A review of A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice, by Kenji Yoshino, Ecco, 2011.
Kenji Yoshino’s A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice begins with a curious assertion: “I do not have a definition of justice. I am drawn to literature rather than to philosophy because I would rather deal with the messy, fine-grained gloriously idiosyncratic lives of human beings than with vaulting abstractions.”
The distinction between the concreteness of literature and the “vaulting” abstractions of philosophy is common enough. The most well-known is Sir Philip Sidney’s. In his Defense of Poesy, he distinguishes between philosophy, which defines virtue in the abstract, and poetry, which provides concrete images of virtue. Poetry is a “speaking picture.” It is virtue “figured” in the concrete. In other words, poetry provides a more accessible portrait of abstract virtues.
But this is not the distinction Yoshino, a law professor at NYU and a gay rights activist, has in mind. For him, literature provides a “messier,” more contradictory portrait of abstract virtues, not a more accessible one. Whether he believes it or not, Yoshino suggests here that philosophy misses something when it defines things in the abstract. It is incapable of providing an accurate portrait of virtues such as justice because it always excludes the messier, contradictory elements of the term in its effort provide a “coherent” definition.
There is an element of truth in this critique of the limitation of philosophy, but it is so often misunderstood or abused that whatever might be gained from it is almost immediately lost. Such is the case here. While it is true enough that philosophy has failed to provide us with a complete and coherent definition of all that is, this does not mean that we can make no truth statements about what is or formulate no definitional absolutes. In the end, Yoshino’s refusal to define justice in the abstract and look rather at discrete images of justice in Shakespeare’s plays does not provide a more nuanced understanding of the virtue. Quite the opposite, it allows Yoshino to play fast and loose with the term in order to co-op his politicized readings of Shakespeare’s plays under the 21st century’s most fashionable and prestigious term. And so Titus Andronicus reminds us of the folly of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, motivated as they were, according to Yoshino, by simple blood lust; Measure for Measure reminds us that excellent judges are those who, like Sonya Sotomayor, are able to make judgments based on empathy as well as precedent; and Macbeth somehow shows us the danger of believing that we live in a “purposeful universe.”
Yoshino’s readings can also be downright bizarre. Take his understanding of King Lear for instance. The play, Yoshino argues, shows us “how madness permits a more profound apprehension not only of justice, but of its limits.” Yoshino continues: “Ironically, while this madness is inimical to law, it may be necessary to justice. Only by surrendering his relationship to reality is Lear able to see a perfectly distilled form of justice.”
How does Yoshino arrive at this nugget of moral wisdom? Well, it begins with reading Lear’s abdication as a good and lawful thing. You may remember that Lear, tired of ruling, proposes “To shake all cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths while we / Unburthen’d crawl toward death.” He divides his kingdom in three and proposes to give the largest plot to the daughter who loves him most. The elder two daughters flatter Lear, but Cordelia, the third, who is Lear’s favorite, refuses, claiming rightly that Lear’s elder daughters are not being honest. Lear becomes enraged and marries her off with no dowry to the King of France. Lear divides his kingdom between his two elder daughters. They conspire against him (and one another), but Cordelia returns secretly with French troops to restore order. She is motivated not by “blown ambition,” she notes, but “love, dear love, and our ag’d father’s right.” While she succeeds in thwarting her sisters, she and Lear die. (Other, older versions of the story have Lear being restored to power and Cordelia ruling after his death.) The entire thrust of the play is that when people lose sight of their proper role in society and try either to shirk their God-given responsibilities (Lear) or usurp God’s hierarchy (Goneril, Regan and Edmund), chaos ensues. This theme is what ties the Lear narrative and the Gloucester narrative, which previously existed separately, together in Shakespeare’s play.
Yet Yoshino prefers to read the play in his own idiosyncratic way. Lear’s abdication, Yoshino argues, is motivated by his concern for his kingdom. He understands that “he is—or will soon become—unfit to rule his country,” and in proposing the “love test,” Lear “is trying to extricate himself from a difficult legal predicament while preserving the rule of law.” This fails and as Lear goes mad, he sees, Yoshino writes, a “more perfect” form of justice, though what that might be is distinctly unclear. At first, Yoshino writes, it is Lear’s vision of the judgment of “the great gods,” but this, Yoshino later states, is merely a fantasy. So what is this more perfect form of justice? Who knows? Instead, Yoshino offers a number of ponderous statements with the word justice in them. “Lear can return from heath to house, but not from justice to law,” Yoshino writes. Or: “I believe Cordelia must die in this play to help us understand the unavoidable injustice of death.” No doubt Shakespeare’s plays have been put to use in innumerable arguments, but Yoshino has managed to distinguish himself by the very implausibility of his readings.
The lack of any sort of definition of justice also haunts Yoshino’s reading of Hamlet. The perennial question of the play is why does Hamlet delay revenging his father’s “most foul” murder? Yoshino rightly reminds us that Hamlet passes up the opportunity to kill Claudius after “The Mousetrap” has been performed and Claudius appears to be confessing his sins. The reason, Hamlet tells us, is that if he were to kill Claudius now his uncle would go straight to heaven. His father, however, was killed in his sleep without his last confession, and, therefore, must wander the plains of Denmark. What sort of justice is this, Hamlet asks, and Yoshino agrees with him. Hamlet sheaths his sword, and Yoshino interprets his delay as a noble, though impractical, pursuit of “perfect” justice. Yoshino writes: “What we see in Hamlet is not just a commitment to moral perfectionism, but also the bottomless cost of that commitment.” For Yoshino, the moral is something like: Don’t be such a perfectionist. You might hurt other people.
But, of course, Hamlet’s desire for what Yoshino calls “perfect” but also “poetic” justice and “perfect revenge” (as if these all somehow mean the same thing) is not noble at all. In fact, like Creon in Antigone who refuses to bury Polyneices, Hamlet presumes to act in the place of God, taking not only the life of Claudius, but damning his soul as well. In the end, Hamlet’s waiting is motivated more by unseemly revenge, not justice, which, in turn, leads to a slew of other deaths.
Shakespeare can teach us something about justice. What we have instead in A Thousand Times More Fair is Yoshino himself, center-stage.