Kill All the Lawyers? Shakespeare's Legal Appeal

Kill All the Lawyers? Shakespeare's Legal Appeal

Kill All the Lawyers? Shakespeare's Legal Appeal

Kill All the Lawyers? Shakespeare's Legal Appeal


Two-thirds of Shakespeare's plays have trial scenes, and many deal specifically with lawyers, courts, judges, and points of law. Daniel Kornstein, a practicing attorney, looks at the legal issues and aspects of Shakespeare's plays and finds fascinating parallels with many legal and social questions of the present day. The Elizabethan age was as litigious as our own, and Shakespeare was very familiar with the language and procedures of the courts. Kill All the Lawyers? examines the ways in which Shakespeare used the law for dramatic effect and incorporated the passion for justice into his great tragedies and comedies and considers the modern legal relevance of his work. This is a ground-breaking study in the field of literature and the law, ambitious and suggestive of the value of both our literary and our legal inheritance.


When the time comes to talk about the glories of our era, surely someone will say a few kind words about free Shakespeare in New York’s Central Park. Each summer I marvel at the New York Shakespeare Festival, brainchild of the late Joseph Papp. a producer and director with a mission, Papp loved Shakespeare and brought the Bard’s plays to the people, for whom they were intended. He believed in Shakespeare for a mass urban audience. He helped keep Shakespeare alive.

Shakespeare is always a treat; Shakespeare under the stars in Central Park, a special one. At the outdoor Delacorte Theater next to a lake in the park, with little Belvedere Castle as a backdrop, accomplished actors tread the boards in a scene that often looks eerily like one in the shadows of Hamlet’s Elsinore or any of several other royal castles found in Shakespeare. Even the weather can add special effects: wind, lightning, thunder, or drizzle (not dreaded rain) can, at the right moment, almost seem as if they were called up at the director’s command.

I remember seeing my first Shakespeare play in Central Park in 1963, in between my junior and senior years of high school, and ever since have looked forward to summer in New York with special anticipation. Summer in New York without Shakespeare in the park is like winter in Vermont without snow on the ski slopes.

With so much excellent Shakespeare available, it has over the years been easy to see the plays and to think about how they bear on lawyering, for lawyering is what I have chosen to do with my life. I am a full-time, practicing, shirtsleeve lawyer in a small Manhattan firm that concentrates on litigation. During the summer of 1985, the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Measure for Measure was a reward—a short respite—for a tired and frazzled attorney trying to relax after a week of writing legal briefs and preparing cases for trial. It turned out to be one of those experiences in the realm of art that remain forever associated in my mind with the time and place where I thought the art was first fully revealed to me.

Viewing the play that night changed my ideas about Shakespeare. I had spent the day rereading the play and remembering the fine performance of it I had seen in Central Park in 1966, but none of that fully prepared me for my reaction that night. Sitting in the Delacorte Theater, I watched the actors, heard them speak their lines, and rather than being relaxed (or perhaps because I was so relaxed), felt myself tensing with excitement as the large number of legal issues in Measure for Measure began to strike . . .

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