My daughter and I started to tackle a new text this week, a speech from Henry V. It is the soliloquy the King delivers in the darkness before dawn, just before the battle of Agincourt in which the English will be outnumbered “five to one; besides, they [the French] all are fresh.” Inartfully, I explained to my daughter that, in this particular speech, the King admits to feeling bad about sending a bunch of boys off into battle and otherwise having the world’s weight on his shoulder; but this is what a king must do—bear it all—though the only thing he gets in exchange for the anxiety and attendant sleep-deprivation is “ceremony,” meaning—fanfare, trappings, fancy clothes, people bowing and scraping. Here’s a little excerpt:
Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
Because King Henry is a good king, “ceremony” is hardly fair compensation for what he endures. After all, none of the trappings of majesty—“the sceptre and the ball,/The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,/ The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,/ The farced title running 'fore the king,/ The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp/That beats upon the high shore of this world”—none are enough to guarantee he, as king, will ever sleep as soundly as a “wretched slave.” “Idle ceremony” he thinks is just “place, degree and form,/ Creating awe and fear in other men” without actually bringing any peace to the recipient of the ceremonial displays.
But ceremony really isn’t “idle.” Or at least does not have to be “idle.” It has powerful, ritualistic significance—that can be harnessed for good or bad purposes. Certainly, ceremony can and often does go to the heads of people in power, making them think that they are really endowed somehow with supernatural gifts, not just awesome responsibility. But, at least when the ruler in question is a fundamentally good guy like Henry V—sufficiently tormented by his or her power over others’ lives—ceremony can also remind the powerful that their actions have serious consequences, and thus those actions should always be calibrated to serve a higher social order.
“Ceremony” may play a similarly paradoxical role in the legal system. On one hand, certain ceremonial expressions meant to show deference to a court can go to judges’ heads, puff them up with pride. On the other hand, those same bits of ceremony can remind judges of the tremendous power they wield—and that every decision they make has real consequences for real people—sometimes for huge numbers of people for years to come.
One such bit of ceremony is the ritualistic incantation “May it please the Court” with which every advocate is supposed to begin before plunging into an oral presentation before any court. Recently, legal writing guru Bryan Garner took aim at this ritual. Although Garner does not come out and say so directly, he does not seem to care for the formulaic opening. Probably because it is rather archaic, as he points out. After all, the phrase sounds an awful lot like “May it please your majesty”—a line that seems more likely to have been lifted from Shakespearean dialogue than modern discourse. Therefore, Garner may have been surprised, upon interviewing judges, that so many of them defended lawyers’ use of this phrase as a standard opening. Judges seem to recognize the need for this bit of ceremony—at the very least, as a means to focus everyone’s attention before the lawyer launches into anything substantive. But I tell my moot court students that “May it please the court” should never be treated as a throw-away line. It should be used to seize hold of one’s audience—to convey that you are an earnest, prepared advocate, eager to engage, committed to your cause. The words themselves matter because they are ceremonial—which means no one has to waste precious mental resources on the words themselves. Because these words are comfortingly familiar, the audience can instead focus on the intention being conveyed through these words. The words, as a ritualistic vessel, permit the listener to attend solely to the speaker’s affect—his sincerity or her passion for the seemingly, deceptively dry legal issues the court must address.
So “ceremony” does not have to be “idle.” Lawyers’ ceremonial incantations can and should be more than token displays of respect or mere throat-clearing. They are a chance to remind judges of the great power they possess and their need to proceed with vigilance; they are a means to say “What we are about to do here really matters; getting it right really matters—to my client and a greater many others besides—if only it may please the court. . . .”