Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Play’s the Things, Part 4

So sad. Work keeps interfering with my desire to ruminate about how Shakespeare’s plays-within-plays provide useful insights about the relationship between work and the rest of our lives. This interference is both frustrating and patently comical. (I mean, how dare the work for which I am paid interfere with the work I wish to do to keep myself alert enough to continue to be enthused about “real work”?) But I at least want to express my gratitude to the anonymous person who left the encouraging comment on my last post. Just as I am grateful to anyone who bothers to read these musings and occasionally chime in, I really appreciated the suggestion that this blawg is not just a big waste of time. It can be rendered meaningful when it sparks some connection across the void. Hooray!

Now, to wrap up the series about plays-within-plays: I have been meaning to turn to Hamlet, which is, after all, the source for the line “the play’s the thing.” (See the end of the very long Act II.2.) Hamlet includes a rather famous play-within-the-play. We do not see a full-blown rehearsal of this internal play, as we do in Midsummer. But we see how the script is crafted and specifically tailored to provoke the precise audience that Hamlet has in mind. That is, the play shows how art or artifice can be put to work to further a real-life cause. The “work” that the internal play does is help solve a crime, illuminate a mystery. Indeed, Hamlet dubs the internal play “The Mouse-trap,” because it is designed “to catch the conscience of the king.” More precisely, the internal play is modified to depict the murder of Hamlet Sr. as that deed was previously described to Prince Hamlet by the ghost of the late king. Since Hamlet, Jr. has been to a university and internalized some reasonable advice about the value of approaching things like ghosts with a healthy bit of skepticism, he does not want to accept the ghost’s narrative at face value. He wants to be sure that his icky uncle, now also his step-father, really is the murderer. Making such an accusation publicly with nothing but the “word” of a sketchy apparition would likely make Hamlet, Jr. persona non grata around the court. Moreover, such an accusation would also accelerate the likelihood of Hamlet’s joining his father in “the undiscovered country” in short order. The play-within-the-play, which Hamlet puts together along with a group of traveling players, gives him the verification he needs. It proves who the guilty party is—beyond a reasonable doubt. In short, the play-within-a-play works such that art imitates life to expose actual facts otherwise shrouded in the past.
The internal play also suggests something metaphoric about how creative strategies can be employed productively at work.
In terms of what the play within Hamlet can teach lawyers about better ways to approach their work, here are a few thoughts:
·         Don’t take everything clients say about the facts underlying their legal difficulties at face value; seek external verification. Trust no one—especially self-serving ghosts bearing grudges.

·         If you can, avoid confronting bad actors directly with bald accusations regarding their past malfeasance. Instead, see if you can create conditions such that they are essentially compelled—perhaps under oath during a deposition—to telegraph their guilt so that all the world can plainly see it.

·         Whenever you are preparing legal documents, think first and foremost about your intended audience and how best to make the abstract accessible to them such that the reader will be drawn into an otherwise dry tale. Find a way to make your particular reader care about your message by showing you know how to see things through their eyes.

·         When communicating with an adverse party, communicate so as to make them jump out of their skin—but only because, very soberly, you have illustrated how the law is such that they are on the wrong side and will, therefore, ultimately lose if they persist in thinking they can keep up appearances.
But if your tactics succeed, unlike Hamlet, don’t indulge in an obnoxious victory dance. (See Act III.3.) When the internal play prompts Hamlet’s uncle, King Claudius, to freak out, call for light, and abruptly end the play, Hamlet has his answer. But he responses by jumping up and singing like a madman:

Why, let the stricken deer go weep,
The hart ungalled play;
For some must watch, while some must sleep:
So runs the world away.

Then he brags:

Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers-- if
the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me--with two
Provincial roses on my razed shoes, get me a
fellowship in a cry of players, sir?

Not exactly the portrait of professionalism. . . .  And maybe that is why, shortly thereafter, Hamlet spends the rest of his days dodging a series of assassination attempts, the last of which succeeds (while also bringing down everyone else in the Danish court). So, work hard, play hard—but not too hard. And when your hard work integrating play into your work pays off such that you score big at work, don’t celebrate in such a way as to suggest you can’t see any difference whatsoever between play and work.  


  1. It's 1975. NASA has safely embedded its Golden Record into the protective womb of the Voyager spacecraft and flung it toward the stars with the same brash audacity, considered aplomb, and profound wonder that the Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow unwittingly travelled the yellow brick road. And now, 37 odd years later, she nonchalantly approaches the interstellar abyss.

    Elsewhere, 2013. Intrepid Bloggers the world over risk the same deafening silence with equal courage, brain, and heart every time they post their digitized selves onto the world wide webyss. Some do so badly, and so are soon lost to time and space. Others, however, do so so skillfully that readers cannot help but lock their gaze upon them, permanently tethering themselves to these rarified thinkers with selected bookmarks.

    "True Complaint" clearly belongs to the second group. Your musings are so well constructed, so insightful and edifying, and such a pleasure to connect with, your "golden record" will long endure in your readers' souls. For that we thank you, applaud you, and hopefully, encourage you.

    1. Whoever you are, "Old Dry Eyes," you made my eyes moisten today. Thanks so much.