Shakespeare On American Law46:33

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Shakespeare and justice. The bard on a life “a thousand times more fair.” What Hamlet, Othello and Iago teach us about Clinton, OJ and Obama’s wars.

A statue of William Shakespeare at the the opera of Hanover, Germany. (AP)
A statue of William Shakespeare at the the opera of Hanover, Germany. (AP)

Our sense of justice can grow flat, blunt. And then, we open Shakespeare.

In play after play, the Bard goes past love and war to what is fundamentally just in life — in the universe — and then weighs justice itself. "Though justice be your plea,” writes Shakespeare, “consider that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation: we do pray for mercy.”

Legal scholar Kenji Yoshino is ready to apply Shakespeare to O.J. Simpson, Sonia Sotomayor, Monica Lewinsky, “War on Terror.”

This hour On Point: Kenji Yoshino and William Shakespeare, on justice.
- Tom Ashbrook

Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at the NYU School of Law. He is author of  "A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice" and "Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights;" His articles have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

"A Thousand Times More Fair"
By Kenji Yoshino

Chapter One:  The Avenger — Titus Andronicus

Although it put Shakespeare on the map in the 1590s, critics have found The Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedie of Titus Andronicus “lamentable” in more ways than one. T. S. Eliot called it “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.” Harold Bloom avers he “can concede no intrinsic value” to the play, while suggesting that “perhaps it could be yet made into a musical.” Others have argued that the play was not written by Shakespeare, that Shakespeare “touched up” another playwright’s work, or that Shakespeare penned it when he was young and needed the money. While most critics now admit Shakespeare composed it (with coauthor George Peele), Titus remains the “black sheep” of the Bard’s canon.

While I come to defend the play, I understand why others abhor it. Over its course, the Goth prince Alarbus is sacrificed to the gods, the Roman general Titus’s son Mutius is stabbed to death, the Roman prince Bassianus is murdered, Titus’s daughter Lavinia is raped and mutilated, Titus’s sons Quintus and Martius are decapitated, the Goths Demetrius and Chiron are murdered and their heads are baked into a pie, their mother Tamora is served the pie before being killed, Lavinia is killed, Titus is killed, the Roman emperor Saturninus is killed, and the Goth Aaron is buried alive. When Peter Brook directed this play in 1955, he had an ambulance waiting to shuttle audience members to the hospital. Sir Laurence Olivier, who played Titus, said at least three audience members fainted every evening.

For such a lurid work, Titus riveted the audiences of Shakespeare’s day. In 1594, Titus was a blockbuster success, and, as critic Jonathan Bate opines, “perhaps did more than any other play to establish its author’s reputation as a dramatist.” Critics explain away the play’s commercial success by sniffing that Titus played to the popular taste for guts and gore, just as public executions and bear-baiting did. Coleridge writes that Titus was “obviously intended to excite vulgar audiences by its scenes of blood and horror.” That view of Titus rose to the fore in the nineteenth century, when Titus was either not performed or aggressively bowdlerized.

Yet Titus is not Shakespeare’s version of a present-day slasher film. It carries a serious message about the necessity of the rule of law. Shakespeare lived in a time without an effective police force, meaning that individuals who suffered harm had to choose whether to trust a weak state or take justice into their own hands. This put in¬dividuals in a terrible position. The natural — even rational — impulse was to turn vigilante...

This program aired on April 15, 2011.