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Method or Madness? Jury Decides Hamlet's Fate
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Method or Madness? Jury Decides Hamlet's Fate

Arts & Life


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

The place was Elsinore Castle; the time was Act III Scene four; Hamlet, prince of Denmark skewers the Lord Chamberlain who is hiding behind the tapestry, and who shuffles off this mortal coil with the insightful, dying observation: Oh, I am slain.

Murder most foul or the impulsive, irrational act of a deeply disturbed undergraduate? Well, that question was put before a supremely mock court last night in Washington; Justice Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court presiding.

(Soundbite of a mock trial)

Justice ANTHONY KENNEDY (U.S. Supreme Court): You are Lord Hamlet, prince of Denmark?

Unidentified Man: (As Hamlet) Yes, my lord.

Justice KENNEDY: Please be seated.

SIEGEL: And the council for the defense and the prosecution with us today. They are both real life litigators. Miles Ehrlich argued that Hamlet is sane and should be charged with murder. And Abbe Lowell argued that Hamlet suffered from schizoaffective disorder and needs help, instead.

Miles Ehrlich, why was it murder?

Mr. MILES EHRLICH (Prosecutor, Hamlet's mock trial): Well, when he stabbed through that tapestry, he knew he was stabbing into the flesh of a human being. He knew that killing was wrong at the time, and he did it anyway because he has resolved, finally, that the time was right for him to deliver his revenge.

SIEGEL: Abbe Lowell, sounds like murder to me.

Mr. ABBE LOWELL (Defense, Hamlet's mock trial): A man who talks to ghosts and flies about the stage on what his mother calls distemper, and talks in sexual ponds, and can't control his emotions, and contemplates whether he should commit suicide, and then, in a whirl of a moment, hears a noise and stabs through a tapestry, is acting on impulse.

Mr. EHRLICH: We're not going to dispute that he was facing many challenges. His father was killed. His mother quickly remarried to the murderer. But our focus, and we think the law's focus, is on his coping skills. He had remarkable coping skills. He didn't just take the word of the ghost. He checked it out. He scripted a play to catch Claudius in his guilt. And once he did, he decided it was his duty to revenge the death of his father.

SIEGEL: Abbe Lowell?

Mr. LOWELL: If you look at the whole record, and you see all the instances of his acting manically and his being depressed beyond just being grieved by the death of his father, and the fact that everybody who knows him well, over 40 times in the play, declare him to be mad, you just have to see that there's textual references for the fact that he is a whacko.

SIEGEL: Well, at the end of the trial, a jury of 12 deliberated, and Justice Anthony Kennedy announced the result.

(Soundbite of mock trial)

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Six of us find the defendant, Hamlet, prince of Denmark, sane at the time of the homicide of Polonius, and so, responsible for the act. Six of us find the defendant, Hamlet, prince of Denmark, not sane at the time of the homicide of Polonius, and so, not responsible for the act. Another 400 years.

Mr. EHRLICH: It was a hung jury. And I think Mr. Lowell and his co-council did a terrific job. I would point out, they've had close to 500 years to work on this insanity defense. We, at the crown, are making steps right now to get authority to retry him, and we plan to as soon as possible.

SIEGEL: Well, Miles Ehrlich of San Francisco and Abbe Lowell of Washington, the two opposing council in last night's trial of Hamlet - part of the Shakespeare Festival in Washington D.C. Thank you both very much for being with us.

Mr. LOWELL: Thank you.

Mr. EHRLICH: Thank you very much.

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