begins with Richard voicing his “discontent” about his limited prospects for advancement.   More specifically, Richard resents being the “Duke of Gloucester” when his intellectually inferior brother gets to be England’s king and numerous other heirs stand between Richard and any hope of succession.  Richard vows to “seem a saint” while “play[ing] the devil.”   As the play unfolds, he plots and schemes and murders his way through a bevy of human obstacles, including his two adorable little nephews.  He becomes king and even manages to seduce the widow of one of his victims.  By Act IV, the place is awash in blood.  The female survivors of the blood bath—including Richard’s own mother—appear on stage and rage against him.  In seeking to describe Richard’s horrible deeds, these women bemoan words’ inadequacy to express what they feel—and yet also realize that words are the only means they have to seek both catharsis and justice:

Why should calamity be full of words?

Windy attorneys to their client’s woes,
Airy succeeders of intestate joys,
Poor breathing orators of miseries,
Let them have scope! though what they do impart
Help not all, yet do they ease the heart.

If so then, be not tongue-tied; go with me.
And in the breath of bitter words let’s smother
My damned son, which thy two sweet sons smother’d.

Interestingly, Shakespeare had these characters use lawyers’ ramblings as a metaphor for the kind of words that do not fully reflect the underlying truth they seek to express.  And the bard makes a good point:  When lawyers’ words are insufficiently sincere or their objective is unclear, they are not only ineffectual but suspect.

Later in this same scene, Shakespeare again analogizes to lawyers in an unflattering way.  While campaigning to defend his ascendancy to the throne, Richard comes upon Queen Elizabeth, whose husband, son, and brothers Richard has killed to get the crown.  After she screams at him for a while and calls him every name in the book, Richard ends up urging her to be his advocate and convince her youngest daughter to marry him and become his new queen:

Be the attorney of my love to her.
Plead what I will be, not what I have been;
Not my deserts, but what I will deserve.
Urge the necessity and state of times,
And be not peevish-fond in great designs.

A more audacious act is hard to imagine—entreating a woman, whose loved ones you have slaughtered, to convince her daughter to marry you, the murdering monster.  The obscene request implies that attorneys are those willing to make outrageous arguments even when their hearts are not in the cause.  But we have to keep in mind that Richard is the speaker here, not Shakespeare himself.  And Richard is a villain, not someone whose point of view we are supposed to embrace. 

Ultimately, Richard—the one who believes lawyers are those who will employ whatever words are necessary to win and who himself has operated along those lines—is exposed as a fraud, a failure, a “bloody dog.”   And all of his various attempts to use words cynically to manipulate people and to serve his own utterly selfish quest come to nothing.  Although the scene with Elizabeth ends ambiguously, suggesting that she might do his bidding, we never see her—or any of the other women whom Richard has wronged—again.  The moment she exits, Richard learns that an invading army is headed his way.  For the rest of the play, Tricky Dicky gets nothing but bad news and some unsettling visits from the ghosts of all the souls he has murdered.  The play ends with his shameful defeat in battle.  We last glimpse him hobbling around on foot, sputtering impotently to the heavens “A horse, a horse! my kingdom for a horse.”   His mask of insincere, unctuous eloquence stripped away at last.

Essentially, Richard’s fatal flaw is his certainty that language is nothing more than a tool to manipulate the weaker souls around him who labor naively under “coward conscience.”   But take it from Will: Trying to get the words right is the impulse that separates those who would be honorable from those who would merely be king.  When the gulf between one’s words and beliefs becomes pronounced, a person will ultimately drown in the miasma.  Good writers of every stripe, therefore, struggle to get the words right—in terms of both form and substance.  Because successful advocacy requires wielding words plainly and in the service of truth, lawyers who take their jobs seriously should abhor obfuscation, unintended ambiguities, fuzzy formulations, and empty eloquence as well as outright lies.  

1 comment:

  1. Are one's words and one's beliefs different sorts of things? When I try to think of what I believe in, I think primarily in words. There are, of course, other brain processes at work: my beliefs are formed by images, emotions, etc as well as words, but I think that their prime manifestation is in language.

    It's true that, like Richard, I can distort my beliefs by manipulating language. But I think the correspondence you suggest isn't mainly between words and beliefs, but between one set of words and another.