Skip to content

Was Hamlet Guilty of Murder?

“Was Hamlet crazy when he killed Polonius?” 

We’ve had a lot of fun over the years in connecting the theater to the political world of Washington. A few years ago, maybe more than 10, 12 years ago, we started something called the Mock Trial in which the issue from a play is argued by two opposing lawyers, two different sides, and heard by a bench of judges. And it’s always one or two Supreme Court Justices and some Federal Appeals Judges.  And the two lawyers are usually very important people.

The first one we did was “Was Hamlet crazy when he killed Polonius?”  We held that in the Supreme Court itself, not in the major chambers, but in another, smaller room.  We now hold them at the theater because they’re so successful we needed 800 seats instead of 400.  The first one was argued by two lawyers who at that time were counsel for the President.  And they argued one for the fact that Hamlet was insane and one that Hamlet was not. And the only evidence you could use was the text.  You could go anywhere you wanted. You didn’t have to pretend it was Ellsinore in the 1400s.  You could talk about anything.

And they argued very well.  And Justice Kennedy was the presiding judge and Justice Ginsberg was on the jury. She wanted to be on the jury.  There were a lot of other people on the jury.  And the arguments started by the defendant judge, that is Hamlet’s defense judge, saying, you know, people said he was crazy; they quoted lines from the play; and the quotes are very funny but they’re very clever.  They worked really hard these lawyers.  And the other lawyer tried to use the Twinkie defense because it was during the time of the Menendez brothers, and how he said they had eaten junk food and Hamlet had eaten junk food and too much Red Dye No. 2.  

Anyway, so the trial was over and the jury went out.  When they came back with Justice Ginsberg leading the jury, as the foreman of the jury, she said that “We find Hamlet guilty of the murder of Polonius, and we also want to add that he should be indicted for the murder of Ophelia.”  And she felt that was such an unfeminist statement in the play and Hamlet had ruined Ophelia’s life.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think’s studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. 


Up Next
I think we need tests and we need to apply those tests to individual teachers, to individual schools, to individual students and to individual parents.