The Boston Globe reports on an all-star Federalist Society performance of Shakespeare:
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” When people gleefully quote that line from Shakespeare, or print it on T-shirts, they might not realize that the playwright actually showed a deep and abiding interest in the law. Lawyers have returned the favor, citing and debating points made by Shakespeare or his characters in court, in articles, and in judicial opinions.
To this day, humanitarian lawyers cite the English rage over the French slaughter of unarmed English boys in “Henry V” as an important instance of how moral norms exist even during brutal combat. The entire plot of “The Merchant of Venice” hinges on a breach-of-contract dispute, with Shylock demanding cruel justice when a loan he makes goes unpaid. Portia, who presides over the trial Shylock instigates, gives a speech about tempering the letter of law with mercy that is a touchstone for contemporary jurists.
Since 2001, Daniel Kelly, a partner at the Boston law firm McCarter & English, has overseen an annual event, “Shakespeare and the Law,” aimed at unlocking what Shakespeare can teach us about legal thinking, and how the legal themes of the plays illuminate current events. Kelly is also an adjunct faculty member at Suffolk University, which hosted the event this year, and an avid amateur actor who frequently plays Shakespearean characters in local theater. As the chairman of the Boston lawyers’ chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative group, Kelly was searching for ways to bring together liberals and conservatives to debate the big legal issues of the day. Who better to serve as a lure than the Bard?
The event he concocted, with the assistance of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, has drawn national and local legal and political eminences to perform staged readings of plays and discuss their legal themes. For this year’s session, held Jan. 17, C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel to President George H.W. Bush, served as host and moderator; among the panelists and performers were the federal judges Nathaniel M. Gorton, Dennis Saylor IV, Douglas P. Woodlock, and Rya W. Zobel, and the retired federal judge (now Harvard professor) Nancy Gertner, who played King Richard II. . . .