When Hamlet Starts Showing Up in Federal Court

A Pennsylvania judge’s decision to quote Shakespeare in a recent ruling doubled as a meaningful, yet still ambiguous, interpretation of cultural chaos.

Lisi Niesner / Reuters

Hamlet makes sense in 2018. Almost too much sense. The contours of his tragedy, as with many of Shakespeare’s doomed characters, are startlingly familiar at a time when Americans are deeply divided over the fate of the country and its people. The story of a man exposed to the political violence of a kingdom under usurpation, some would argue, offers an eerie parallel to the lack of sanctuary or safety in the United States for many of the people who seek to make their lives here.

Philadelphia does not officially label itself a sanctuary city, but it has led the way, along with Los Angeles and Chicago, in fighting threats from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to withhold federal grant money for refusing to cooperate with strict immigration-enforcement conditions.

A recent ruling by a federal judge in Pennsylvania, Michael Baylson, attracted public attention because of the urgent legal questions it poses—and the lives at stake—as well as because of a notable citation on its first page. The ruling cites, in its first page, quotations from two tragedies by Shakespeare—Hamlet and Coriolanus—and from an academic article by Benjamin Woodring, “Liberty to Misread: Sanctuary and Possibility in The Comedy of Errors.”

Shakespeare’s frequent treatment of ethical and legal questions is marked far more by its ambiguity and unresolved tensions than by clear directives and propositions—this is part of what makes his work simultaneously playful and vexing. Yet the choice of the quotation from Hamlet, “No place indeed should murder sanctuarize,” responds directly to the present political moment—and uncovers the play’s contemporary relevance.

It is not at all rare to find Shakespeare cited in a legal context. Several of Shakespeare’s best-known works contain problematic trials or scenes that resemble trials, from the disinheritance and banishment of the king’s daughter Cordelia in the opening scene of King Lear to the criminal trial that concludes Measure for Measure. Justice Ginsburg even made a cameo at a 2016 production of The Merchant of Venice, presiding over a mock appeal by the character Shylock. In the case of Baylson’s ruling, though, literary samplings aren’t just rhetorical flourishes. A document that serves, on the one hand, as a legal decision, is also a formal reinterpretation of the play. Far from stressing Hamlet’s madness, the judge emphasizes his vulnerability.

The line quoted as an epigraph comes from Act 4, Scene 7, in which King Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet’s father, tries to persuade Laertes, a former friend of Hamlet’s, to kill Hamlet in a duel with poisoned swords. Hamlet had killed, by accident, Laertes’s father, Polonius, as he was spying on Hamlet and his mother behind a tapestry. Here’s the exchange between the two:

Claudius: … What would you undertake

To show yourself indeed your father’s son

More than in words?

Laertes: To cut his throat i’ th’ church.

Claudius: No place indeed should murder sanctuarize;

Revenge should have no bounds.

For a reader or spectator of the play, the scene carries significant dramatic irony, since Hamlet had, in a previous scene, hesitated and ultimately rejected killing Claudius while the king was praying in a chapel. For a reader of Baylson’s ruling, however, Claudius’s self-serving claim—that there is no sanctuary for Hamlet from Laertes’s revenge—illuminates the risk of federal officials exposing the immigration status of people living in Philadelphia. The ruling gives the role of the malicious king to Sessions, the implication being that he is denying all possibility of sanctuary and deporting people into conditions that are often fatal.

Baylson’s reading of Hamlet agrees with at least one other contemporary take. A longstanding view of the play has seen in Hamlet the development of a modern consciousness: Two famous Hamlets, Laurence Olivier (1948) and Kenneth Branagh (1996), both explore the deep psychological weirdness of the play, at times suggesting, cinematically, that the very landscape of the political world is a projection of Hamlet’s putative insanity. A 2015 production of Hamlet at the Barbican, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and directed by Lyndsey Turner, transports the play into a modern security state. In Cumberbatch’s performance, psychology recedes behind politics. Hamlet’s “madness” is a tragic perspicacity, an isolated and embattled claim to truth against powers aiming to subvert reality.

Earlier versions of Hamlet produced frames for interpretation—most memorably, Freudian ones—that led readers to be suspicious of their own capacity for self-understanding. But Cumberbatch’s Hamlet inverts this idea: His claims to interpret the world are presented as legitimate, and the denial of the truths he finds has a totalitarian political motive. The audience is encouraged, in other words, to believe his account of himself and of the world. Hamlet’s wit is a form of witnessing.

Clearly, the interpretation of a play and the interpretation of the United States Constitution are separate activities. But invoking Shakespeare, I want to suggest, poses urgent contemporary questions. And not just because his work remains so fluid, at a moment when anything concrete seems destined to crumble. Baylson’s ruling is a reminder that Shakespeare’s texts are open books, still, tied not only to their historical context, but also to the contingencies of the present.

In the context of a public record, the very appearance of Shakespeare is significant—either as an avatar for artistic achievement, or as an emblem of Great Books, or to represent the literary canon. The first paragraph of Baylson’s ruling moves quickly from Shakespeare to Homer, referring to Scylla and Charybdis, two monsters encountered by Odysseus in Book XII of the Odyssey. With Shakespeare and Homer on the side of sanctuary, the ruling makes a claim from the outset to a cultural anchor. Whether or not this claim is appropriate, after decades in which the authority of certain classics has been challenged, complicated, and recontextualized, is less important here than a federal judge’s choice to quote Hamlet and the Odyssey in the first place.

It also seems likely that the ruling uses the line from the play because of the appearance of the strange verb sanctuarize in the early-17th century. Benjamin Woodring’s article, cited by the judge, explores the early modern struggles over sanctuary in great detail, concluding that “Shakespeare summons sanctuary only to dismiss its possibility, making a statement about the desperate and inescapably fatal space of the drama’s unfolding.” The current wave of social discord—which manifests itself, in part, in street protests and judicial resistance to federal overreach—has many precedents in both political history and literary expression. Some have found an echo of the opposition of certain states to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Others have traced the contemporary sanctuary city to the Presbyterian church in Arizona in the 1980s. By grafting Shakespeare’s 17th-century sanctuarize onto a 2018 ruling, literary history appears freshly relevant, and early modern literary texts become the places where concepts such as sanctuary are forged and tested.

Instead of a fragment being plucked “out of context,” as ornament, slogan, or cultural credential, the Shakespeare quotations suggest that the political history of sanctuary is bound up with the literary genre of tragedy. Shakespeare, then, becomes not only a marker of literary canonicity, or of the world-expanding complexity of ethical problems, but also a spur to interpretation—readers are put in the position of interpreting the present, as they would a play, and of taking decisive action. The meaning of Shakespeare’s works, or for that matter of any literary work, is not preprogrammed by the monumental status of the plays, but rather set loose by their malleability and the time-bound nature of any single interpretation. For readers, this means that Shakespeare’s texts are less like a puzzle from the past to be solved by restoring their intention or their historical context, and more like a set of resources for deciphering the elusive present.

To this idea one might object that such a defense of interpretation is tantamount to a defense of mere relativism—that there is not one right interpretation, that all readings are equally valid. But interpretation is never an activity in which all participants engage with the same privileges or advantages. Literature, like the law, is always a contested ground. Adrienne Rich, in a poem called “North American Time,” writes about the curious way that words and lines of poetry can become disembedded from their context: “Everything we write / will be used against us / or against those we love.” Contemporary progressive politics, from the Movement for Black Lives to #MeToo, have been marked not only by the fight for truth or facts, but also by the redistribution of interpretation. In other words, what’s at stake is not only the question of what actually happened but also the question of who gets to explain what happened.

Baylson’s decision doesn’t just quote Shakespeare; it asks a pointed question: Who gets to do the work of interpretation in moments of political emergency? History, as it unfolds, does not have some tragic movement, nor some progressive arc. If it resembles a tragedy in any way, it is because the past is stitched together from complex decisions, fragile interpretations, and limited information. The value of literature in times of chaos is as a reminder of the artificiality of the present, its capacity to be made and remade, and of the need for a continuous vigilance against the denial of interpretation.