Kennedy Presides Over Hamlet Trial
Friday, March 9, 2007; 2:59 PM
WASHINGTON -- Justice Anthony Kennedy faced a problem he never had in his day job at the Supreme Court.
The defendant has been dead for 400 years, ordinarily reason enough to dismiss criminal charges. But the show, as they say, must go on. So Kennedy had to dream up a way to bring Hamlet back to life, at least long enough to put him on trial for an unusual evening that mixes Shakespeare and the law.
Kennedy will preside for the fourth time at the trial of Hamlet, an unscripted performance that tries to determine whether the Danish prince is insane or should be held responsible for the death of Polonius.
The purpose is to make Shakespeare more accessible, and also to explore vexing modern legal issues, like the insanity defense.
"Hamlet is the greatest dramatic composition in the history of literature. He continues to perplex us. It is so difficult," Kennedy said in an interview in his court office. "If people can be interested in that, then the easier plays follow."
The trial will take place March 15 in a sold-out, 1,100-seat theater at Washington's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The trial is part of the capital's six-month Shakespeare festival.
Almost every year since 1994, at least one Supreme Court justice has participated in a mock trial that uses a Shakespeare play to explore the American legal system.
Lawyers often tell the justices the Supreme Court can do anything. Kennedy contemplated stretching that notion to its literary limits in making Hamlet well enough to stand trial.
"Originally, I was going to rewrite the last 12 lines or so and then I thought that would be marginally presumptuous," Kennedy said.
Instead, he left the play untouched and invented a brief news item saying, contrary to initial reports, Hamlet was not fatally poisoned during the death-filled final act.
A brief summary of the action: Hamlet returns to Denmark for the funeral of his father, the king, finds his mother married to his uncle Claudius _ the new king _ listens to his father's ghost blame Claudius for his demise, swears revenge, rejects his love Ophelia and kills her father, Polonius, having mistaken him for Claudius.
Ever the judge, Kennedy refused to say whether he believes Hamlet is insane. "I'd argue either side," he said.