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Sane or not, Hamlet a hit in Washington trial

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sane or not sane?

A close-up shows a passage from William Shakespeare's Hamlet in the calf bound 1623 copy of the First Folio edition of the author's plays, displayed at Sotheby's auction house in London, March 30, 2006. Sane or not sane? That was the question at Hamlet's trial presided over by a real U.S. Supreme Court justice late on Thursday, centuries after Shakespeare's fictional Prince of Denmark fatally stabbed the garrulous busybody Polonius. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

That was the question at Hamlet’s trial presided over by a real U.S. Supreme Court justice late on Thursday, centuries after Shakespeare’s fictional Prince of Denmark fatally stabbed the garrulous busybody Polonius.

But here’s the rub. The jury deadlocked.

The mock trial at Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, was the “hottest ticket in town,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was attired in his formal black Supreme Court robes for the occasion.

Hamlet’s lawyers argued the insanity defense, based on his delusions and depression. Prosecutors replied that the brooding prince was feigning madness, knew right from wrong and should be held criminally responsible.

An insanity verdict meant “something would be rotten in Denmark,” argued one of Hamlet’s defense lawyers to laughter from an audience that appreciated her quoting from the play.

In the end, six jurors ruled Hamlet was sane and six others ruled he was insane. After the verdict was read, Michael Kahn, the Shakespeare Theater Company artistic director, urged a retrial.

Kennedy, 70, came up with the idea of a trial as a way to use the American legal system to explore Shakespeare’s tragedy. Four nationally known attorneys argued the case and two prominent psychiatric experts gave testimony.

The Kennedy Center initially planned to put on “The Trial of Hamlet” at its 550-seat theater but tickets went so fast it moved the performance to a 1,100-seat theater. That sold out quickly too.

It marked the fourth time that Kennedy had presided over a trial of Hamlet. The first, at the Supreme Court in 1994, and later ones in Boston and Chicago all found by split votes that Hamlet was sane.

In nearly every year since 1994, at least one Supreme Court justice has taken part in a mock trial or similar performance involving a Shakespeare play.

“This is more exciting than a regular play only because you don’t know what the testimony and the arguments are going to be,” Kennedy said of the unscripted trial in an interview from his Supreme Court office a day earlier.

The stage resembled a courtroom, with a huge portrait of Shakespeare hanging behind the judge. Kennedy said the English playwright clearly wanted the audience to think about the sanity issue.


“That is a deliberate puzzle in the play. This is not an embellishment that later generations put on. He wanted you to be puzzled and to solve the puzzle,” said Kennedy, who was a judge in California before joining the high court nearly 20 years ago.

The jury consisted of three high school students, three college students, three people chosen by the Kennedy Center and three people selected by the Shakespeare Theater Company, which helped put on the trial.

The event was part of the city’s Shakespeare festival lasting from January through June, with hundreds of presentations by more than 60 arts organizations to celebrate the playwright’s works.

The defendant Hamlet, played by an actor, sat silently through the proceedings after invoking his legal right not to testify.

Kennedy devised an explanation for Hamlet being there despite his apparent death from poisoning in the final act. The judge cited a short news item that said Hamlet had recovered consciousness and was in apparent good physical health.

Court TV anchorwoman Catherine Crier and lawyer Abbe Lowell defended Hamlet. Lowell said Hamlet was branded “mad” 40 times in the play. Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” speech showed he was in a “suicidal funk,” he said.

Two lawyers from California -- Cristina Arguedas and Miles Ehrlich -- argued Hamlet’s madness was just an act. Academics in psychiatry offered conflicting testimony over whether he had displayed symptoms of schizophrenia and manic depression.

Kennedy declined to say how he would vote on Hamlet’s sanity, telling Reuters: “It’s a close case.”