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Barnico Letter in MLW on Staged Reading of Richard II by Federal Judges and Lawyers

2013 news archive

03/15/13

The following letter from BC Law visiting faculty member Tom Barnico appears in the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly's March 7 edition

Richard II, Then and Now

To the Editor:

Thanks from the bench and bar are due the producer, Daniel J. Kelly, director Steven Maler, cast, and panelists of “A Staged Reading of Shakespeare’s Richard II,” presented by The Federalist Society’s Boston Lawyers Chapter and the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company at the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University.  The production featured numerous federal judges and lawyers, including former federal judge Nancy Gertner in the leading role.  The reading was followed by a panel discussion hosted by former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray “on the legal and political consequences of when a king or a president goes too far.”

To my own thanks I wish to add a few thoughts on “Richards” old and new, derived in part from the work of Professor Peter Saccio, long-time Shakespeare scholar at Dartmouth College, author of Shakespeare’s English Kings and a lecture on Richard II for The Teaching Company.

Professor Saccio believes that the play has less to do with executive misconduct or negligence than with the practical problem of removal:  he views the play as a portrait of a fall, or push, from high station.  He sees the play’s main political and legal question as not the merits of particular executive actions or inactions but rather:  What do you do when the “Executive” is ineffective or miscreant but you do not wish to harm the body politic or encourage similar challenges to authority in the future?  Thus, in Act 4, those assembled wrestle with the ways and means that might end the controversy, viz.,

(1)  the strong objection – based on the divine right of kings – by the Bishop of Carlisle against any action to remove Richard;

(2)  the quiet resignation of the crown suggested by York;

(3)  the impeachment and deposition urged by Northumberland, complete with a reading of  admitted misdeeds, “to satisfy the Commons,” and

(4)  the ceremony of “decoronation” preferred by Richard, one which reverses the normal order of the investiture of a king.

There is no clear “law” to apply to the dilemma, though Professor Saccio’s book details parliamentary actions not included in the play that were intended to create some legal basis for Henry’s ascension.  As lawyers in the United States, we cannot help but wonder:  Would an established constitutional process (such as impeachment and trial) have lighted the way in Richard II?  Or do the persistent troubles of our “modern-day” executives suggest the limits of law as a restraint on human nature?

As we ponder these questions, what could be the next stage direction but “Enter, Ghost”?  And who could be The Ghost but our own Richard:  Richard Nixon.   Yet Richard Nixon made no appearance, indeed had no mention, at the Modern Theatre that night; no member of the post-reading panel made any reference to his impeachment proceedings and resignation in 1974.  If Richard II had been similarly read and discussed between 1973 and, say, the 1990s, “our” Richard would have dominated the proceedings:  like Banquo’s ghost, his presence would have been unseen but palpable, if not permeating.  Professor Saccio says that teaching Richard II in the mid-to-late 1970s was extraordinarily easy because the students instantly grasped the difficulty in removing a president without damaging the constitutional structure or encouraging future impeachments.   

We all know now that the students were right to fret about the latter risk, though the story that unfolded in the 1990s may have been beyond the imagination of even the Bard.  For a more recent fall from high station, fans of Shakespeare might learn more from the impeachment and conviction of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.  What would Blago say about the play?  Some may recall his quick, steep fall, but only connoisseurs yet relish the Governor’s historical and literary allusions on his way down, which compared his persecuted self to Ghandi, Mandela, Othello, King Lear, and Richard III (though somehow overlooked Richard II’s preferred model:  Jesus of Nazareth).  Now the Chicago newspapers report that Blago plans to teach Shakespeare in prison.  Admirers of the Bard – like the exemplary cast and panelists at the Modern Theatre – might agree that it is Blago -- not “our” Richard, nor his ‘90s successor as a president on the precipice – who has assumed the role as modern heir to the silver-tongued Richard II.

Thanks again to all for an enjoyable night at The Modern Theatre.

 Thomas A. Barnico

Visiting Professor, Boston College Law School

As published in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly's March 7 edition