ISBA Members, please login to join this section

September 2017Volume 48Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Shakespeare’s cold wisdom—Too early seen unknown, and known too late?

A little over 10 years ago, I was trying an extremely difficult case in downtown Los Angeles. I was teamed up with a friend and mentor from the West Coast, who also happened to be one of the greatest trial lawyers I’ve ever had the honor of standing with in the well of a courtroom. Among his many talents was a mastery of the works of William Shakespeare. The plays, he once told me, had such tremendous insight into the power of storytelling, that anyone who wanted to be a great trial lawyer simply had to study Shakespeare’s work.

The curiosity, depth, and earnestness with which my mentor approached every element of trying a case were inspiring. He was exceptionally skilled at jury selection, cross-examination, and finding themes that fit every situation. He knew how to talk with people, and found a way to be relatable to everyone on some level. According to my colleague, much of his success was attributable to his study of Shakespeare and the playwright’s observations of human nature. One evening during the middle of our case, my trial partner suffered a massive stroke. By some small miracle, we found him, and through the heroic efforts of people other than me, we got him in the hands of amazing medical professionals at a Los Angeles county hospital. The initial prognosis was ominous: with an enormous amount of work, recovery of speech may be possible, but reading and writing were likely out of reach.

The medical community picked the wrong trial lawyer to challenge. His rehabilitation was long and hard, but he poured himself into that effort in the same way I saw him tirelessly prepare and try a case. His recovery astonished all but those who knew him best. Eventually, my friend called and asked if I would like to assist in his recovery by reading and discussing Shakespeare’s plays. I jumped at the chance even though I was grossly unqualified. I limped my way through the obligatory few Shakespeare plays that were required reading in my public high school. In my four years of night law school and first several years as a lawyer, I noticed a handful of Shakespearean quotes in briefs and court opinions, but I paid little attention to, and frankly did not appreciate or understand, them. I certainly did not comprehend the power, nuance, and insight woven into so many elements of Shakespeare’s plays from which those quotes were lifted.

For several years, I diligently read, studied, and discussed Shakespeare with my colleague as part of his recovery. Before reading each play, I read at least two essays from Shakespearian scholars about the piece. I supplemented my reading by watching the play live at the Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier in Chicago, renting a movie version (including several phenomenal adaptations by Akira Kurosawa), or downloading BBC presentations on my iPad.1 I needed all the help I could get just to keep up.

The experience has had a profound impact on my professional life in numerous ways. My former trial partner is now retired, but he passed on his passion for studying Shakespeare and how those centuries-old works are still relevant to the practice of law today. For me, the force of that message is amplified by the powerful life-changing events that thrust the works upon me.2

Through my friend’s recovery, I discovered that Shakespeare’s plays can be incredible teaching tools for lawyers. Portia’s cross-examination of Shylock in Merchant of Venice; Isabella’s plea to Angelo for Claudio’s life in Measure for Measure; and Marc Antony’s funeral speech in Julius Caesar are just three examples.3 Plays like Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear shine a light into the deep waters of human nature. Shakespeare does not bore or overwhelm with detail. He shows how to literally set the stage with just enough backstory, just the most essential facts necessary, to bring the audience up to speed so they can follow the story he wants to tell. He masterfully offers scraps of information so powerful that they instantly give a character depth and reach, while providing the audience with insight into that character’s motivation.4 Shakespeare doesn’t oversell or tell you how you should feel. He allows the audience to make up its own mind, to make the play, and its characters, their own.

Shakespeare’s works are today, as they were 400 years ago, somewhat controversial. The nature and extent of the controversies have evolved over time, but one thing is clear, his works remain relevant on one level or another. Shakespeare is also credited (with some controversy of course) with inventing many common phrases and utterances still used in the English language: foul play, one fell swoop, cold comfort, play fast and loose, pomp and circumstance, go down the primrose path, budge an inch, flesh and blood, be cruel to be kind, and vanish into thin air.5 The Oxford English Dictionary has credited Shakespeare with over 33,000 quotations, and more than 1,600 words for which he is the first-cited author.6

During my journey through the plays, I stumbled across numerous interesting and thought-provoking quotes for lawyers. Below is a list of 10 such quotes from some of the less “popular” or less widely-read plays.7 Shakespeare’s words are often used completely out of context, and sometimes contradictory, to their original use. But, that simply highlights the beauty and utility of the language (and the borrowing author’s creativity). The quotes8 in no particular order:

“Who cannot be crushed with a plot?”— All’s Well that Ends Well (Act 4, scene 3, line 346)

“For they say every why hath a wherefore.” —The Comedy of Errors (Act 2, scene 2, lines 45 - 46)

“The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” —The Merchant of Venice (Act 4, scene 1, lines 190 - 193)

“If he had been as you, and you as he, you would have slipped like him, but he like you, would not have been so stern.”—Measure for Measure (Act 2, scene 2, lines 84 - 86)

“For pity is the virtue of the law, and none but tyrants use it cruelly.” —Timon of Athens (Act 3, scene 5, lines 8 - 9)

“Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour. You urged me as a judge, but I had rather you would have bid me argue like a father. O, had it been a stranger, not my child, to smooth his fault I should have been more mild. A partial slander sought I to avoid, and in the sentence my own life destroyed.” —Richard II (Act 1, scene 3, lines 242 - 248)

“But this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning make the prize light.”—The Tempest (Act 1, scene 2 lines 542 - 545)

“A night is but small breath and little pause to answer matters of this consequence.”—Henry V (Act 2, scene 4, lines 154 - 155)

“This offer comes from mercy, not from fear.”—Henry IV (part II) (Act 4, scene 1, line 159)

“This is nothing . . . . Then ‘tis like the breath of an unfee’d lawyer.” —King Lear (Act 1, scene 4, lines 132 - 133)

The resiliency of Shakespeare’s work and its relevance to lawyers continues centuries after the words were first scratched onto parchment and performed on the shores of the River Thames in London. The point of this article is not to advocate for a campaign of carpet-bombing legal briefs and arguments with quotes from Shakespeare, but rather to suggest that this giant of the literary world has gifted lawyers with timeless insights that may help us better “suit the action to the word, the word to the action”9 as we practice our craft. My mentor’s traumatic experience in the middle of our trial was a lesson for me in many ways, including to not let Shakespeare’s “cold wisdom” be “too early seen unknown, and known too late.”10

1. If you are a fan of Hamlet, I highly recommend the 1990 movie Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead with Gary Oldham, Tim Roth, and Richard Dreyfuss.

2. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” Twelfth Night (Act 2, scene 5, lines 149 - 150)

3. It would take more space than we have here to even begin to give proper treatment to all the lessons lawyers can learn about being a lawyer from reading Shakespeare.

4. For example, the couple lines in Romeo and Juliet where we learn that Juliet’s nurse lost a child (Susan) the same age as Juliet profoundly influences our views on the character, her conduct, and her relationship with Juliet.

5. Bryson, Bill, Shakespeare: The World as Stage, at 115 (Harper Collins, 2007).

6. See <>. These figures have changed over the years (more controversy again), but the point remains the same – Shakespeare has had a profound influence on the English language.

7. I excluded quotes from plays like Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth because those plays could each produce a substantial list of quotes on their own.

8. All of the cited quotations come from the Folger Shakespeare Library editions of the plays as published by Simon and Schuster.

9. Hamlet (Act 3, scene 2, lines 18 - 19)

10. “Cold wisdom” comes from All’s Well That Ends Well (Act 1, scene 1, line 110), and “too early seen unknown, and known too late” comes from Romeo and Juliet (Act 1, scene 5, line 153).

Login to post comments