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Shakespeare's Justice Hot

J. A. Macfarlane
Written by J. A. Macfarlane     February 15, 2012    
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Shakespeare's Justice
  • A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare's Plays Teach Us About Justice
  • by Kenji Yoshino
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Published in 2011
  • 5

In A Thousand Times More Fair, legal scholar Kenji Yoshino offers a superb example of how the reading of Shakespeare can provide a framework within which one can gather insights on the modern world. Lucid and conversational, Yoshino’s book suggests that he must be an excellent lecturer as he goes through a dozen plays, relating them to modern-day American events, from the ‘war on terror’ to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the nomination of U. S. Supreme Court justices, and the O. J. Simpson trial.

There have of course been many books on Shakespeare and the law, often seeking to prove that Shakespeare was at some point or other a lawyer’s clerk, but Yoshino’s interest is not this narrow. Rather, he is interested in what underpins the law – the concept of justice. If laws are anything, they are an attempt to codify justice, depending on whatever a particular society judges justice to be. The very concept of a bad law brings to mind the idea that it is unjust, evidence that justice stands higher than the law in general estimation. Four hundred years on, Shakespeare’s plays can obviously tell us little about today’s common law, which has moved on since, but they can serve as a starting-point for discussions about the underlying structure that the law (when it is not perverted) attempts to uphold, as a crystallisation of concepts about which, thanks to the plays, we can form our abstract opinions before applying them to real life.

To do so, in each chapter Yoshino concentrates first on a play, leading us through his chosen aspect of it before taking his conclusions and relating them to a specific modern-day case. In his opening chapter, for instance, he explores Titus Andronicus and two matters of justice related to it: what is a private citizen to do, for the sake of justice, when the governing power takes no account of the law, and the concept of revenge. Pointing out the prevalence of feuds in Elizabethan England and the sloth of its government in these matters, and how these relate to the play, he explores the switch in our sympathies, from Tamora to Titus and back, paying particular attention to the question of at which point the characters’ actions become excessive in their search for revenge. He then connects his thoughts on the matter to the U.S.’s reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, positing that a true understanding of both the lead-up to that event and its aftermath must concentrate more on revenge than on any religious or ideological consideration. He points out how American retaliation went too far, just as Tamora’s did, connecting Lavinia’s rape and mutilation to the events at Abu Ghraib, as well as looking at Saturninus’s going beyond the law and the ways in which the American executive can be seen to have done so. Connections that seem tenuous on the surface are made fascinatingly clear.

Yoshino continues this presentation through each play he examines, from The Merchant of Venice and its word-splitting legalese, which he links to Bill Clinton’s hair-splitting during the Lewinsky scandal (with an uncommonly negative view of Portia), to Measure for Measure and its questioning of how a judge should be judged and chosen, which looks at the confirmation process of U.S. Surpeme Court justices. Other considerations are Othello and the O. J. Simpson case, the common factor being, interestingly, not race but the unreliability of visual evidence – ‘ocular proof’; the three plays about Henry V and the question of authority, which Yoshino links with George W. Bush, also a wild son growing sober, also starting a war under false premises, but, as Yoshino points out, one who did not win his Agincourt, with the results we know; Macbeth and how its promise of natural justice rings true only in literature and story-telling, not in life. When considering Hamlet, Yoshino argues that the Prince’s delays are due to his desire to be sure that his revenge is, literally, poetic justice, and that to an extent this is an example of a intellectual flaw that ignores pragmatic reality. Yoshino looks at King Lear through the lens of Regan and Goneril’s denial of Lear’s concrete legal rights, and also points out that the play shows that justice can fight against the law: Cornwall has the legal right to put out Gloucester’s eyes, but not the moral right, and his servant illegally fights him in the name of justice. The Tempest leads to a consideration of the American system of checks and balances on the President, which presupposes that a person possessing power will never willingly relinquish it, logically bringing Prospero to mind. In each of these cases Yoshino uses Shakespeare as a measure by which to judge modern reality, in an engaging tone that never hides the seriousness of his purpose.

A Thousand Times More Fair is an outstanding book, though it does suffer from its America-centric viewpoint. While the modern-day cases from the U.S. that Yoshino brings up are well-known worldwide, his writing is afflicted with the American habit of presuming that no-one from another country will be reading his book, using the term ‘our’ to excess. This is deeply irritating to the foreigner, though it seems to be an inescapable fault of superpowers; British works from the late 19th century are just as galling. This may seem to be nitpicking, but this habit diminishes the universality of Yoshino’s thesis. It is, however, a minor flaw when taken in the full context of his work. Highly recommended.

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