Te whetu Orongo

It is this window into the soul of man that draws people to Shakespeare.

Michael Jay Willson, American legal scholar

Practising lawyers appreciate how well a judicial smile may be evoked with a Shakespearean quote during litigation. My favourite line to judge and jury, in the US: “To do a great right, do a little wrong,” an advice suggested by Bassanio to Portia in the Merchant of Venice.

I find untold pleasure hacking away at the doctrine of stare decisis by religiously quoting the litigating Portia’s circumvention of precedent when Shylock clings to precedent upon his bond — by requiring the cutting of the pound of flesh withoutshedding one drop of Christian blood.

That springs from an ancient Latin adage qui haeret in litera haeret in cortise — he who clings to the letter, clings to the dry and barren shell, and misses the truth and substance of the matter –effectively quoted in British Movietones v London & District Cinemas [1952] A.C. 166.

Justice K C Vohrah is often remembered for his reference to Hamlet when he said, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” in the Ayer Molek case at the Court of Appeal in 1995 in reference to the High Courts, then located at Wisma Denmark in Kuala Lumpur, alleged to have precipitated transgressions of justice.

“How poor are they that have not patience,

What wound did ever heal but by various degrees?

Thou know’st we work by wit and not by witchcraft,

And wit depends on dilatory time.”

 – LAWASIA president Christopher Leong quoting Othello during his October 4 2019 address, 18 months after the PH government took the reins of government with an expectant citizenry.

In a London interview on February 4 2000, (Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohammad reportedly said that his Henry VI reference:  “First, let us kill all the lawyers …” was meant as a joke towards lawyers, not fully knowing and realising that quote by Dick the butcher was a revolutionary statement that totalitarianism could not survive a strong and independent bar!

Ariel’s sagacious observation in The Tempest concerning turncoats, tyrants and traitors: “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.” A few years ago, one Malaysian politician allegedly re-labeled it his way: “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.”

“A human tragedy of Shakespearean proportions,” was how a South African judge described the conviction of athlete Oscar Pistorius accused of murdering his girlfriend in 2015.

The conviction of Dzokhar Tsarnaev, one of the antagonists of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, encouraged the presiding judge to quote from Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

Hypocrites in positions of judicial power today are shamefully exposed as is Angelo in Measure for Measure: “We must not make a scarecrow of the law, setting it up to fear the birds of prey, and let it keep one shape till custom make it their perch and not their terror.”

Leadership virtues sadly lacking today are manifest with Malvolio in Twelfth Night who declares: “Some are born great; some acquire greatness; yet there are those who have greatness thrust upon them.” Reminds me of those who resigned in desperation, and those who assumed power with contrived anticipation and affirmation.

In Othello we hear the immortal wisdom in matters concerning kleptocracy: “The robb’d that smiles, steals something from the thief; He robs himself that spends a bootless grief.” One can only wonder if Shakespeare’s works are available in prison libraries.

US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, during her Senate confirmation hearings, brought forth Measure for Measure to declare: “We’re not robots, to listen to evidence and don’t have feelings. We have to recognise those feelings and put them aside,” in matters of excess mercy and equally excessive harsh laws.

A 2015 study by Scott Dodson and Ami Dodson found that William Shakespeare topped the list of the oft-quoted writer in US Supreme Court judgments along with Lewis Carroll, George Orwell, Charles Dickens, Aldous Huxley and Aesop. 

William Shakespeare suffered some ignominy when his authorship was challenged. After Shakespeare: The Evidence was published, scholars empanelled three US Supreme Court Justices in 1983 to decide whether Shakespeare was a fraud.

The three Justices decided it was Shakespeare indeed who authored all the plays without adducing any proof or evidence although the usual suspect was Francis Bacon. To do a great thing, do a little wrong?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.