3. Shakespeare and civil rights

The second part (consisting of four readings) of the evening in Middle Temple Hall on 16th November 2015 devoted to “Shakespeare and the law”


Commentary by Professor Lorenzo Zucca


Shakespeare was not a lawyer, but his contact with the legal world is beyond dispute.

It is not clear whether Shakespeare admired lawyers.  What is clear is that most lawyers admire Shakespeare for his rhetorical prowess.  Amongst the many lawyers who have quoted Shakespeare, there is one we singled out for his courage in tackling injustice: Nelson Mandela.

The excerpts that will be read contain Mandela’s favourite passage from Julius Caesar, which will be read by Juliet Stevenson.

How do we know that?  Mandela singled out the passage in the so-called ‘Bible of Robben Island.’ The bible is nothing else than the Complete Work of Shakespeare and was smuggled in the prison by an inmate –Sonny V– who fooled   the   guards   by   claiming   that   that   was   ‘His   Bible’ by William Shakespeare. The God fearing wardens could not understand Shakespeare’s English, and let him keep the book.

Before leaving Robben Island, Sonny V asked 32 prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, to single out their favourite passage. Mandela chose the voice of Julius Caesar.

We are in Rome, 44BC.  Caesar is about to die, killed by one of his closest friends – perhaps even his illegitimate son: Brutus.  But Caesar is not a coward: when requested by his wife, Calpurnia, not to go to the Senate, he dismisses her request:

He is not afraid of death! Only cowards are. The valiant man dies when he has to die.

Mandela probably found comfort and strength from Shakespeare’s Caesar: a motivation to keep on fighting and refrain from fear.


 Julius Caesar (2.2.32-7, 44-8)

[Juliet Stevenson]

CAESAR: Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear,

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come […]


Danger knows full well

That Caesar is more dangerous than he.

We are two lions littered in one day,

And I the elder and more terrible;

And Caesar shall go forth.



In Shakespeare’s Rome, the world is divided between the valiant & the coward. In that world, there is no need of legal oaths to seal one’s promise. This is the gist of Brutus’s speech, which is the second text you will hear. It will be read by Sheila Hancock.

Romans are valiant: their promises are supported by virtuous motives, and do not need to be supported by legal agreements!   Brutus seems to be weary of lawyers – he does not want to sign an oath; his promise will have to do.  Also, he does not want to include Cicero– the greatest of all Roman lawyers– in the plot.

Shakespeare probably disagrees: Cicero’s “silver hairs will purchase us good opinion” and wisdom.   Something lacking from young revolutionaries, such as Cassius and Brutus. Shakespeare has a huge admiration of Cicero, and in particular of his Roman rhetorical art. His plays are shaped and inspired by it.   So here’s a deep connection between Shakespeare and the Law: the ability to persuade with words. The ability to sway emotions in the right direction, and pursuant to the rule of law.



Julius Caesar (2.1.115-39, 162-83)

[Sheila Hancock]


BRUTUS: If these be motives weak, break off betimes,

And every man hence to his idle bed.

So let high-sighted tyranny range on,

Till each man drop by lottery. But if these,

As I am sure they do, bear fire enough

To kindle cowards and to steel with valor

The melting spirits of women, then, countrymen,

What need we any spur but our own cause,

To prick us to redress? What other bond

Than secret Romans that have spoke the word,

And will not palter? And what other oath

Than honesty to honesty engaged,

That this shall be, or we will fall for it?

Swear priests and cowards and men cautelous,

Old feeble carrions, and such suffering souls

That welcome wrongs. Unto bad causes swear

Such creatures as men doubt, but do not stain

The even virtue of our enterprise,

Nor th’insuppressive mettle of our spirits,

To think that or our cause or our performance

Did need an oath, when every drop of blood

That every Roman bears, and nobly bears,

Is guilty of a several bastardy

If he do break the smallest particle

Of any promise that hath passed from him […]


Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,

To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,

Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;

For Antony is but a limb of Caesar.

Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.

We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,


And in the spirit of men there is no blood.

Oh, that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit,

And not dismember Caesar! But, alas,

Caesar must bleed for it. And, gentle friends,

Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;

Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods,

Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.

And let our hearts, as subtle masters do,

Stir up their servants to an act of rage,

And after seem to chide ’em. This shall make

Our purpose necessary and not envious,

Which so appearing to the common eyes,

We shall be called purgers, not murderers.

And for Mark Antony, think not of him;

For he can do no more than Caesar’s arm

When Caesar’s head is off.


You will hear two excerpts from Richard II.   There is a great contrast with Julius Caesar. Caesar is a proud, valiant man. But his greatness has become too much for the Republic: he has accumulated too much power.


In the third text [read by Sam West], on the contrary, Richard is a depressed King, who cries very often.   He refers to his crown as ‘The hollow Crown.’   Richard has too little power and he knows it.  Richard highlights the split between Richard the Man, and Richard the King. The former is a mortal body; the latter is the expression of national sovereignty.

Richard’s tragedy lies in its psychological debacle. A split personality that cannot be reconciled with being a king. Fearing the end, Richard indulges in the tragic stories of the death of Kings, and ridicules the pomp of many monarchs.


 Richard II (3.2.140-72)

[Sam West]


RICHARD: No matter where. Of comfort no man speak:

Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs,

Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes

Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.

Let’s choose executors and talk of wills—

And yet not so, for what can we bequeath

Save our deposèd bodies to the ground?

Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,

And nothing can we call our own but death

And that small model of the barren earth

Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.

For heaven’s sake, let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings:

How some have been deposed, some slain in war,

Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,

Some poison’d by their wives, some sleeping killed—

All murdered. For within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,

Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,

Allowing him a breath, a little scene

To monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks,

Infusing him with self and vain conceit,

As if this flesh which walls about our life,

Were brass impregnable; and humored thus,

Comes at the last and with a little pin

Bores through his castle walls – and farewell, king.

Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood

With solemn reverence. Throw away respect,

Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty,

For you have but mistook me all this while.

I live with bread like you, feel want,

Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,

How can you say to me I am a king?



The fourth text from Richard II is equally famous. This will be read by Sheila Hancock. The speaker is John of Gaunt – the father of Henry Bolingbroke, and a wise statesman.

John bemoans the fact that Richard never listened to him, but hopes that now that he is about to die, Richard will listen.

What John has to say is a deep criticism of Richard’s financial mismanagement of the country (due to his uncontrolled thirst for luxury goods- mainly from Italy).   Richard brought England – formerly a great power—to its knees.   Once England was proud and triumphant. Its rocky shores would frighten the enemies. But now, England has been leased out – it has huge financial debts and Richard had to sign legal bonds with lenders to relieve the country from its debts.

The King has given up too much power, and has tied its destiny through legal bonds that weakens the kingdom. Richard failed England and undermined its valour from within.


Richard II (2.1.5-16, 31-68):

[Sheila Hancock]


GAUNT: Oh, but they say the tongues of dying men

Enforce attention like deep harmony.

Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,

For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.

He that no more must say is listened more

Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose.

More are men’s ends marked than their lives before.

The setting sun, and music at the close,

As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,

Writ in remembrance more than things long past.

Though Richard my life’s counsel would not hear,

My death’s sad tale may yet undeaf his ear […]


Methinks I am a prophet new inspired

And thus expiring do foretell of him:

His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,

For violent fires soon burn out themselves;

Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;

He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;

With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder.

Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,

Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall

Or as a moat defensive to a house

Against the envy of less happier lands—

This blessèd plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,

Feared by their breed and famous for their birth,

Renownèd for their deeds as far from home—

For Christian service and true chivalry—

As is the sepulcher in stubborn Jewry

Of the world’s ransom, blessèd Mary’s son;

This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,

Dear for her reputation through the world,

Is now leased out – I die pronouncing it –

Like to a tenement or pelting farm.

England, bound in with the triumphant sea

Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege

Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,

With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.

That England, that was wont to conquer others,

Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,

How happy then were my ensuing death!



The contrast between Richard and Caesar is huge. The two men could not be more different.  One has given up power; the other has accumulated too much.  Both, however, should have listened more closely to wise counsel. In particular, that of wise old lawyers like Cicero or old statesmen like John of Gaunt.   The responsibility of lawyers throughout the world is precisely that: to advise power wisely and to keep it accountable.





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