Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth[.]
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I.1)
I have been harping on a certain 5th-grade production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now that the production has come to fruition (a sheer triumph, I might add), I note that a particular casting device employed in said production might be an apt metaphor for something legal writers should keep in mind: your audience is easily confused; so cut them some slack.
Shakespeare’s bucolic comedy is set in motion by a domestic crisis: Hermia’s father wants her to marry Demetrius; but Hermia is in love with Lysander. Meanwhile, Hermia’s childhood chum, Helena, is in love with Demetrius who wants to marry Hermia. When Hermia confides in her pal Helena that Hermia and Lysander plan to flee Athens and head for “the woods” towards some dowager aunt’s home where they plan to marry in secret, Helena decides to tell Demetrius about the plot in hopes of currying his favor. That plan, however, backfires; Demetrius spurns Helena yet more heartlessly and chases after Hermia leaving Helena to follow like a spurned “spaniel.” Deep in the woods, even stranger things occur. The lovers unwittingly cross paths with the spritely fairy, Puck, who adds to the havoc by casting a spell on Lysander’s eyes such that he suddenly ditches Hermia for Helena and then similarly enchants Demetrius, so that he too spits on Hermia and turns the charm on the previously despised Helena—much to the chagrin of both maids.
All is set “right” in the end. But the audience is supposed to keep things straight through the following permutations spanning a single, crazy night romping in the woods:
· Hermia, who loves Lysander, is beloved by Demetrius who is loved by Helena; then
· Helena is loved by Lysander and Demetrius, both of who formerly loved Hermia; then
· Hermia loves Lysander who loves her back; and Helena loves Demetrius who loves her back.
Shakespeare adds to the dizzying effect by giving his two female lovers rather similar names. He only eases the audience’s burden by making it clear that Hermia is supposed to be “little but fierce” while Helena is a “tall personage.” Lysander and Demetrius have distinguishable names but indistinguishable personalities and verbal ticks.
In said fifth-grade production, the roles of Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius were all “double cast”—meaning: two different actors played each role. Why? So everybody in the class would have a meaningful role. But the effect?
Perhaps more confusion than Will Shakespeare had in mind.
Although the directorial motive in this particular production was admirable, the additional layer of complexity serves as an object lesson for lawyers.
Ensuring that one’s audience can keep straight the characters in cases that one wants to describe to third parties--be they judges or juries—is rather like trying to untangle the web of romantic attachments in Midsummer. Shakespeare, clever dude that he was, built confusion into his work product as a means to further his theme while simultaneously taking pains to avert a descent into absolute chaos. In briefs and memos, even if your case is about some dizzying array of credit default swaps or other business machinations gone awry involving vast numbers of bad actors, the legal writer really needs to work overtime to render the confusion accessible. Doing that requires a difficult balancing act, assessing just how much concrete detail will help make the underlying narrative palpable without overwhelming the audience such that it is lost in the weeds of irrelevant minutiae.
Good luck with that—for it is a course that never did run smooth. . . .