Feature

Shakespeare meets Silk — Supreme Court Justice idea’s time has come

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Could this be the next smash global TV format?

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Come up with a TV format that sells around the world and you can retire early to sit on your millions; the work of five minutes earning you sufficient to last a lifetime. And it is possible that US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1988 and spent part of his education at the L.S.E, once created an absolute zinger whose time has now come. The judge famously scripted a mock trial of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

His idea combines fine writing (even the thickest TV exec is not going to knock-back a script by Shakespeare with the comment: “Needs work. Sense of journey? Wordy!”) and that staple of television drama — the courtroom trial. And it’s time has come because TV people love nothing more than a hook and what bigger hook than the 400th anniversary of our greatest playwright’s death.

Justice Kennedy chose Hamlet as the pilot for his idea because:

There are some similarities between the law and literature. We in the law seek to find order in a disordered reality; we seek to find rationality in a world that seems chaotic. And the artist does the same thing, and Hamlet’s trying to do the same thing. So there’s a parallel.

The trial centres on whether Hamlet was mentally ill when he killed Polonius and, therefore, not capable of being held criminally responsible. Kennedy explained:

It’s one of the most — still one of the most difficult areas of the law for juries to decide, when an accused should or should not stand trial when his or her mental condition is an issue.

And the result of Hamlet’s trial: perhaps not surprisingly — a split jury. Kennedy said about the verdict:

It shows you how difficult these questions are. If you can’t make up your mind about Hamlet, and he’s a fictional person, what about a real person? If the jury is divided, the enigma remains in us and with us. And I hope what the audience will take away is that there’s richness in our literature, there’s a richness in our heritage, there’s a richness in our law.

Once it goes to series (and Legal Cheek rebrands as LA Law Cheek) all kinds of fun and games can begin as there are a host of Shakespeare characters who could readily be put on trial. When murder begins to pale the format is flexible enough to allow scope for legal argument on matters of interpretation. Specifically, a line from Henry VI Part II Act 4 Scene 2:

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

This, of course, is intended as a compliment to lawyers and a warning against ‘mass litigicide’ for it is lawyers who are the guardians of the rule of law, standing in the way of a fanatical mob. And yet so many people — including, but not limited to, novelty mug and T shirt sellers, Aaron Sorkin in Newsroom, and the Eagles — continue to argue that Shakespeare was indulging in a piece of wish fulfillment. Fools. And knaves.