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To be sane or not to be sane? For Hamlet, a question still unanswered

February 1, 2011 |  1:30 pm
Melancholydane A Southern California jury decided on Monday that Hamlet, prince of Denmark, was mentally sound at the time he allegedly stabbed royal adviser Polonius to death, and can be tried for murder.

Never mind that the (fictional) crime happened something like 400 years ago. And that most of the evidence was drawn from the poetic words of William Shakespeare.

Even in Shakespeare, it appears, there is no statute of limitations on murder.

The mock court took place more than an ocean and several generations away from Hamlet's home: the University of Southern California campus, where the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles held the trial in a strange anachronism of centuries-old literature meeting the modern American legal system, and the event ended up hanging somewhere in the ether between the two.

The defendant (played by Graham Hamilton) looked spry and young for someone in his fourth century of life. The bailiff wore the tunic of an old-world guard, and the acronym of the DSM4 — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the directory of mental ailments used by psychologists — was renamed the Danish Statistical Manual.

Hamlet was prosecuted by attorneys from Los Angeles, acting on behalf of the crown; he was defended by lawyers from Beverly Hills.

Justicekennedy Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy swapped his perch on the highest court in the land for a folding table draped in a black cloth. Clearly a Shakespeare enthusiast, he presided over the trial with a discerning eye, his hands folded in front of him and a halo of stage light ringing his head.

The jury was a collection of 12 (plus two alternates) that ranged from high school and college students to Academy Award-winning actress Helen Hunt.

Before them was a simple question that had long proved difficult to answer: What was the mental state of Hamlet in the time leading up the killing of Polonius? Or, as his defense attorney, Blair Berk, phrased it in her opening statements: “Is Hamlet to be sane or not to be sane at the time in question? That is the question.”

Berk contended he was not: Hamlet was struck by grief, after the death of his father, King Hamlet, while he was away at university. He became even more distraught when his mother, Gertrude, married her late husband’s brother, Claudius, soon after his death. It was said that the union came so swiftly that the meats from the funeral were still good for the wedding celebration. (On top of all that, Hamlet was bitten by a serpent too.)

The defense argued that Hamlet suffered from a "major depressive episode," or melancholia. He was, Berk said, a “still brilliant but decompensated man.”

The fatal stab to Polonuis was a "stroke of impulse,” she said. “Hamlet had tragically succumbed to a disease of the mind when he allegedly committed this crime.”

The prosecution agreed that Hamlet was, indeed, a brilliant man — that’s exactly why he’s claiming to be insane now. It was the method by which he tried to manipulated his way into the throne he thought was rightfully his, countered Danette Meyers, a prosecuting attorney (by day, she’s a veteran of the L.A. county district attorney’s office).

“He was not insane, he was grieving,” she said. “He was cunning, he was cold, he was calculating.” What he wanted, she added, was revenge.

Much of the debate concerned the symptoms of such a melancholia — loss of mirth, change in weight and so forth — and whether he appeared to have them. Also, the ghost of his father, of course, had a great deal of bearing: What meaning, if any, can be divined from a spirit seeming to pop up everywhere, according to Shakespeare’s documentation, yet only offer commands to his son?

All big hurdles for a jury to cross as they pondered his mental state. After the jury received its instructions and left to deliberate, a projector flickered on and a screen descended from above, providing a fourth wall, if you will, into a typically sequestered process.

The jurors batted around the question in a thoughtful and passionate conversation that never quite became contentious. One woman had a spacey look in her eyes. Another juror seemed to roll his eyes when someone made a comment that he must have thought was foolish.

A woman at the other end of the table cautioned not to hold the DSM4, a clinical manual cobbled together by psychologists, as some sort of sacrosanct text. And, she added: “Just because he’s pretending to be insane doesn’t mean he’s not insane.”

Hunt questioned the motives of Shakespeare. She wondered how many liberties Shakespeare took as a playwright in covering the events that purportedly transpired, as well as Hamlet’s mental state through it all. (As she spoke, she squinted her eyes, seeming to look through her fellow jurors, as if she wasn’t joining a discussion but having a soliloquy like ones that attorneys on both sides quoted so generously to make their case.)

Before the deliberations had wrapped, the screen coiled back into the ceiling, leaving a cliffhanger.

Because of the compacted nature of the evening, the jurors did not have to come to a unanimous decision. And they didn’t: 10 believed Hamlet to be sane, thus able to be held criminally culpable; two did not. Thirty-three minutes of deliberation, it appears, wasn’t enough time to answer a question of justice that has lingered for more than 400 years.
-- Rick Rojas
Top: Hamlet (Graham Hamilton), right, sits quietly as his attorneys Blair Berk and Richard G. Hirsch, have a discussion during "The Trial of Hamlet" at USC's Bovard Auditorium. Bottom, the judge presiding over Hamlet's trial was Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who entered the courtroom as announced by crier J.B. Waterman, right. Credit: Christina House / For The Times