Shakespeare in the Courtroom

Thomas Sully, "Portia and the Merchant of Venice"

Thomas Sully, “Portia and the Merchant of Venice”

I’ve just come across dramatic proof that Shakespeare is essential reading for the legal profession. (Not that I needed proof.) Apparently U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash Jr. of Georgia’s Northern District looks to Shakespeare for guidance and occasionally cites the Bard in his rulings.

I have the story from Meg (Lines) Thrash, a childhood friend of mine from Sewanee who is also his wife. An account of Judge Thrash’s admiration of Shakespeare was described by one R. Robin McDonald in an article for The Daily Report (April 8, 2014), a publication that serves lawyers in the Atlanta area.

McDonald dramatically begins the article by telling how Thrash, as a young prosecutor, quoted Hamlet’s father in his summation against a man who had strangled a prostitute and dropped her body into a storm sewer. “Remember me, remember me,” he quoted to the jury. Whether or not Shakespeare made a difference, the man was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

And then there’s a story that I particularly appreciate in which Thrash, now a judge, turned down a plea from a man complaining that his attorney had given him bad advice, The man was the ringleader of the largest mortgage fraud scheme ever prosecuted in Georgia and, after he rejected a 12-year plea deal, he went on to receive a 28-year sentence instead. In his ruling upholding the sentence, Judge Thrash quoted Edmund, the bastard son in King Lear:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on…

In the passage Edmund is mocking his father Gloucester for attributing the chaos caused by Lear to “late eclipses in the sun and moon.” We make our own destinies, Edmund claims. In the Georgia case the defendant was blaming his lawyer, not heavenly bodies, but I can imagine Judge Thrash being just as impatient as Edmund with the whining.

Of course Edmund is the consummate bad guy so this is an example of one villain instructing another. Unlike the Georgia banker, however, Edmund at least goes down with class. When he is dying, he tries to undo the harm he has unleashed, telling his brother Edgar (unfortunately too late) about the plot against Lear and Cordelia.

Judge Thrash tells McDonald that he became interested in Shakespeare when he was a young prosecutor:

New to Atlanta, with few friends, Thrash would go home to his apartment at night and read. Shakespeare’s histories, he said, became one of his favorite pastimes. “I thought that Shakespeare would enrich my rhetorical ability as a trial lawyer,” he explained.

His favorite Shakespeare play is Richard II and I’m struck by the two passages he singles out. I can see why both would have particular significance for a judge.

In the first, Richard has just learned that his army has been routed and Bolingbroke has won the day. Stepping back and taking almost a judge’s lofty perspective, he surveys the calamities that kings have encountered:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp…

To be sure, there’s a chance that Richard is in denial here, not acceptance, because, in the other passage that Thrash cites, he’s not quite so calm. The man who will become Henry IV has shown up and Richard is resorting to the consolation of a man who perceives himself as a wronged innocent. Sooner or later, he declares, God will punish his tormentor. If not Henry himself, then his descendants:

And though you think that all, as you have done,
Have torn their souls by turning them from us,
And we are barren and bereft of friends;
Yet know, my master, God omnipotent,
Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf
Armies of pestilence; and they shall strike
Your children yet unborn and unbegot,
That lift your vassal hands against my head
And threat the glory of my precious crown.

I wonder if Judge Thrash, reflecting upon people found guilty in his courtroom, has encountered similar righteous anger. It can be noted in this case that Richard’s predictions will be borne out. Shakespeare, having the advantage of hindsight, knows that Henry’s coup will set the stage for the War of the Roses.

Here’s one final example from the McDonald article. Thrash’s favorite Shakespearean passage, it turns out, is the one you would hope that a judge would favor. Can you guess what it is?

It involves a “lawyer” arguing against a plaintiff who is demanding his agreed upon pound of flesh. Judge Thrash calls it “the most eloquent plea for mercy you will ever hear in a court of law”:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. 

Unfortunately Shylock doesn’t heed Portia’s eloquent speech, at which point she resorts to her famous Plan B: take your flesh but no blood. Thrash notes that the case’s outcome “counsels us against overreaching and making unfair demands of our adversaries.

“I often think of Shylock demanding his pound of flesh,” he adds, “when I am hearing a particularly nasty discovery dispute.”

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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