Book Review: Kenji Yoshino, A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice

This review by Danish Sheikh was first published on Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy.

I first encountered Kenji Yoshino’s A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice more than two years ago, as a relative Shakespeare novice. I flipped it open to the chapter on Merchant of Venice, the only Shakespeare play I’d engaged with textually at that point, and was electrified. Portia, fair Portia, heretofore my beacon of lawyerly virtue was being eviscerated by the author with the most measured grace. Turning to the chapter on Othello, I further relished Yoshino’s evincing of parallels with the trial of OJ Simpson – how novel, I remember thinking.

Two intervening years marked by increasingly fervent Bardolatry that culminated in co-teaching a course on Shakespeare and Justice have somewhat dampened my views on Yoshino’s work. I cannot anymore term it an outright success, but it has enough engaging readings of the plays and infectious enthusiasm for it to earn a recommendation. But first, why Shakespeare and the law?

Well, for one, Shakespeare’s life was permeated by legal institutions. As the son of the high bailiff of Stratford he was born into a world where the legal trial existed as a communal spectacle. As an Elizabethan playwright making his fortune in London, he was often called upon to stage productions in the Inns of Court and the Royal Courts. When John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love ends with the queen commissioning ‘something more cheerful’ for Twelfth Night, it is a winking reference to records of an actual production of the play that took place in the Court.

Unsurprising then, that his plays have much to say about the law and justice. Trials and legal symbolism abound both within the courtroom and out – Shylock’s suit against Antonio in Merchant of Venice; the ocular proof of the heroine’s chastity in both Othello and Much Ado About Nothing; the love trial at the start of King Lear and the mock hate trial near its close, to name a few.

If the output of critical work on Shakespeare is gigantic – George Steiner noted back in 1964 that it requires a fair-sized library to house the critical canon – scholarship on Shakespeare and the law comprises a small subset of this work. Where early Shakespeare-and-law scholarship tends to skew towards a dry analysis of the representation of the law in the plays, later efforts more creatively work through legal themes both explicit and implicit. What often remains lacking is a unified authorial vision of themes of justice across Shakespeare’s different works. Most of the writing exists piecemeal, in anthologized compilations that bring together vastly different styles and approaches. There’s a measure of satisfaction that comes from watching an author make their way across the varying Shakespearean narratives, and it’s something that Shakespeare-and-law scholarship just doesn’t have enough of.

Yoshino’s book then is a welcome addition to the canon. The central concept is simple: nine plays, that cut across a cross-section of genres, each with a dedicated chapter that fleshes out a core theme related to ideas of justice. This is usually followed by linking the play to a contemporary problem that the author feels helps us better illuminate both. Yoshino simultaneously limits and expands his enterprise at the outset. “I do not have a definition of justice” he tells us, thus taking away from us the expectation of a central argument. What he does instead is pick up on a different theme with each play: for Titus Andronicus it is revenge and the rule of law; for Merchant of Venice it is the figure of the lawyer as the corrupter of discourse; for Hamlet it is the perils that are fraught in the delay of justice.

The book is at its best when Yoshino chooses to engage purely with the texts of the plays – I’ll go back to the two I began with. In the Merchant of Venice chapter, we find the author working through the prevailing mistrust of lawyers as skillful rhetoricians by looking at the figure of Portia. Long admired as the model lawyer and gifted with one of Shakespeare’s most quoted speeches as she beseeches Shylock towards the quality of mercy, Portia tends to walk away a perfect heroine. Yoshino is more skeptical – through a reading of three key passages corresponding to three trials in the play, he points out how Portia repeatedly runs rhetorical circles around her competition. “A hot temper leaps o’er a cool decree” she tuts at her dead father’s somewhat unreasonable will before going on to cannily subvert it. Next of course, is the famous flesh trial of Antonio, where she intervenes with one of the most painfully literal readings of a bond in contractual history. Finally, there is the trial of the ring where she hoodwinks her husband into parting with the ring she herself has given him in a test of his loyalty. As the play progresses, Portia gradually rises in her manipulation of the law, so that, as Yoshino notes: “I initially admire Portia because only she can stop Shylock. By the play’s end, I wonder who can stop her”. Whatever be the document that binds her, fair or foul, she manages to will her way out of it – a lawyer so verbally proficient that ultimately no law can bind her.

From a play rooted in the rule of law to Othello, which is merely haunted by the specter of justice. This is again a play that stages a trial, except one that happens in closed chambers and without the chief accused’s testimony. What Yoshino is concerned with examining is the manner in which the play contrasts two kinds of fact-finding – one that is communal and rational, and one that is isolated and impassioned. The former is seen in the tribunal that grants Othello leave to be with Desdemona at the start of the play; the latter in Othello acting as judge, jury and executioner to Desdemona based upon Iago’s spurious evidence. As I have noted, this is fairly engaging material, and was even more exciting to me initially without much prior knowledge of Shakespeare.

The problem comes when Yoshino tries to link each play to a contemporary narrative – or, in some cases, simply a larger theme. The opening chapter attempts to link the revenge fuelled blood-feuds in Titus Andronicus to the post 9/11 war on terror. The escalating cycles of revenge in the play are contrasted with the attack of Afghanistan and then Iraq. Does this serve to better illuminate the war on terror? Not quite. Does it serve to contemporize Shakespeare in a productive way? Only if one is ready to leach away much of the complexity of the narrative.

For that matter, let’s go back to the Merchant of Venice example. So intent is Yoshino on making his point on the evils of rhetoric-abusing lawyers that he ends up flattening out the wonderfully layered character of Portia, who ultimately does save a man from death. It isn’t such a crucial point then that Portia stands in for lawyers and lawyers inevitably corrupt discourse – for then we’d have to see the counter of Isabella in Measure for Measure, another character advocating for mercy, and actually exhibiting it. The strain in making the plays accrue to one core theme is most egregious in his chapter on King Lear: what begins as an absorbing discussion of the two trials animating the play ends with the baffling generalization that the play prepares us for the inevitability of death. This is certainly not a point that we need King Lear to illuminate for us, and attempting to affix that particular meaning to this particular play robs both of much of their heft.

One of the great joys of doing law and literature is discovering the mutually generative reaction that the two disciplines have on each other. If literature allows us to open out new worlds within the singularity of the law, the law also allows us to give a kind of shape to literature, to excavate narratives that may have otherwise floated past cognizance. One would expect a book on Shakespeare and Justice that aims to speak to the contemporary to then provide an illumination both on the plays themselves as well as the issue they’re purportedly speaking to. Instead, Yoshino’s framing works to chip away meaning where it should supplement or transform it.

My other more minor quibble lies more broadly with the books featured choices – not so much what it puts in but rather what it leaves out. Of the 9 plays covered, 5 are tragedies, along with one representative each from the comedies, problem plays, romances and histories. And yet the title of the play comes from a comedy; a delightful verse from the Merchant of Venice spoken by that wily lawyer Portia herself:

“You see me Lord Bassanio where I stand,

Such as I am; though for myself alone

I would not be ambitious in my wish

To wish myself much better, yet for you,

I would be trebled twenty times myself,

A thousand times more fair …”

As he notes in the book’s epilogue, Portia use of these words captures a quietly extraordinary thought: our desire, when we entire a community of love, to be better people than we are. In other words, the notion of how love might draw us towards justice. This is an idea that tends to be fore-grounded in Shakespeare’s comedies with their love-shook plots, and with their marginalization in this book, Yoshino leaves this tantalizing thought under-developed, in the pursuit of slightly more weather-beaten ideas of justice.

And yet, despite its flaws, A Thousand Times More Fair teems with absorbing readings of Shakespeare’s sparkling verse. It’s a book that deserves to be engaged with, and certainly one that will spark many an impassioned debate amongst those interested in the law, regardless of their prior knowledge of Shakespeare. Ultimately, if we are going to be arguing about the law, why not do it with words that are “fretted with golden fire”?