Bard Justice: Shakespeare and the law.

Author:Stein, Jacob A.
Position:A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare's Plays Teach Us About Justice - Book review


What Shakespeare's Plays Teach Us About Justice

By Kenji Yoshino, Ecco, 320 pp., $26.99

LAWYERS ARE OBSESSED with Shakespeare. We even put on amateur Shakespeare plays to give vent to our belief that we both perform in the courtroom and are good on stage.

When the phone does not ring there is nothing more cultured for a lawyer to do than to write a book about the Shakespeare plays, filled, as they are, with lawyer talk. Within that compulsion is the question of how someone like Shakespeare (a glover's son) became learned in law.

I have in hand a book written in 1883 by a local lawyer. The author draws the induction that no one but a lawyer, or someone who worked with a lawyer, could have picked up so much abracadabra legal terminology. He selected 600 legal terms to make his point.

The candidate often thought to be Shakespeare's man behind the screen is Francis Bacon (1561-1626). A contemporary of Shakespeare, he was an English judge and lord chancellor. He wrote much more in his lifetime than Shakespeare ever did. As it happens, Bacon's legal career ended in disgrace. While on the bench, he accepted gifts from the litigants who appeared before him. Nevertheless, in those days if I'd needed a lawyer to write a cunning business contract, I'd have called on Bacon. But if I'd been in real trouble, he'd have been too cold, so I'd have called on Shakespeare, LLP, the playwright whose words could persuade a jury to return a just verdict.


Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at NYU and a respected attorney with the Shakespeare obsession, has written a clever book about the playwright called A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare's Plays Teach Us About Justice. The title is taken from Portia's speech in The Merchant of Venice. The word justice has many definitions; Yoshino uses over a dozen Shakespeare plays to demonstrate the playwrights virtuosity in using the word.

The Bard invokes Portia to show how lawyers behave and misbehave, as well as how justice prevails. Portia is a resourceful and cunning courtroom manipulator. But those who are her judges, whatever their bias and prejudice, are not fooled. Justice wins the day. Antonio warns against any corruption that would stain Venice's reputation for justice, offering a practical rather than a moral argument:

For the commodity that strangers have With us in Venice, if it be denied, Will much impeach the justice of the state, Since that the trade and...

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