Is He to Be Guilty, Or Not to Be Guilty?

That's Washington for you: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy presided over Thursday night's mock trial, which sold out the Eisenhower Theater.
That's Washington for you: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy presided over Thursday night's mock trial, which sold out the Eisenhower Theater. (By Margot Schulman -- Kennedy Center)

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 17, 2007

Poetic justice is not so easily meted out, as a distinguished gaggle of lawyers and psychiatrists found out when gathered on Thursday night to consider the sanity of Hamlet.

After two hours of mock-trial arguments at the Kennedy Center -- presided over by no less a jurist than Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy -- a jury of Washingtonians deliberated over whether Hamlet was in his right mind when he stabbed Polonius to death. In elegant tribute to Shakespeare's enigmatic masterpiece, the jurors deadlocked, 6 to 6.

Sitting on the Eisenhower Theater stage under a towering portrait of Shakespeare, Kennedy told Joshua Drew, the young actor playing the sullen defendant, that the verdict "leaves us no choice but to remand you to the pages of our literary heritage."

With that, the exercise -- applying modern legal and psychological standards to a character who must qualify as the most tirelessly scrutinized in Western literature -- was complete. "The Trial of Hamlet," the brainchild of Justice Kennedy and the Shakespeare Theatre Company, proved to be a diverting showcase for some incisive analytical thinkers. But the mind that remained the most penetrating was the one that inspired the proceedings.

The trial became such a hot ticket that the Kennedy Center was compelled to move it from the 500-seat Terrace Theater to the 1,150-seat Eisenhower -- which it proceeded to sell out. (This being, after all, the deposition-and-affidavit capital of the world.) Over the course of the 2 1/2 -hour event, participants and audience got to ponder the implications of this legal end-around: What if the melancholy Dane had survived the blood bath in Act 5 and had to answer to the criminal justice system?

The hypothetical placed "Hamlet" somewhere between Elsinore and the set of "Law & Order." The defense team -- trial lawyer Abbe D. Lowell and Court TV personality Catherine Crier -- had the familiar job of getting their client off, which in this case meant proving that he was mentally incapacitated and thus not capable of standing trial. The prosecution (attorneys Cristina Arguedas and Miles Ehrlich) was compelled to mine the "record" for evidence of Hamlet's soundness of mind -- that he was perhaps, as Shakespeare put it, "noble in reason."

Back and forth the debate went, with an expert witness testifying for each side: Jeffrey Lieberman, director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, spoke of a delusional Hamlet; Alan Stone, professor of law and psychiatry at Harvard, described a wholly rational Hamlet. (The defense, by the way, chose not to call the defendant.) To bolster their points, the expert witnesses pointed to the ideas and experiences of a variety of real people, from Lincoln and Kierkegaard to John W. Hinckley Jr. and Son of Sam.

Strategically, this led to an intriguing division: The defense had to argue that Hamlet's lyrical monologues were not timeless soliloquies but rather examples of a crazy person talking to himself -- and that his encounters with the ghost of his murdered father, imploring him to avenge his death, were "command hallucinations." (Lieberman officially gave the diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type.)

It became, oddly enough, the prosecutors' job not to attack the defendant as much as to hold him up as a complex and eloquent figure. To refute, for example, the defense's suggestion that the "To be, or not to be" speech was delivered by a confused man contemplating suicide, the prosecutors argued that those were among the most beautiful lines ever uttered on the human condition.

"This was method, not madness," Arguedas declared.

"Just a sick boy who needs help," countered Lowell.

The facts of the case are well known: During a heated argument with his mother in her bedchamber (for those following the transcript: See Act 3, Scene 4), Hamlet hears a voice from behind an arras, or wall hanging, draws his dagger and, before bothering to identify the source, stabs at it through the fabric.

The lawyers resourcefully looked for support at the crime scene. To Crier, for instance, Hamlet's first utterance after killing Polonius -- responding "Nay, I know not" to his mother's "What hast thou done?" -- suggested a psychic breakdown, a lack of control over his actions.

Among the attorneys, Lowell was the most theatrical. He went after Stone, the prosecution's expert. Isn't it true, he asked the professor, that "those who can, do -- and those who can't, teach?" He got a bigger laugh when he slid in an allusion to the 2000 presidential election -- and a bigger one still with a dig at Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.

Although the jurors (three high-school students, three college students and six local arts donors) were escorted offstage to render judgment, Kennedy and the other participants sat at the lip of the stage and talked some more. That attempt at a casual colloquy proved a little strained -- it would have provided a perfect opportunity to take questions from the eager audience -- but it did yield the most telling response of the evening.

Kennedy wanted to know whether anyone thought Shakespeare's intention was to foster debate over Hamlet's madness, and when he turned to Stone, the professor offered up his own powerful defense of Shakespeare and the more profound sorts of issues the play explores.

"It's suffering, as in the human condition," he said. "He doesn't want us to see a madman. He wants us to see ourselves, in the mirror held up to nature."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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