William Shakespeare makes it to the attention of Washington's chattering class only a little more often than Harold Stassen. But tonight at the Kennedy Center, an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court will preside over the trial of Hamlet. Miles Ehrlich, a former U.S. district attorney, will press the state's case against Hamlet -- portrayed by an actor, who is not expected to take the stand -- for slaying Polonius. Abbe D. Lowell, a Washington superlawyer who defended superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, will make the case that the melancholy Dane was mad, and not responsible.
Justice Anthony Kennedy first created "The Trial of Hamlet" in 1994, staging it in a conference room at the Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg served on the jury. This time, Justice Kennedy's trial is particularly fascinating in Washington because it follows so closely on the trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, with its complex questions of law, responsibility and how justice is properly measured. Shakespeare is an original source for insights into the interaction of politics and responsibility, guilt and innocence, ambition and the public good.
With the public-opinion polls showing the body politic already twitching as the early presidential campaign gets underway, we need all the help we can get to begin sorting out the issues and personalities. Macbeth, for example, has lessons in how personal ambition sometimes outruns considerations of what's good and bad for the country. Hillary Clinton has long been compared to Lady Macbeth, and her husband, like Richard III, is a reminder of how the exercise of public power can be abused in the pursuit of women for private pleasure. Nobody peers deep into the psychological motives of love and war -- measuring the heights to which humans can climb and plumbing the depths to which they can descend -- quite like the Bard. All the world's a stage, after all.
Shakespeare was popular everywhere earlier in our history. His plays toured mining camps, and bound copies stood next to the Bible on bookshelves in frontier homes. The letters of Civil War soldiers, many unlettered beyond three or four years in a rude one-room schoolhouse, were laced with references from Shakespeare's works. Not until the late 20th century would university professors demote him, applying the arcane jargon of literary criticism known as deconstructionism. Instead of recognizing the greatness of his universality, the professors treated him merely as a "cultural construct," specific to his times but not to ours.
The greatness of Shakespeare lies in his extraordinary language and insight into the human condition, portrayed in complex characters who breathe life into art. Many high school and college students never any longer discover his plays, or learn to appreciate how many of his words have become embedded in the common culture. It's an injustice beyond the jurisdiction even of a Supreme Court.