Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Kenji Yoshino is the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at the NYU School of Law. Prior to moving to NYU, he was the inaugural Guido Calabresi Professor[…]

What does Shakespeare have to do with civil rights?

Kenji Yoshino: I know this seems like kind of whipsaw because, you know, what does Shakespeare have to do with covering? What does Shakespeare have to do with civil rights? And I have to say in all honesty that part of this is my going back to my roots as an English literature person, which is to say I love Shakespeare passionately and focused on Shakespeare in college. So the eight years of high school and college were really just chain reading Shakespeare. And it’s only in writing this book . . . I knew that if I wrote this book I would have an excuse to read all 37 plays again, which I did this past summer, and that was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. So part of this is that it doesn’t exactly fit with what I do before, and this is a new project. But one of the interesting things as I mature as a scholar is that I realize that there are connections, and that there is an integrity to human beings that carries across our projects. And so I’ll just name two. I mean one is the covering idea of having the courage to say, “This is what I’m passionate about even though it doesn’t seem to make sense to anybody else except for me.” I realize that in many ways that n a legal world, especially in a constitutional law world, talking about literature always seems very soft. You know and so I . . . Even when I was doing civil rights work, I used to be very, very leery about making emotional claims, or literary claims, or using language that was too poetic in the things that I was writing in the sense that I wanted to flatten my language and to make sure that I wasn’t trying to escape the hard-hitting, rigorous, analytic, logical force of the law. But after I finished the book I thought what’s so funny now is I don’t think I really . . . I feel like I’m so much more comfortable in my identity as a gay person than I am in my identity as an art person or as a literary person. And so I should really have the courage to say that I’m gonna write a book that is primarily about literature and about legal themes in Shakespeare rather than anything else. But the other thing that is common across . . . or that makes Shakespeare of a piece of the rest of the work – not that we need to be, but something that I’ve come to see as being very similar – which was actually not something that I came to on my own, but something that was pointed out to me by a friend, is that Shakespeare is also oddly one of the few places where we can come together to have common and complex conversations about justice. What my friend said to me was, “I see a common thread between the Covering book and the Shakespeare project. Because in both contexts what you’re trying to do is to say civil rights does not belong to lawyers. Civil rights belongs to all of us,” right? And so in the same way that I said, “Don’t rely on lawyers too much,” because I’m not gonna be able to sue my colleague. I’m gonna actually have to sit down with my colleague and that’s not a legal conversation. So in the same way that I wanna give civil rights back to the polity so too am I looking for other ways in which we can have conversations among non-lawyers about what justice is in our society. And I think the real challenge for me in doing that was trying to figure out how to do that. So we could do it through . . . in a variety of ways. But I was really at pains or really struggling to find the text that would be both common enough and complex enough in order to sustain those discussions about justice. And I only had two candidates ultimately. It was the Bible or Shakespeare. Because I think in our society the only text that everyone reads who is of an educated . . . who has an . . . who has a good education, but who . . . which also deals with something that is deep enough in order to sustain a conversation about justice are those two texts. As Harold Bloom tells us, no other texts have the circumference of the Bible and Shakespeare. In a separation of church and state society, we’re not gonna use the Bible in order to inform what we believe justice to be, or what we believe the law should be. And so I’m left with Shakespeare. And so what this book is really trying to do is take the plays that most touch on legal topics – you know The Merchant of Venice; Measure for MeasureTitus Andronicus, of all plays, I think is a really marvelous play about the origins of the law – and try and open up these plays, and try and give these plays back to readers in a form that makes the plays more exciting by showing them legal themes that they haven’t seen before; but also inviting us in to have conversations about what justice is in our society.

Recorded on: 11/11/07