Friday, March 28, 2014

Shakespeare as a Weapon

The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.
Hamlet (III.2.250)

Recently, a guy made international news after pursuing some rather creative revenge. Apparently, he had ordered a used gaming device on line via a British version of Craig’s List. After his bank account had been debited, he learned that he had been scammed. He didn’t despair, though. He sent a little gift to the offender’s cell phone: virtually all of Shakespeare’s canon, which arrived through an avalanche of text messages. The scammer was exposed, the victim was affirmed, and no blood was shed.

Poetic justice, indeed.

Of course, Shakespeare himself had plenty to say about revenge. Hamlet, Othello, Merchant of Venice, Titus Andronicus for starters. Taken together, one can intuit that Shakespeare believed that the quest for vengeance would likely result in a person’s undoing. He depicts quests for revenge—both those that follow legitimate wrongs (Hamlet) and illegitimate ones (Othello)—as the product of ugly, if entirely natural, emotional impulses. To free oneself from “this thing of darkness,” a person has to acknowledge the feeling in oneself and then consciously decide to forego acting on it. See The Tempest.

But maybe the ability to exact revenge through comic means is a way to outsmart the system, a way to have one’s decadent cake, eat it, and lose weight too! Sure, some humor can be cruel; it can sting those who are the butt of it. But I am not talking about mean-spirited humor that is no more than thinly veiled denigration. I am talking about revenge-through-humor that is clever and more than a bit self-deprecating. That kind of humor only embarrasses the bad guy; it doesn’t brutalize the way shaming someone does. Also, revenge-through-humor can empower the victim by infusing a bad situation with a bit of light. By contrast, conventional revenge tends to turn a person into a gnarled, brooding figure who ultimately starts to resemble the person who did him wrong. We can’t all be saintly, especially when our jobs involve exposing others’ bad behavior or flawed thinking. So revenge-through-humor allows a person to sublimate and channel intense emotions so as to avoid bloodshed while still empowering a person who has been legitimately wronged.

I admit that I have on occasion used Shakespeare as an instrument of revenge. And I admit that I have enjoyed doing so. For instance, when writing a brief in response to some other lawyer’s work product that featured an unfair request, tortured logic, or the distorted use of legal authorities, I have sometimes found that Shakespeare (or some other literary icon) provided the most apt way to expose the problem. For instance, I recently took a cue from Marc Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral to make a legal point. I used the same rhetorical device Antony employs when he punctuates each sentence with the phrase “but Brutus is an honorable man” to drive home to his audience that he thinks Brutus has behaved anything BUT honorably (at least in terms of assassinating Caesar). I did something similar to illustrate a fatal pleading flaw in a plaintiff’s Complaint. I made sure to highlight the parallel in a footnote in hopes of making the judge and his law clerks smile. Too cute by half, perhaps. But what’s the point of practicing law if no one ever gets to have any fun? I think using Shakespeare to help beat up the other side in a dispute over legal issues is not just a gratuitous exercise. It is akin to arguing by analogy, the most helpful way to clarify abstract points. It also lightens up the act of intellectual evisceration that is intended to compel the court to do something really powerful—like throw the case against your client out of court.

In truth, when I write briefs for other lawyers, my little Shakespearean barbs are often cut from the final draft. Maybe because they just don't love Shakespeare the way I do. Or maybe they fear the judge doesn't. Or maybe they just fear anything unconventional. This does not deter me, though. Even if I only succeed in bringing a more literary (and thus more expansive) perspective to one reader—the person who decides to cut these contributions—I can still imagine that I am doing a bit of good in the world by expanding that one person’s cultural horizon (and by entertaining myself during the lonely writing process.)

Or maybe this habit of mine is not so admirable. Maybe it is just my way of pursuing revenge against the universe for requiring that I become an attorney in order to qualify as a professional writer. In this, I suppose, I am a bit like the sputtering, exasperated Lear who declares he’ll get revenge against the two daughters who have outsmarted him after he has screwed over the one daughter who was actually committed to his well-being:

. . .you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall--I will do such things,--
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.

King Lear (II.4.305-9)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Winning Arguments

Much to my daughter’s chagrin, the other night over dinner my husband and I got into a little argument. The argument was about when, in Act III, scene 1 of Hamlet, does Hamlet realize that people are spying on him. If you look at the text, the playwright does not include a stage direction anywhere that says “Hamlet realizes Polonius and Claudius are hiding behind a curtain.” (In fact, Shakespeare’s plays are virtually devoid of stage directions.) But, conventionally, those directing the play accept that they must pinpoint a moment in that scene when Hamlet realizes that something is afoot—which in turn explains why he suddenly starts screaming at Ophelia to get herself to a nunnery.

My husband and I have different views about when this moment occurs. But because this is my blog, I get to convince you that I’m the one with the superior explanation. I can only hope to do so, however, if I act like a lawyer, always a winning strategy when it comes to arguments with a spouse, don’t you think? 

Seriously, lawyers are supposed to try to win arguments.  And they are supposed to endeavor to do so by marshaling sufficiently convincing evidence to support their position while also acknowledging and rebutting any reasonable counter evidence, which almost always exists.

So let me start by explaining the husband’s (aka Alex’s) hypothesis. Alex contends that Hamlet’s epiphany has already happened by the time he starts speaking in this particular scene. This is a pretty interesting proposition since what Hamlet has to say upon entering this scene is that most-famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy. For the Alex Hypothesis to fly, however, it would first need to explain why Hamlet was contemplating suicide in front of an audience. Alex’s explanation is that the soliloquy should be understood as a coded message to Claudius—the uncle whom Hamlet believes murdered his father and then married his mother so swiftly that “the funeral baked meats/Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” [I.2] In other words, according to Alex, the existential issue captured in the speech is not Hamlet’s own despair but a suggestion to Claudius that the way he can escape the guilty conscience that surely must be plaguing him and redeem his sorry excuse for a life is for him “to take arms against a sea of troubles,/ And by opposing end them.” In other words, Alex suggests that what Hamlet is doing with this speech is a version of what Curly tries in Oklahoma! when he goes into the old smokehouse where the grimy hired-hand Jud Fry lives on Aunt Eller’s farm and seeks to convince him that the best way to take charge of his unsatisfying existence is to hang himself.  SeePore Jud Is Daid” by Rogers & Hammerstein. Curly’s point is that, in death at least, Jud will finally get himself cleaned up and then get some attention as “friends’ll weep and wail for miles around.” 

What evidence does Alex have to support the contention that Hamlet:Claudius::Curly:Jud? 

Alex says “Hamlet doesn’t use the first-person singular in the entire speech.”

Okay. Certainly another interesting observation. For this fact does distinguish this soliloquy from, say, the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” soliloquy, in which Hamlet compares himself (unfavorably) to an actor delivering “Aeneas’ tale to Dido.” That soliloquy is replete with the word “I,” e.g.:

  • What would he do,/ Had he the motive and the cue for passion/ That I have?
  • Yet I,/ A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,/ Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,/ And can say nothing;
  • Am I a coward?
  • 'Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be/ But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall/ To make oppression bitter, or ere this/ I should have fatted all the region kites/ With this slave's offal: bloody, bawdy villain!
  • Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,/ That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,/ Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,/ Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,/ And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,/ A scullion!
And so forth.

What’s wrong with the Alex Hypothesis?

Let me count the ways!

Principally, there’s the problem with the basic theme of the “to be or not to be” soliloquy. After rattling off all the good reasons a person might have for wanting to end it all—“the whips and scorns of time,/ The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,” etc., etc.—most of the speech is about the ambivalence that thoughts of suicide engender. Why? Because, according to Hamlet, a person cannot quite be sure about what comes after death, “the undiscovered country.” If Hamlet were giving this speech to try to convince Claudius to kill himself, why would Hamlet devote much of the speech to acknowledging how the will to live has a way of trumping the impulse to end it all even when life really, really sucks? Why would Hamlet end the speech bemoaning that thinking hard about how little we know about death causes us to lose our resolve—“the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought”? Why would he admit that thinking this way causes a person to “lose the name of action” if what Hamlet wants is to induce Claudius to take a specific (suicidal) action?

In short, I do not feel that my husband’s creative suggestion accounts for the textual evidence very well.

Of course, there is some evidence to support the otherwise unconvincing Alex Hypothesis (aside from that no-I contention, which only gets a person so far). By this point in the play, we know that Claudius is preoccupied with Hamlet’s every move. For instance, the scene in question begins with Claudius interrogating Hamlet’s old school chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom Claudius commissioned earlier in the play to “get from [Hamlet] why he puts on this confusion,/ Grating so harshly all his days of quiet/ With turbulent and dangerous lunacy[.]” In other words, Claudius has already enlisted people to spy on Hamlet, and a previous scene with R & G suggests that Hamlet sniffed out that plan pretty easily—which is why he keeps ducking these gents whom he initially greeted as “my excellent good friends!” Therefore, one could speculate that Hamlet, smart guy that he is, understands by Act III, scene 1 that spies lurk everywhere. Also, in this scene, right after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern admit they haven’t yet been able to get much of anything out of Hamlet, Claudius sends them off and then asks his “Sweet Gertrude” to “leave us too” because he and Polonius plan to do some spying of their own, using Ophelia as a prop. Claudius admits that they “have closely sent for Hamlet hither,/ That he, as 'twere by accident, may here/ Affront Ophelia. . .”—all so Claudius and Polonius can see if Hamlet is suffering “the affliction” of unrequited love, as Polonius believes, or something else entirely. In short, everyone in the Danish court seems to be in on the plot to spy on poor Hamlet; so Hamlet has every reason to suspect that whenever he roams freely about the castle, there are spies in his midst.

But if one believes that Hamlet suspects he is being spied upon as he delivers the “to be or not to be” speech, the Alex Hypothesis has another problem in addition to failing to account for the speech’s theme. The problem is that it also doesn’t account for another development slightly later in the scene. And this is where it is my turn to marshal evidence to support my own argument.

In my view, Hamlet realizes that he is being set up and likely spied upon a few lines into his exchange with Ophelia a few moments after his private “to be or not to be” moment. After a perfunctory greeting, Ophelia does as her father has instructed her and says: “My lord, I have remembrances of yours,/ That I have longed long to re-deliver;/ I pray you, now receive them.” My hypothesis is that Hamlet recognizes that she is lying as she makes this assertion. He knows that she hasn’t “longed long” to give him back all of his love letters and such. He knows that she continues to pine for him like the lovesick teen that she is. He also knows that she is usually more articulate than this statement suggests. If she were speaking from the heart, she would never say something as awkward as “I have longed long to re-deliver” this stuff. As she trips over that “longed long to” formulation, Hamlet realizes what is going on. And with a quick glance around, he intuits that her intermeddling, blowhard father is probably lurking nearby—if not Claudius too.

Do I have any more proof than this “longed long to” bit?

But of course!

After the highly rational, completely coherent “to be or not to be” speech, and then right after a polite, if stiff, exchange of pleasantries with Ophelia, Hamlet starts assaulting her with a series of highly sexual and degrading comments. After she presses him to take back the tokens of his love, he first responds “I never gave you aught.” Clearly, he is not being literal. He is saying “I never gave you jack shit. That stuff is worthless”—which is like saying “It was all a charade. You are not who I thought you were so what I thought I loved does not exist.” Ophelia has no trouble understanding the hostility of his message, even if she does not understand why he has turned on her this way. So she responds form the heart, making it clear that what he calls “aught” she valued as “rich gifts” until, suddenly, he proved to be “unkind” to her:

     My honour'd lord, you know right well you did;
     And, with them, words of so sweet breath composed
     As made the things more rich: their perfume lost,
    Take these again; for to the noble mind
     Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
     There, my lord.

 But that is more than enough for Hamlet. With this pretty speech she essentially confirms that she is not acting naturally; she is someone else’s pawn. Instead of feeling sorry for her, he goes for the jugular. He attacks her “honesty”—in a single word challenging both her truthfulness and her chastity, knowing full well that he is hitting below the belt, so to speak:

That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should
admit no discourse to your beauty.

Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than
with honesty?

Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner
transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the
force of honesty can translate beauty into his
likeness: this was sometime a paradox, but now the
time gives it proof.

After this insulting exchange, Hamlet ups the intensity still further—admitting one moment that he did love her once and then immediately thereafter contradicting himself:

. . . . I did love you once.

Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.

You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot
so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of
it: I loved you not.

I was the more deceived.

Right after that, Hamlet starts urging Ophelia to get herself to a nunnery. His rant against marriage and procreation is so over the top that she is forced to conclude “O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!” 

The raving-lunatic bit is, in part, a performance for Ophelia and any other spies that might be at hand. But Hamlet gets so absorbed in his ravings—venting real emotions in his effort to portray himself as unhinged—that he ultimately exposes his true feelings.  In particular, Hamlet telegraphs exactly what he thinks about the marriage between his Uncle Claudius and his Mother Gertrude: “we will have no more marriages:/ those that are married already, all but one, shall/ live the rest shall keep as they are.” That is why, after Hamlet storms off and Claudius and Polonius emerge from their hiding place, Claudius recognizes uneasily “what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,/ Was not like madness.”

In short, it is true that, during Act III, scene 1, Hamlet sends a message to Claudius, as Mr. Alex believes. But the textual evidence does not quite support the Alex Hypothesis regarding what that message is and when it was sent. I believe the evidence instead shows that Hamlet ends up sending a message to Claudius that is not quite what he intended; and he does so only after he obtains evidence that Ophelia is part of the wide-ranging scheme to manipulate him. Because the line between performed madness and real outrage becomes blurred, Hamlet lets slip exactly what he thinks of Claudius and his marriage to Hamlet’s mother—that it is so offensive that they are the one married couple in all the world who should not be permitted to live. In this moment, Hamlet reveals to Claudius that Hamlet’s opinion of his uncle is far worse than can be explained by Gertrude’s hypothesis: that it is just a product of “[h]is father's death, and our o'erhasty marriage.” As a result, Claudius ends up with evidence that Hamlet suspects that Claudius is a murderer, not just an adulterer.  Claudius will get further evidence confirming just how much Hamlet knows in the very next scene, in the very moment when Hamlet gets evidence that Claudius really did murder Hamlet Sr. in the manner described by the Ghost back in Act I. Once the two men are armed with this evidence, they can then make a reasoned choice among the competing hypotheses swirling about in their heads. But, too bad for them, having evidence that they are indeed right doesn’t prove to be good for their longevity. . . .

P.S. Special thanks to Husband Alex for being such a good sport about things generally.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

You Say “Viola” I say “Viola”

While studying Shakespeare years ago with an Oxfordian polymath, I was surprised to learn that those Brits had a different way of pronouncing the name of the female lead in Twelfth Night. They call her “VI-o-la” whereas we Yanks tend to say “Vee-OH-la.” And they do the same thing with Winter’s Tale’s “Perdita,” by pronouncing it “PER-di-tah.”  Of course the Brits and Yanks have all sorts of words that they insist on pronouncing differently, not just the names of Shakespearean heroines. But some variants are more likely to strike the ear of one set of speakers as just being off. That is, saying certain words “the wrong way” in certain circles can be a symbol of pitiable ignorance.
An example of this phenomenon in legal circles has to do with the “proper” way to say “voir dire.”[1] In Texas, as I have heard state trial judges explain to panels of potential jurors, we are closer to Paris, Texas than to Paris, France; therefore, the voir dire process is referred to as “vor DIE er.” By contrast, anyone vaguely conversant with French would say something more like “voi DEAR.” If you use the Francophile pronunciation in Texas legal circles, though, people will look at you like you are some pretentious prig who couldn’t find your ass with two hands and a compass. Similarly, if you go up East to some Yankee courtroom and refer to “vor DIE or,” people will look around for the turnip truck that suddenly deposited you in their midst after you obtained a law license fthrough an on-line correspondence course.
I bet all of us have experienced pronunciation variations that rub us the wrong way. But it seems that certain variations that are just a matter of different regional conventions tend to grate on people more than if someone simply mispronounces a word. (I may be wrong about this, actually, because it really bugs me when lawyers say “condition preh-CEE-dent” instead of “condition PREH-ce-dent” since those same lawyers would never say “I really need to find a Texas Supreme Court preh-CEE-dent to support this proposition.”) But let’s nonetheless assume I’m right about this—the proof being that the Gershwins’ “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” is a timeless standard.  Some differences in pronunciation, though not inherently wrong, offend so much as to risk condemnation as a “No Nothing.”
Why is this? Why do certain variations in convention trigger such deeply visceral responses even when a person knows quite well that the “correct” pronunciation is wholly a matter of convention? Do these tendencies reflect some primal fear of being misunderstood that makes us cling to arbitrary wisdom? Or do they symbolize some need to keep the outer boundaries of certain circles clear because of lingering fear that the barbarians are poised to break through the barricades? Is it a territorial issue that arises only after one has fought to be seen as someone “in the know” so that disdain of those on the outside is a kind of badge honoring your own passage to safety?
Beats me.

But, undoubtedly, using what is perceived as an “incorrect” pronunciation convention is serious business, a proxy for judgments regarding another’s deeper inadequacy.

As Hamlet suggests, one way “to put an antic disposition on”—that is, one way to seem insane—is “by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase.” [I.4] So when in Texas, we have to say “vor-DIE-er,” even when we know quite well that the French (and most others) say “voi DEAR.” Otherwise, we risk being dismissed for an antic disposition. 

[1] Voir dire is the process of asking potential jurors an array of questions in hopes of rooting out bias and prejudice and thus ensuring one’s client a fair trial.