Last week, former President Bill Clinton gave what was widely lauded as a bang-up speech. Regardless of one’s political inclinations, lawyers should have been delighted about the encomium that speech inspired. The speech was not simply long and substantive. It was Bubba-quality funny. Yet its most salient characteristic was the seemingly effortless way Bill rendered really hard stuff accessible. Lawyers have to appreciate just how hard that is to do—distinguishing, for instance, multi-billion-dollar savings to Medicare outlays from multi-billion-dollar cuts to Medicare benefits and explaining how it is intellectually dishonest to pretend that those things are one and the same.
This is the challenge that lawyers of all stripes encounter every day: making complex substance user-friendly. Indeed, a lawyer and blawgger whom I admire, Barry Barnett, has said that one reason why he blogs is to show an ability to make really hard stuff intelligible. Mr. BBar does this because he knows this is what lawyers are called on to do; therefore, proving he has this skill tells you something about his abilities as a lawyer. Barry’s blawg, like Clinton’s 2012 convention speech, should inspire lawyers to pursue better ways to talk to clients, courts, colleagues, adversaries, and family members about mind-numbingly complex stuff.
By contrast, lawyers looking for ways to communicate more effectively should study Shakespeare’s Cymbeline for tips about precisely what not to do.
Cymbeline is truly interesting, although I would never want to have to sit through a production. It is classified as a “problem play.” And not just because it is an over-the-top tragedy with a forced happy ending.
The problem with Cymbeline is that it tries to do too much all at once. I can sympathize with WS on this front because that is sort of my problem as a writer. I am forever trying to say too much in any given sentence, paragraph, brief, essay or blawg.
But Cymbeline really drives home the consequence of too much complexity, of trying to say too much all at once. In this play, the action is triggered when the male lead, Posthumus, is banished for being so presumptuous as to exchange secret marriage vows with the king’s daughter, Imogen. While in exile in Italy, Posthumus brags about his girlfriend’s beauty and then accepts a bet with some random Italian, who swears he can seduce Posthumus’s girlfriend, Imogen. Meanwhile, Imogen’s step-mother encourages her creepy son Cloten to put the moves on Imogen. She wants Cloten to marry his step-sister, whom the mother intends to assassinate, along with her husband, so that Cloten will end up on the throne. To avoid the advances of the icky Cloten and to protect her true love, Imogen disguises herself as an effeminate Frenchman and flees to Wales. While in the Welsh mountains, Imogen stumbles upon an old guy living in a cave with two young men. Imogen does not know that these young men are really her long-lost brothers, kidnapped twenty years ago—before Imogen was even born. The kidnapper was an angry courtier, banished for supposedly conspiring with the Romans against King Cymbeline. But the old exile and the boys, who also have no idea who they really are, agree to give Imogen, herself disguised as a French boy, shelter. Meanwhile, Cloten, disguised as Posthumus, catches up with Imogen in Wales. He sees through the cross-dressing. He tries to rape her. His effort is thwarted, however, by Imogen’s brothers, who behead Cloten to prevent the assault. Imogen is a bit upset about all this and so takes some “medicine” that her step-mother had given her as a parting gift. Unbeknownst to Imogen, the “medicine” is really a deadly poison. At some point, an entire Roman legion is defeated by a small band of outcasts. This outcome has something to do with the God Jupiter appearing in a vision at the eleventh hour, which a soothsayer is called upon to interpret. Eventually, the stars of the star-crossed lovers are uncrossed—but only after it turns out that Imogen did not really die from drinking the poison; the wicked step-mother dies instead. And because the King is reunited with his long-lost sons who will now inherit his kingdom, he permits Imogen to marry whomever she wants. Moreover, the king decides that, while he is in a forgiving mood, the Brits will make peace at last with the Romans; all prisoners will be pardoned; and everyone is invited to a big feast.
The problem with this “problem play” is now, perhaps, clear? It’s as if WS was trying to cram bits of As You Like It, King Lear, Othello, Coriolanus, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, Henry V, The Tempest, and Romeo and Juliet all into five acts.
In any event, as a lawyer striving to teach prospective lawyers how to communicate better, I vow to be vigilant against my own Cymbelinean tendencies. Long live concision, precision, and Clintonian zingers!