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)

1 comment:

  1. Once again, you've struck the perfect chord at the perfect moment; I needed to hear this. Just so happens, turmoil and nasty storms are brewing around the workplace and thoughts of revenge are keeping me awake at night. Strategies swirl and rise and then spin out, none truly accomplishing a noble end, only more strategies on strategies, leaving a bitter and unseemly taste in the mouth. Still, finding humor is not always easy, though an attempt must be made I suspect. An effort must be made to shift the momentum, otherwise the "unsinkable" hull will meet the iceberg and all will be lost. From the bottom of my heart, or the bottom of the ocean (only time will tell in this instance) I thank you for this timely posting.

    As far as last week's "argument," I give the win-by-decision to the Mrs. The Mr. connected on many quality and provocative punches. His comments in rebuttal scored some points as well, but in the end I give the card to the Mrs. (when in this world is the Mrs. not always right after all is said and done anyway?) Lovely match nonetheless. Looking forward to the re-match in the near future.