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These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Shakespeare and the Law

I was fortunate to have attended the Shakespeare and the Law: Shakespeare and Corrupt Practices event, sponsored by SCOTUSblog, and held at The Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall in Washington, D.C. this past Tuesday.

This was the first time I attended a Shakespeare and the Law event, and I will definitely go to others in the future -- and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is in or near the nation's capital. Please check the STC website for future events.

The event was moderated by Abbe David Lowell, Esq., a partner at Chadbourne & Parke LLP. He is also on the Board of Trustees of the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

The panel included:

Stephen M. Ryan, Esq., the head of the Government Strategies Practice Group in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP

Paul L. Friedman, United States District Judge of the District of Columbia

Neil H. McBride, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia

Nina Totenberg, NPR's legal affairs correspondent, who reports on All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition.

There were also two Shakespeare advisors: Michael Evans, a partner at K&L Gates, and Drew Lichtenberg, a Literary Associate to the STC.

The topic of the event was corruption in Shakespeare. The panel explored modern corruption, abuses of power and office, scandals and the like in regard to characters like Iago, Falstaff, Henry V, Lady Macbeth and so forth.

The event began with a discussion of what the proper definition of corruption is, and the panel had very interesting answers, and were mostly in agreement with each other.

As you can imagine, right away there were mentions of the current and still-evolving General David Petraeus scandal and the related Benghazi, Libya controversy, the lobbyist Jack Abramoff scandal, the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill scandal, etc.

Of course Richard III was mentioned, and another infamous Richard, President Richard Nixon, was mentioned. Mr. Lowell not only mentioned the Watergate scandal, but the recordings of Nixon in the Oval Office and how what the president said on those tapes was not unlike the speeches in Shakespeare where we can hear the inner workings (as uncomfortable as they are) of characters like Richard III.

These excellent and entertaining participants explored the roots of corruption, and the motivations behind such high crimes and low criminal behavior. They explored corruption that was financially motivated and corruption that was not.

One part of the discussion was an attempt to understand what motivates people to commit such crimes if there is no money involved. What drives them to do such things?

Mr. Lowell talked about how Queen Elizabeth's noblemen and courtiers had to work very hard, and not always above board, to earn their income. Graft and cronyism were very common.

Mr. Lowell asked the panel how much has this really changed since Shakespeare's day. From the answers of the panel, from my perspective, it sounds like the United States has a much more rigorous system to protect people from such crimes, and to identify and punish those who commit such crimes.

Mr. Ryan had a very funny answer when he said that in America, there may be corruption, but it is significantly better than other places. He used Afghanistan as an example, where you will have to bribe several people until you figure out who is the right person to bribe!

There was a general consensus among the participants that laws to prevent corruption have in some ways gone overboard. There was a very funny example about motion picture lobbyists who cannot have sit-down dinners, so now they eat very expensive hors d'oeuvres standing up!

The event was about one hour long, but it seemed to fly by rather quickly, and it was quite entertaining.

After the event, I spent some time considering Mr. Lowell's questions about the motives of corrupt men and women in Shakespeare and in our modern world.

I thought about Iago, whose motives for destroying Othello and Desdemona are unclear. He never admits to having a motive, which makes his crimes all the more horrible.

I thought about Elizabeth's time and the motivation for corruption in that period. I couldn't help but think that King Henry VIII's break from Catholic Rome opened the door to corruption the likes of which England had never known.

The subsequent Dissolution of the Monasteries (the seizing of the wealth and property of the Catholic Church in England) was a gold rush where wealth and power was there for the taking.

This would of course create more corruption, at court and across the country.

This was the hard-scrabble world into which Shakespeare was born. He witnessed this first hand, and I think it impacted his whole life. His father enjoyed the newfound wealth that the Reformation brought, and held office in Stratford -- until he came to financial ruin.

When Shakespeare headed to London to make his fortune, he would see inside the court of Elizabeth and James. I think he saw how incredibly wealthy, perhaps obscenely so, some noble families could become. As I wrote in my version of Hamlet, Shakespeare had a particular fascination and repulsion for the Cecil family.

The wealth, property and power that William and his son Robert enjoyed was almost without equal in those days.

When Mr. Lowell said that Shakespeare was holding up a mirror to the times in which he lived, that mirror would have been directed first and foremost at the Cecil family, and the corruption Shakespeare witnessed first-hand.

What motivated William and Robert Cecil? I think it wasn't just money, just power, or just for the sake of it -- I think it was legacy.

I think that the Cecils wanted to be in power, remain in power and keep the Cecil name alive for as long as possible. I think the Cecils, like many other powerful families of the period, knew that Queens and Kings have their place in history forever, but courtiers and noblemen do not.

From what I understand, the Cecils were successful -- they have descendants in the world today.

I think Shakespeare, for his part, wanted much the same thing. He wanted his family name to endure, and live for as long as possible. He did everything he could, with the cards that he was dealt, to make the Shakespeare name last.

He published epic poems like Venus and Adonis, wrote and acted in plays, and was a partner in the theatres he played.

He bought a coat of arms, to elevate his family name.

He bought property and invested wisely, unlike his father.

But Shakespeare had only one son, Hamnet, who sadly died. He had two daughters, but his hopes for a legacy were diminishing, especially when they married their none-too-promising husbands.

By the middle of the 17th century, only a few decades after Shakespeare himself died, the Shakespeare name died, too.

The fortunate irony is that while no one much discusses the Cecils today -- the whole world knows Shakespeare!

It would seem that Shakespeare was not corrupt, nor engaged in any corruption to make his fortune and establish his legacy. There would seem to be no lacking of corruption in the world around him, and his plays abound with corrupt men and women. That was his revenge, of a sort.

Cheers,

David