"Shakespeare and the Law" reading of "King Lear" features Starr, Greco, Cellucci

Issue July/August 2008 By Bill Archambeault

"Shakespeare and the Law’s" staged reading of "King Lear" featured a lineup of legal heavyweights, including former Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr, former American Bar Association President Michael S. Greco and former Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci.

The eighth annual production, a collaboration between the Federalist Society’s Boston Lawyers Chapter and Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, was held May 21 at Emerson College’s Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston. The Massachusetts Bar Association co-sponsored the production.

More than 300 people attended the reading of the play, in which King Lear abdicates his throne to his daughters, resulting in power struggles and warring.

Each year, the event is produced by Daniel J. Kelly, a partner at McCarter & English LLP in Boston and chair of the Boston Lawyers Division of the Federalist Society. Kelly said that, "The timeless truths in Shakespeare’s works provide a marvelous vessel for a civilized debate and discussion of today’s political and legal issues." Commonwealth Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Steven Maler directs the production.

In addition to this year’s three featured performers, the reading and discussion featured a prominent cast of local prominent justices and lawyers, including: U.S. Judges Nathaniel Gorton, Patti Saris, Dennis Saylor, Douglas Woodlock and Rya Zobel; Supreme Judicial Court Justices Robert Cordy and Judith Cowin; Ropes & Gray Managing Partner John Montgomery; Wilmer Hale Partner and American College of Trial Lawyers President-elect Joan Lukey; criminal defense/civil liberties attorney and writer Harvey Silverglate and criminal defense attorney J.W. Carney Jr.

Greco, a partner at K&L Gates and a past president of the MBA, performed as King Lear. The performers/panelists represent the full spectrum of political leaning to foster spirited discussions after the readings.

Starr, now the dean of Pepperdine Law School, hosted the event and served as moderator with Georgetown University Law Center Professor Nicholas Rosenkranz.

The annual event uses an abbreviated reading of one of Shakespeare’s work as a starting-off point for a discussion of current legal issues. There are no costumes or staging: Simple spotlights shine on "cast" members, who dress in black and read from stands placed in a row at the front of the stage.

The production employed simple props to humorous effect. For example, in the scene where Silverglate’s character, "Gloucester," is attacked and blinded, Silverglate simply smiled and put on a pair of dark sunglasses to represent his gouged sockets.

Rosenkranz began the discussion by noting that the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution addresses situations in which the president is unable to discharge his duties, who assumes those duties, and how the president can resume his position. Rosenkranz began the discussion by noting that the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution addresses situations in which the president is unable to discharge his duties, who assumes those duties, and how the president can resume his position.

"It’s interesting that the king chooses to delegate the power but not the title," Rosenkranz said, comparing Lear’s circumstances with the 25th Amendment.

Greco noted, "I think there are some things to be learned from ‘Lear.’" "I don’t think he thought about what he was doing. He tried to divest himself of the burdens of power. If we have a monarch, a president, who goes insane, we have ways of dealing with it."

Cowin wondered what would happen if a president went insane but the condition was hidden by loyal advisers.

"These days, the blogosphere might take care of that," Starr said.

Silverglate disagreed with the premise of the discussion.

"I think we have this play all wrong. The problem wasn’t that Lear gave power to evil daughters, but that he gave it to more than one," which led to internecine warfare, he said. He then offered a pointed political observation, saying that the play raised the issue of who really wields the power of the top office, something that could be asked in relation to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

"It’s more a question of who’s in power now, the president or the VP? I think that’s the lesson of Lear," Silverglate said.

Greco pushed the current political connection further. While the Constitution provides safeguards for protecting the nation when a president is physically or mentally sick, he asked, what protections exist when a president acts with "arrogance" and "hubris" to take power away from Congress and the courts?

While Greco was president of the American Bar Association, from 2005–06, he created a task force that determined Bush violated the Constitution by using "signing statements" to essentially rewrite or ignore more than 750 laws he disagreed with.

"This was a case of a president taking more power than the founding fathers had allotted. We have to guard against that problem of hubris," Greco said.