Friday, June 9, 2006

Hamlet and the law

(reported by Dr. Natalie Tarenko, writing specialist at Texas Tech)
This next cluster of LWI events began with Hamlet and ended with metaphor, but everything really just keeps on going.
Thursday night truly was one of Wordsworth's beauteous evenings: LWI colleagues, a fine production of Hamlet, and a setting of roses and greenery.  The Georgia Shakespeare Company, in residence at Oglethorpe University, presented Hamlet; while "the play's the thing," it's really the actor who plays Hamlet on whom so much depends.  This time, the actor playing Hamlet, Daniel May, was everything and more.  As Meredith Stange observed (Northern Illinois Univ. College of Law), May didn't declaim or orate; he acted.  He made Hamlet credible and contemporary by inhabiting Shakespeare's language in a performance that was an accomplishment.  The theater was small but the house was full; there might be larger audiences and grander buildings, but this production could be stacked up against any.  Of course, many other people worked to make such a fine production, from the van driver/voice coach/education director (Allen O'Reilly) on up, and for working with the LWI, Carrie Ragsdale.
On the LWI end, special thanks must go to Lesley Carroll (Emory), for working so hard to make the excursion to see Hamlet a reality, and to Meredith Stange, the pathfinder of our LWI group, without whom many of us never would have reached the theater or gotten back.
Again, don't forget to take a look at the Web site The Legally Annotated Hamlet,, for connections between Shakespeare and law.  Hamlet gives us many well-known lines, but for connections to law, not the usual suspects, but a less well known quotation seems most useful: Hamlet's statement, "There's nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" (II.2.235-236).  This statement seems ready-made to give meaning in a legal context of facts versus interpretations of facts.
In one of those echo-moments that occurred with some regularity during the conference, Jane Wise (BYU) mentioned the concept of "recasting a narrative" as one of the functions of storytelling in first-year law classes.  Professors sometimes can recast the narrative of student worries, putting a different spin on the details so as to help students not get mired in those worries.  Wise suggested a book that can help with such recasting of narratives: My Grandfather's Blessings, by Rachel Naomi Remen. Other benefits of using stories in legal education, according to Wise, include that stories get people talking, that a story shared in the classroom creates community, that stories invite empathic concern for the Other, that stories can produce an appreciation of complexity, and that stories connect the past with the future.  One way Wise uses stories early in the year is to share examples of the lawyer as hero, starting with but not limited to the character Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
In an earlier presentation about law and literature ("Don't Slow Down: Teaching Law and Literature"), Marilyn R. Walter (Brooklyn Law School) similarly spoke about the value of literary works and law/lit courses in legal education: literature helps illustrate for law students topics such as law versus equity; justice; depictions of lawyers; and how authors use language.  The audience for Walter's presentation also suggested the benefits/transferable skills of close reading, of the skill of learning how to appeal to the imagination of judges and juries, and of the analogy of who gets to say what a work of literature/law/statute means (the author? the legislature? the judge? the public?).
Some other presentations that ought to be looked up and that overlap some of the ones mentioned already include "They're a Little Bit Plato, We're a Little Bit Aristotle: Understanding the Schism Between Doctrinal and Legal Writing Faculty" (Kristen K. Robbins, Georgetown University), "The Law/Justice Dichotomy: Teaching Students to Employ Justice and/or Law-Based Arguments for Maximum Persuasive Effect" (Lisa T. McElroy, Southern New England School of Law), and "From Aristotle to Martin Luther King: Using Letter from a Birmingham Jail to Teach Aristotle's Three Modes of Persuasion" (Suzanne Rabe, Univ. of Arizona).  (Jane Wise also used King's letter and some of the same cases in her presentation).
One more presentation that must be mentioned was Michael R. Smith's (formerly Mercer, soon University of Wyoming) "The Five Levels of Metaphor in Persuasive Legal Writing."  The overflow crowd was treated to a fabulous handout and discussion that focused on strategies advocates can use.  One such strategy Smith termed the "Cardozo attack," or recognizing that a metaphor is being used and arguing against the suitability of its use.  It turns out that "Justice Cardozo famously warned about the limited ability of metaphors to accurately reflect legal concepts" (from Smith's fabulous handout).  An interesting exercise that Smith described involves asking students to take an existing judicial opinion and revise it by incorporating a metaphor.  Some of this material also comes from Smith's textbook, Advanced Legal Writing: Theories and Strategies in Persuasive Writing.  In addition, Smith will be presenting at a special symposium/issue of the Mercer Law Review, Nov. 9-10, 2006; the symposium topic will be "Law and Metaphor" (as Smith said, a hot topic in current law research), and other presenters will be Linda Berger, Mark Johnson, George Lakoff, and Steven Winter.
According to Harold Bloom, "[c]onsciousness is his [Hamlet's] salient characteristic; he is the most aware and knowing figure ever conceived" (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human).  Consciousness, awareness, cognitive processes, "thinking [that] makes it so"--these are ideas and values that can inform teaching and writing and that all the LWI presenters have generously shared.
There's still more to come.
--Dr. Natalie Tarenko, Writing Specialist, Texas Tech University School of Law

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