Aditya Bapat – Let’s Kill All the Lawyers

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Let’s Kill All the Lawyers : Shakespeare in the Courtroom by Aditya Bapat

It is fair to guess that Shakespeare did not like lawyers. In fact, it’s hard to arrive at a different conclusion when confronted with Hamlet’s derisive “Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?” On the other hand, it is also fair to hit upon the opposite conclusion: the gruff directness of “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” from Henry VI, Part II, is, after all, widely misquoted. This is Dick the Butcher’s line, who is part of a group attempting to establish anarchy. Killing all the lawyers is the first step to destroying the rule of law in England. Jack Cade, Dick the Butcher’s leader, is given other lines with similar shock value: “My mouth shall be the parliament of England” and “Away with him, away with him! He speaks Latin”. In short, Shakespeare meant the ‘kill the lawyers’ line to be a compliment for lawyers.

Lawyers, on the other hand, have an unequivocal love for Shakespeare, expressed in numerous arguments, exchanges and judgments. It’s not hard to see why. Plays like Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice, with their themes of justice and mercy, are replete with material for courtroom jousting (“You speak an infinite deal of nothing!”). Others like Hamlet and Macbeth are too ingrained in the language to be left out of an English conversation for long. One more obvious reason for the Bard’s popularity in courts is netted in Frank Baum’s The Master Key by the Demon of Electricity, who is trying to convince the protagonist Rob that despite being a demon, he is “a good thing”, –

“Then take the words of Mr. Shakespeare, to whom you all defer,”… “Do you not remember that he says:
‘Thy demon (that’s thy spirit which keeps thee) is
Noble, courageous, high, unmatchable.’ “

“Oh, if Shakespeare says it, that’s all right,’ answered the boy.”

For some reason that has no grounding in logic, Shakespearean wisdom is almost always uncritically accepted and rarely challenged – great ammunition for courtroom duels. In Nallapati Sivaiah, the Supreme Court traced the “dying declaration” rule (which treats statements made by a person about the cause of her death as admissible in court even without a pre-administered oath), back to this passage from King John:

Retaining but a quantity of life,
Which bleeds away,
Even as a form of wax,
Resolveth from his figure,
Against the fire?
What is the world should
Make me now deceive,
Since I must lose the use of all deceit? Why should I then be false,
Since it is true
That I must die here,
Live hence by truth?” 

A quotation from Shakespeare in a judgment may also indicate that the judge expects the case to be published and cited. Why bother with impenetrable lines written in old English if only the litigants and their lawyers are going to read the judgment? Displays of erudition are best preserved for big occasions. In one of the cases arising out of the 2G licences scam, Justice AK Ganguly of the Supreme Court declared

“The position of Respondent 1 in our democratic polity seems to have been summed up in the words of Shakespeare, ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.’”

‘Respondent 1’ being the Prime Minister of India.

Another example of momentous-occasion-Shakespeare-quoting came during one of the hearings in the Italian Marines case in March of 2013. The Attorney General was reading out the note verbale from the Italian embassy, demanding that the Supreme Court allow its ambassador to freely move inside and out of the country: “The Embassy of Italy… has the honour to remind the Ministry of External Affairs of the obligations relating to the protection of diplomatic agents enshrined in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of April 18, 1961…” the note began. The Chief Justice interrupted mordantly: “This reminds us of the word ‘honourable’ used to describe Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar!” The Ides of March indeed for the Italian Ambassador.

More topically, when a nine-judge Bench of the Supreme Court sat down in 1993 to decide on how judges are to be appointed in India, no less than three of Shakespeare’s plays got airtime: Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice and Othello. One can fairly assume that the proposed Judicial Accountability Act, meant to dismantle the ‘collegium system’ approved in that case, will owe less to English literature. But one never knows.

Amidst all this Shakespearephilia, sometimes it gets missed that quoting from Shakespeare is not a risk-free enterprise. Anti-Semitism, racism and misogyny are commonplace in the plays and sonnets. Hamlet, the most influential play of all time, is notably harsh on women: Elsinore was not a good place to be a girl. The line that best exemplifies this sexism is surely Hamlet’s causticity in the wake of Queen Gertrude’s incest: “Frailty, thy name is woman!” It would take a brave judge to flirt with quoting this line in the modern age. And yet, there it is in a Supreme Court case from 1997:

“Frailty, thy name is woman”, was the ignominy heaped upon women of [the] Victorian Era by William Shakespeare in his great work Hamlet. The history of sociology has, however, established the contrary, i.e., ‘fortitude’, thy name is woman; ‘caress’, thy name is woman; ‘self-sacrifice’, thy name is woman…”

In launching into damage control on Mr. Shakespeare’s behalf, two rules are violated here: an attempt to improve on a Shakespearean quote is doomed to failure (though an attempt to reduce to a Shakespearean soliloquy may be hilarious, as demonstrated by Mr. Atkinson and Mr. Laurie in this sketch.); moreover, feminism is quite a different thing from (it is in fact the very opposite of) indiscriminate praise heaped on all women.

Here’s the Bombay High Court quoting the same line, in a 1995 case

“’Frailty, thy name is woman’ is spoken of sensual spell of women demobilising equanimity of even historic personages like sage Vishwamitra. On the face of tempting spell of enchantresses hardest sheath of high degree of equanimity of mind, not only of mortals are susceptible to passion but Gods seems to be hardly any better.”

Whatever this means, turning sexism to creepiness is no mean achievement. (Incidentally, this was a rape case. The judge also quoted Shakespeare for the line “My chastity’s the jewel of our house, bequeathed down from many ancestors.”)

On a more cheerful note, the Delhi High Court (tellingly, a female judge) tackled the ‘frailty’ line a lot better

“The speech generalizes the attribution of weakness from one particular woman to womankind.”

A good riposte, and not a bad piece of literary criticism either. It also helps make my next point, which is that the Bard’s wisdom is best confined to the world he devised in his plays. Since these pieces were mainly not designed for general application, they can often act as poor guides for deciding real life cases. Dostoyevsky derided “that cursed Shakespeare who will poke his nose where he is not wanted”. Literary works can act as mood providers for boring facts or polish for arguments, but they should never have to play the Prince of Denmark.

The ultimate inessentiality of the iambic pentameter to courtrooms is underscored by a courtroom exchange quoted in Vicaji Taraporewalla’s Tales from the Bench and the Bar. Rustom Kolah, an old Bombay lawyer, was strenuously arguing a tax case before the High Court.  After hearing him for a while, the Chief Justice remarked-

“Mr. Kolah, the lady doth protest too much methinks.”

Kolah responded with perfect gravity, “There is no lady in my case.”


© Aditya Bapat

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