Hamlet says “Words, words, words” in response to an annoying question from a guy named Polonius: “What do you read, my lord?” (II.2)
How should we interpret this famous line?
On one hand, Hamlet’s response seems to mean “I am just reading words”—as in “nothing of importance, especially since I am wandering around this castle depressed out of my mind because I believe my uncle, who is now married to my mother, killed my father and what solace can I possibly hope to find in some stinkin’ book?”
On the other hand, we have to remember who is talking here: Hamlet, the guy who loves nothing more than words; the guy who is all about words, whose soliloquizing is world famous! Words are his bread and butter. Therefore, he could be saying that even words—something he really cherishes—is just not sufficient to help him negotiate his existential crisis and that has him scared.
On yet another hand, Hamlet is probably just being snide because the person who has asked him this lame question is clearly aligned with the new king (the murdering uncle) and is in the process of not-so-subtly spying on Hamlet at that very moment because the new king wants to know if Hamlet has gone mad or is just faking it.
If I had yet one more hand, I could make a really profound point. That point would be that, as with Hamlet, for lawyers words are never “just words.”
“Just words.” A deceptive phrase if ever there was one. Words can hurt a great deal more than sticks or stones. And they can do as much to transform how people see the world as non-verbal deeds can. Consider Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech as an example. Words not only “trigger” action, as Judge Learned Hand suggested, they are actions—at least when they travel from one person to another. And I am not referring only to that which philosophers call “speech acts,” such as words consecrating a marriage (“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”). Words in motion can be criticism, praise, inspiration, provocation, education, deception, seduction, persuasion, instruction, analysis, commentary— You get the idea.
Getting the words just right is an essential part of good lawyering (or even “the” essential part?). So it pains me to recall that, when I was a child, I used to roll my eyes and groan theatrically when my mother directed me to the dictionary in response to my relentless questions about the proper spelling or meaning of words. (Even more appalling is seeing that behavior re-enacted for me, as if by magic, by my own daughter.)
Yet every normal, non-lawyer was appalled when Bill Clinton famously testified that his answer to a certain pointed question from a special prosecutor “depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is.” But lawyers know that HUGE legal matters often hinge on the interpretation of a single word. Ask any patent lawyer. Also ask my pal, Master Blawgger Barry Barnett who recently wrote a very funny, biting post about this very topic featuring my favorite recurrent characters: “Snappy and Bitey Talk About What ‘So’ Means.” Legal analysis that turns on a single word—especially one that does not seem particularly susceptible to interpretation, such as “is” or “so”—can seem infuriating. But it is a key part of lawyering and judging. And not just in a bad way. Sure, in some hands, the practice can seem manipulative—like a ruse to finagle one’s way to the result one had in mind from the outset. But in other hands, the practice can seem like Caution and Reason incarnate. A genuine quest for understanding. A profound reminder that words are not, after all, stones. Even though words can break your bones, they are not solid lumps that stay reliably fixed for long stretches. If that were the case, no one today would have a bit of trouble understanding all those words that Shakespeare put in the mouth of Prince Hamlet.