Hamlet gets modern day trial at Bovard

To be, or not to be.

That was the question Hamlet famously pondered in Shakespeare’s renowned play. But the question discussed Monday night at Bovard Auditorium, during a staged trial held by the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, skipped past the philosophical questions to the legal: Can Hamlet be held criminally responsible for the murder of Polonius?

Passing judgement · The trial attempted to place the story of Hamlet in a contemporary setting and also features appearances from Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, other lawyers and Helen Hunt. - Courtney Sandlin | Daily Trojan

Literary critics, Shakespearean actors, psychoanalysts and high school English teachers have all passionately fought for their own personal interpretation of Hamlet’s possible insanity.

Imagine Prince Hamlet did not die that fateful day by Laertes’ poisoned sword.

Imagine, instead, that he recovered consciousness and now, more than 400 years later, he is finally granted a fair trial to determine whether he ought to be executed for murdering Polonius.

In other words, Law & Order meets Shakespeare.

Danette Meyers and Nathan Hochman from the Los Angeles County Bar Association took the floor and called psychiatrist Ronald Markman as their expert witness.

The case garnered so much attention that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy agreed to adjudicate the trial. And it all happened live, right here in Los Angeles.

Hosted by USC’s Gould School of Law, and co-sponsored by SCLA and both council teams’ associations, the trial was very much a local one. Jurors were all Los Angeles residents, from actors Helen Hunt and Tom Irwin to USC students Rose Leisner, a junior majoring in Theatre and Tim McNally, a senior majoring in International Relations.

Hamlet pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and he somehow procured Beverly Hills Bar Association members Blair Berk and Richard Hirsch as his lawyers, who convinced forensic psychiatrist Saul Faerstein to testify in Hamlet’s defense.

The central argument during the three-hour-long trial was not whether or not Hamlet committed murder, but if he was truly insane and thus not criminally responsible for Polonius’s murder.

Although it was a mock trial, the logic and rhetoric both sides of the council brought before the jury was smart, thorough and professional.

“Hamlet is divided from himself and good judgment by the disease of the mind,” Berk argued, pointing to the instance when Hamlet blindly stabs at the curtain and then has a “delusional” chat with his dead father.

“Hamlet needs Prozac rather than jail,” Hirsch declared in his closing statement.

Meanwhile, Meyers argued that Hamlet’s decision not to kill Claudius while he was praying, in hopes of preventing his uncle from going to heaven, was a “brilliant, calculating, rational and logical play.”

His decision not to strike at that moment was a form of control, Meyers continued, an action that requires careful thought.

“Hamlet’s plea for insanity is just a ploy to paint himself as a person to be pitied, rather than a foe to be feared,” Hochman concluded. “Ruling Hamlet as sane is the only sane thing to do.”

But during the testimonies, defense witness Faerstein alluded to Hamlet’s soliloquies to show that Hamlet was experiencing severe grief, indecisiveness and worthlessness — symptoms listed for mental disorders.

Meanwhile, Markman argued that “scholars would not spend so much time studying [Hamlet’s soliloquies] if they were by a raving maniac.”

The high point of the trial was the witness testimonies. Both Faerstein and Markman enlivened the stage with their banter, while presenting interesting thoughts and analysis.

When asked why he thought Hamlet suffered weight gain, one of the symptoms of mental disorders, Faerstein quoted mournfully, “Oh that this too, too solid flesh melt!”

Markman had his own share of laughs as well, when he suggested solemnly that the reason Gertrude could not see the ghost might not be that Hamlet was delusional, but that perhaps the ghost didn’t want Gertrude to see him.

After the council’s closing arguments, the jury’s deliberations were aired live through a closed circuit television, a rare chance for the lawyers to get an inside peek into how their arguments affected the jury’s decision.

Despite the jury  ruling Hamlet guilty, instead of reaching a conclusion the trial only left the question of Hamlet’s ‘to be sane or not to be sane’ debate hotter than ever.

Correction 2/15/2011: An earlier version of this story listed Ronald Markman as “Ronald Richman” on several occasions. This version has been edited to reflect his correct name. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.

4 replies
  1. David Basch
    David Basch says:

    The problem of the killing of Pelonius adds a confusion to the play. Since Hamlet dies at the end,
    commentators have seen that killing as the reason Hamlet merited to die in the end — the sentence
    meted out by the just God that Shakespeare and his audience believed was the setting.

    In fact, there is in the play an action of Hamlet that does indeed merit his punishment. This is overlooked
    because everyone focuses on the killing of Pelonius. A more diligent examination of the play reveals
    this capital crime, which some commentators have actually found and reported.

    The play is a parable and enacts the fact that this is a world in which accident and chance plays a part.
    The central aspect of the play is character and the consequences of character. Hamlet is over righteous
    — a grievous character fault — and this leads to the tragic death of this good man — a parable for all of us
    “good men” to contemplate in our own actions
    in our own lives.

  2. David Basch
    David Basch says:

    Commentators forget that Hamlet was involved in seeking to punish his step father for the murder of
    his own father and believed that, as the son and heir to the throne, he had the right to mete out such
    punishment. Through the play within a play, Hamlet believed he had established the guilt of Claudius
    by his demeanor in reaction to the play that reenacted the murder. (Horatio backed up that judgement
    in his own witness to Claudius’s reaction.) Hamlet had been looking for an occasion to find Claudius
    in an unworthy act — spying on Hamlet and endangering Hamlet — so that he could be dispatched
    without heavenly mercy in the after life.

    In sum, Hamlet had meant to kill Claudius but, in his zeal, failed to go the extra mile of
    caution, and ended up killing bystander Pelonius, the latter’s own contributary negligence
    playing a part, even if in ignorance.

    The killing was a mistake, a kind of negligence, but understandable in the emotionally charged
    situation that Hamlet faced. I think Hamlet, had he been tried, would have been found guilty of a
    lesser crime than murder and would have been punished with probation and set up as the
    rightful King of Denmark.

  3. Ronald Markman, M.D.
    Ronald Markman, M.D. says:

    I found Sophia Lee’s article on the trial of Hamlet clever and entertaining. However she appears to have identified me both as ‘Markman’ and then ‘Richman’ towards the end of the article when she quoted statements that I made during my testimony. Hope this was just a typo, as I don’t recall anyone by the name of Richman in the cast.

    Ronald Markman, M.D.

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