Shakespeare’s CORIOLANUS is based in part on Plutarch’s LIVES.  Critic Frank Kermode called the play “the most fiercely and ingeniously planned and expressed of all the tragedies.” Performances were banned in France in the 1930’s for creating “an unwholesome fervor among Fascist elements.”


Shakespeare Theater

            Mock Trial 2013

   Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer at the Shakespeare Theatre (Washington DC). Each year the theater hosts a mock trial based on one of their season’s plays. On May 13, 2013, the case dramatized a libel suit ingeniously derived from CORIOLANUS, it’s current production.

  Attorney Abbe Lowell (Chadbourne & Park) serves as the Mock Trial

host, in his position as Chair of The Bard Association.

  Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presides over the case heard by “The College of Tribunes.”

  Attorney for Petitioner, Seth Waxman (Wilmer Hale), argues on behalf of Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother.  He claims the magistrate erred in law by concluding that The Herald (a Roman newspaper) enjoyed press freedom despite political and financial connections to the Tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius.  Their accusation of Coriolanus’ attempt at tyranny in fact constituted a slanderous conspiracy to destroy Coriolanus’s reputation for their own financial gain.

  Judge David Tatel (U.S. Court of Appeals for The District of Columbia). He hears Waxman allege that The Herald published false and defamatory assertions about Coriolanus, thus costing him a remunerative career as a lobbyist. It is for this injury plaintiffs sue to receive monetary damages.

  Waxman argues that the Roman Republic (unlike most U.S. states today) permits legal action for defamation of deceased persons. Tribunes Brutus and Sicinius were accused by Volumnia of slandering her dead husband for personal gain, but settled out of court. The Herald newspaper contested her lawsuit and hired Waxman.

  Lisa Blatt (Arnold & Porter) argues for The Herald (Respondent). She claims the paper’s story about Coriolanus’ tyranny was “substantially true.” As evidence, she cites Coriolanus’ temporary alliance with Rome’s mortal enemy, Aufidius.

   Breyer questions Blatt’s assertion that Coriolanus forfeited claims to damages when he accepted his banishment and made military alliance with the dreaded Volscians.

  Lisa Blatt counters that libel damages can not arise from The Herald’s reporting because they were statements of opinion. She further alleges that Coriolanus’s reputation was already compromised, and that he had as many enemies as supporters.

   Ginsburg questions whether the estate of Coriolanus could sue for libel damages, even if actual malice was proven, since he was a prominent public figure with as many detractors as loyal followers.

   Judge Merrick Garland (U.S. Court of Appeals) cites a video of Coriolanus, in which he allegedly said “47 percent of the people would vote against him for consul because all they wanted was free corn.” Seth Waxman (in his rebuttal) affected confusion at the word ‘video.’ “We are in an era of papyrus.” This deft remark, like many throughout the evening, brought down the house with laughter.

  Abbe Lowell thanks the capacity crowd at Sidney Harmon Hall for it’s learned and high-spirited appreciation.

   Abbe Lowell weighs the voting chips collected from an audience of Washington’s elite legal establishment.


  PAMELA TALKIN,  (Marshall of the United States Supreme Court) announces all rise as judges return to the stage for pronouncing their decision.

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   Actor Patrick Page (star of CORIOLANUS) is interviewed by host Abbe Lowell. This coda to the evening was superbly effective in shaping the event and returning it’s audience to Shakespearean analysis.

  Justice Ginsburg reads the majority opinion of the College of Tribunes. They hold for Respondent, The Herald. “We have to begin at the beginning. And at the beginning is Lady Volumnia, who is responsible for all of this.” Ginsburg reasons that Coriolanus’s mother may have caused her son’s murder (by pleading with him to betray an alliance with the Volscians against his native Rome). Therefore “Volumnia is legally barred from profiting from his death. Thus, she had no right to sue the Tribune on behalf of her son Coriolanus.

   Judge Douglas Ginsburg (U.S Court of Appeals) considers if the lower magistrate abused his discretion by ruling Coriolanus received no damages from The Herald. If he did, what would be the appropriate measure for calculating those damages?

   Justice Breyer was in high spirits, though released from the hospital only days earlier following surgery for a serious shoulder injury. In theatrical terms, he proved a genuine trooper.

  Waxman and co-counsel, Nicole Ries-Fox, hear Blatt allege that Coriolanus waived any  claims for damage to his reputation by betraying Rome in a traitorous alliance with the Volscians.

  Judge Brett Kavanaugh (U.S. Court of Appeals) considers Blatt’s insistence that even if actual malice could be proven, The Herald’s commentary was “political speech,” and therefore received protection under the laws of Rome.

  Critic Peter Marks (The Washington Post) writes of Page’s performance:  “With a voice that rumbles and quakes like an avalanche, Patrick Page unleashes his catalytic energy on ‘Coriolanus,’ the Shakespearean tragedy, that builds ever so incrementally to a roaring finish on the stage of Sidney Harman


   The most memorable line in the play comes when the doomed Coriolanus taunts his conqueror Aufidius:

   “Like an eagle in a dovecote I flutter’d your Volscians in Corioli! Alone it did.  Boy!”

  Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, like all the judges, made joking reference to current political controversies. Apropos of The Herald’s reporting on Coriolanus, Alito remarked whenever he reads a newspaper “it’s impossible to separate facts from fiction.”

  Breyer said the only Latin he could remember from school was “O ubi, o ubi est meus sub ubi.” Which in English, he quipped, sounded to him like “Oh where, oh where is my underwear?”

  Blatt told the judges that “Coriolanus wanted to skewer people with a lance.” But, she said, “The National Lance Association insists that lances don’t kill people, only people kill people.”


Shakespeare Theater

            Mock Trial 2014

   NPR legal affairs correspondent, NINA TOTTENBERG, co-hosts the annual banquet and Mock Trial at Washington’s Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington D.C.

  This year’s trial argues a common law tort action, derived from Shakespeare’s dark drama, Measure for Measure. It takes place in “The Supreme Court of Vienna.”

   This year’s trial is heard by: Federal District Judge David Tatel, Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Ginsburg, federal judges Merrick Garland and Patricia Millett.

   The play explores questions of justice, mercy, and truth with scenes of attempted defilement, extortion, and hypocrisy. A line aptly describing Measure for Measure:

    "Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall."

    KATHLEEN SULLIVAN (Quinn Emanuel, and former Dean of Law at Stanford) argues for Isabella, the petitioner.

     She alleges that the Duke of Vienna negligently abandoned his office, entrusting it to Angelo, a corrupt deputy.

    Isabella urges the Duke be held accountable for Angelo’s abuse of power when he enforced archaic laws (prohibiting visits to prostitutes), against her brother Claudio, and sentenced him to death.                Claudio then attempted to extort sexual favors from Isabella, in exchange for sparing Claudio’s life.

    Further, Isabella alleges that Angelo caused her extreme distress by her false imprisonment, and with utmost cruelty, allowing her to believe her brother had been executed for her sexual refusal.  

   PAM TALKIN, Clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court, listens to Ms. Sullivan allege that the Duke’s marriage proposal to Isabella caused her acute distress by it’s disrespect for the institution of marriage, and for the Church, and for her expressed intention to enter into holy orders.

   JUDGE TATEL considers whether the Courts of Vienna should abstain from adjudication of Isabella’s claims of misconduct because resolving such questions violates the basic principal of separation of powers.

   JUDGES GARLAND and MILLETT question whether the Duke’s claim of qualified immunity bars litigation of Isabella’s claims, because his actions did not transgress established constitutional boundaries.

   ROBERTA KAPLAN ( Weiss, Rivkin) argues for the Duke, who moved to dismiss Isabella’s suit on several grounds. First, that all his actions involved political questions and judicial discretion that cannot be decided by this court.

   The Duke further moves that Isabella’s charge that his marriage proposal caused her distress should be dismissed because it failed to state a claim. Moreover, all his actions in the exercise of his dukedom enjoyed qualified immunity.

   JUSTICE BREYER discusses the Vienna Court of Appeals’ reversal of the District Court, holding the claims are justiciable, and that the Duke should be held accountable if his negligence in appointing the scoundrel Angelo caused harm to Isabella.

   KATHLEEN SULLIVAN hears that the Court of Appeals reversed Vienna’s court, and ruled that Isabella’s claim of emotional distress did not involve allegations of unconstitutional conduct, and could be adjudicated under ordinary tort principals.

   JUDGE MILLETT considers that the Court of Appeals rejected the Duke’s qualified immunity defense, holding that the negligence claim does not assert a constitutional violation, and the Duke could only defend his actions under common law standards of negligence.

KATHLEEN SULLIVAN argues that the political questions doctrine did not counsel abstention in this case, because this is not the usual, where there is need for automatic adherence to political decision already made, and no other Baker factor applies. (See Baker v. Carr 369 U.S. 186, 217, 1962).

   JUDGE TATEL questions Isabella’s contention that the Duke is ineligible for qualified immunity from suit because he acted in a personal and not sovereign capacity. Also, Isabella contends, the rights he violated are established in Austria’s constitution, ie., the rights of religious expression, privacy,  freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and cruel and unusual punishment.

Shakespeare Theater

            Mock Trial 2014

   JUSTICE GINSBURG reads the decision in Isabella v. The Duke.

   Nina Tottenberg and co-host Abbe Lowell discuss media coverage of The Supreme Court.

   Asked for her opinion of cameras prohibited in the High Court, Nina said:  “I’ve actually changed my opinion over time. I can make an easy and good argument for cameras in the courtroom. Many more people would see what goes on, and it has an important and educational function.

    “But the truth is I’ve been in Washington long enough to have seen every institution that lets cameras is worse off for it. Even the White House frickin’ briefing room is worse off for it! For being on camera. You never find out anything. Now it’s just an official sparring session with no real information!”  (Applause).

  “This case involves a religious fanatic, one Isabella, possessed of unnatural devotion to her brother Claudio, who seeks to unsettle the most settled principles of law in our nation. There is no fury greater than a wronged nun with a tort action.”

“ My client would implore  you to recognize, as your  Honors have made clear so many times, that actions undertaken  by the Executive in his official capacity cannot be actionable for civil damages.”

“The Duke is like the NSA here. It’s the only part of the government that really listens to it’s people!”

   “ Judge Tatel: Miss Sullivan, I need to ask you about this ‘faithful execution of the laws.’ I mean, who are you kidding? Even though premarital sex remained a capitol offense in Vienna, when the Duke returned he pardoned Angelo, he pardoned Claudio, he didn’t execute Lucio, and according to the papers, isn’t enforcing immigration laws, or under statutory requirements, Dukecare!”

   “You make this argument in your brief that the Duke can’t be liable because his marriage proposal was ‘speech.‘ But this is conduct isn’t it? In fact, it’s a plain unwelcome sexual advance by an older, powerful man to a young subordinate. It’s a per se violation of the Austrian Civil RIghts acts of 1564!’” 


   Breyer: “It’s not SPEECH, it’s a solicitation. ‘Come with me to the palace.Come with me to the Casbah. Come with me to Shangri-La. The Palace with the chalice has the potion with the poison! The flagon with the dragon has the brew that’s true!’” 

  Sullivan: “Your honor, if that’s not SPEECH, I don’t know what is.”

“What do you mean by ‘mayhem?’ I think the problem here was that the citizens of Vienna had been having a little too much of Justice Breyer’s ‘active liberty.’ And it was time for some strict construction and enforcement of the law.”

   Justice Ginsburg: “Anyone who loves Gilbert & Sullivan knows that the Lord Chancellor is the embodiment of everything that’s excellent. And I myself embody the law.”

  Sullivan:  “It is true that you are infallible because you are final. But you are  not final because you are infallible.”

“Wasn’t the Duke fully aware and knowledgeable of what a contemptible person Angelo was, by the fact that Angelo himself, at least as reported  in the newspapers, was responsible for  shutting down bridges leading into Vienna?”

Final Opinion: “We decided this claim should be dismissed for the simple reason that if every marriage proposal must be made with integrity it would be the end of Hollywood nuptials as we know it, and what would we read in the grocery store check out line?”

   “ I will tell you that four us are in agreement. There is one dissenter who’ll explain why dissents from everything!”

“On the first question, whether Isabella’s claims are inappropriate to be resolved by a court because they involve political questions, our answer is there is no political question, and Chief Justice Garland will explain why.”

“ It’s a long tradition of this court, we’re deciding on a ground not argued by the parties!”

  The ‘Coriolibel’ case was heard by Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Samuel Alito, with four U.S. Appeals Court judges: David Tatel, Merrick Garland, Douglas Ginsburg, and Brett Kavanaugh.

GARLAND’S final opinion: “ When Vienna was part of the Holy Roman Empire there were no political parties. And looking at my Constitutional l Law for Dummies, I’ve discovered if there were no political parties, there can be no political question!”

Mock Trial 2015

  As in years past, the evening was presided over by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was joined on the bench by fellow Supreme Court Justice, Stephen Breyer, with Federal Chief Judge Merrick Garland, Patricia Mallett of the U.S. Court of Appeals,  and U.S. District Judge, Amy Berman Jackson.

   On May 11, 2015,  Shakespeare Theater Company presented The Trial of Don Quixote, inspired by their production of Man of La Mancha.

  The issue argued was whether La Mancha’s Family Court was wrong to rule that Don Quixote is crazy and requires a guardian.

  Further, was his neice Antonia’s petition for guardianship motivated by greed and pursued with fraud? And should that role rightly be awarded to Quixote’s loyal friend, Sancho Panzo?

  Attorney Tom Goldstein (speaking) argued that Quixote was sane and needed no guardian. Carter Phillips for Respondent (seated) argued that Antonia was justified in seeking that post.

Goldstein: “(Quixote) is a dreamer, not a madman... We should all aspire to chivalry and kindness over weakness and greed...  If you are going to impose a guardianship, recognize that in the end it will be the death penalty for the soul.”

  GINSBURG:  “You were appointed to represent Quixote because he is in a coma. And the first thing you do is file a brief titled ‘Retort Courteous.’ Now a retort is a response, not a petition, and the words come form the mouth of a fool. It seems to me this court should seriously consider terminating you appointment for ineffective assistance of counsel.” (Laughter.)

  GOLDSTEIN:  “Your honor, your views on procedure are notorious.”(Laughter.)

  BREYER: “But (Quixote) attacked a barber.

I mean you may not know any barbers. (Laughter.)

I did. I used to know barbers.

  GOLDSTEIN: “The barber himself assumes

willing articipation (in Quixote’s vision) in which

our society can rise above petty individualism.”

  GARLAND: “Isn’t this argument you’re making that he is not insane, but he knows he is not a knight errant, is a direct contrary to what we held in NBC v. BRIAN WILLIAMS? You’ll recall in that case we held if you say to people you were in a battle, but you know that you weren’t, we end up appointing a guardian to hold your chair as a news anchor.” (Laughter.)

GOLDSTEIN: “Et tu, Justice Garland?”

  PHILLIPS: “Thank you Madam Chief Justice. And I have to say I’ve waited a long time to say that and it feels really good. (Applause.)  First, I don’t think there is actually any question that Senor Quixana, Don Quixote, suffers delusions. He is on a quest, he is named Don Quixote ‘destroyer of evil,’ he attacks windmills that he thinks are monsters, he visits castles that are mere inns, and he woos virtuous women who are hmmm, a little less than virtuous.”

  GINSBURG: “We will now hear from Mr. Phillips for the respondent.”

JACKSON: You say that, but at the end of the day, your client had been beaten and robbed, he had destroyed both public and private property, his eyes were hallow and his body was broken, it seems to me that I can’t help but ask the question that the esteemed scholar from the State of Alaska once asked, “How’s that dreamy, hopey thing doin’ for ya?” (Laughter, applause.)

  PHILLIPS: “As Justice Ginsburg again pointed out, Quixote attacks a defenseless windmill. And again, we have before this court a brief from the Society for the Protection of Windmills of La Mancha, which decries the attack and then helpfully focuses the Court’s attention on the private and public costs to La Mancha’s only thriving industry which is windmills.”  (Laughter.)

   GINSBURG: Mr. Phillips, but whatever you may argue, how can we think of appointing Antonia, the niece, has said that everything was to be for her fiancé, everything her Uncle’s house his lands and that was not just a matter of her intent. She is going to marry and when she marries, she will lose the right to manage her own property, to make contracts, to sue and be sued (Applause.). How can we possibly consider her -

  PHILLIPS: Justice Ginsburg, you seem to be stuck in a 18th century America [audience laughs]. 17th century Spain was significantly more liberal in its approach. And at the end of the day, the important point to make with respect to Antonia, when Quixana finally declares what he wants in his will, just before he has his last collapse, who does he propose who he gives the bulk of his estate to? It is to her. And that reflects the core kinship, the family tie, that this Court’s law has for centuries recognized, creates a very strong presumption in favor of creating the guardianship in favor of bloodlines.

  MILLETT: “Now hang on a minute, doesn’t your client Antonia Nicole Smith have a long  history of professing her love and devotion to elderly gentlemen just to get her hands on their money? (Laughter.)

  PHILLIPS:  “Well, mistakes of youth? (Laughter.) I can’t explain all of the physical attractions that may arise under certain circumstances. But clearly this is not a romantic effort notwithstanding my good friend’s reference to “getting him in bed.”

   JACKSON: “Do you agree that Quixote was not on death’s door? That he was happily running around the countryside, fighting battles, having adventures in his lady’s name, and it was only after he was cured that he became bed ridden and unresponsive? The record reflects that doesn’t it?”

  PHILLIPS: “Well, the record reflects that, but what the…two things I would say about that Justice Jackson…”

  JACKSON: “That sounds good.”

  PHILLIPS: “ I’m trying to get every vote I can here.” (Laughter.).

  JACKSON: “Are you saying, is it your position, Mr. Phillips, that he should be forever relegated to dreaming the possible dream? To fighting the beatable foe? How would anyone ever talk the board of the Shakespeare Theatre into performing that?” (Laughter.)

  PHILLIPS: “I’ll stipulate on the last comment, actually. I have little doubt that that would not make it to the stage. On the other hand -

  JACKSON: “ Does that mean the army should encourage all La Manchans to be half of what they can be?”

  PHILLIPS: “No, but that does mean they should -

  JACKSON: “ That the marines should fight to keep their honor sort-of clean?” (Laughter.)

  PHILLIPS: “There’s another one coming…”

  JACKSON: “That’s it!”

  PHILLIPS: “Let me know when I’m allowed in here, you’re on a roll!”

  BREYER: “No, I don’t think that is the real problem [audience laughs]. It seems to me that I am concerned about what you were saying about windmills. I mean, what is it that we do to believe that windmills are not monsters? Have you ever stood in Cape Cod and looked South?  (Laughter.)

  PHILLIPS:  “But there it’s not the windmill that bothers me, it’s the wind.” (Laughter).

  BREYER: “I would just like to point out that just this very evening, absolutely accurate, I learned at dinner from a lawyer who worked for the Department of Energy that they have recently done a study that shows that windmills killed alone 600,000 bats. 600,000 bats flew into the windmills and popped, they popped!”

  PHILLIPS: “I have to tell you, given my own reaction to bats, I would actually tell you that’s a positive.” (Laughter.)

  BREYER: “Bats! Bats eat mosquitos, mosquitos…well, you see the point.”

I mean, let’s just take this law school hypothetical: imagine instead of the Padre in the story there is another Padre and he says, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave holders will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” now are you saying that we should in that case, follow Antonia’s suggestion to throw him in jail, lock him up, and throw away the key?”

  PHILLIPS:  “Obviously not.”

  GARLAND:  “Same as the Birmingham jail for example.”  (Applause.)

  PHILLIPS: “Obviously not, Justice Garland. And the key to that is that his dream was followed by a consistent theme of nonviolence. Unfortunately for Don Quixote, his dream was implemented by whatever measures that he found appropriate at the time. In some instances that worked out fine, in some instances that lead to violence and destruction of property. Under those circumstances, it seems to me you have to conclude that he is in fact delusional and therefore in need of protection.”

  GARLAND:  “And what can’t Panza take care of him? What’s the problem in that?”

  PHILLIPS: “To ask that question is almost the answer to it....

Let me conclude by saying that I believe Don Quixote is a wonderful dreamer, who unfortunately has gone too far and needs protection and the court below provided that attention and therefore this court should affirm. Thank you. ”

GARLAND: “Well surely you’re not saying that dreaming an impossible dream itself makes you crazy?

“The question before this Court here today is totally in keeping with the Duke’s sadistic and duplicitous nature. Can he be judged in a court of law and of course it can/”

“The question before this Court here today is totally in keeping with the Duke’s sadistic and duplicitous nature. Can he be judged in a court of law and of course it can.”

“On the intentional infliction of distress claim, I want to point out again that it’s not just what the Duke did, it’s not just that he propositioned her, it’s not just the fact he asked her to marry him. It’s HOW he did it. The fact that he told her her brother had died, to try to weaken her emotions, so that she would accept is - dare I say it? - the classic Shakespearean example of intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

© 2015 All rights reserved.

  As the judges retire to deliberate, host Abbe Lowell (right) introduces Robert Aubrey Davis as guest presenter.

Robert Aubrey Davis treats the audience to a rapid-fire 12 minute monologue about the history of the European Inquisition, 1280-1875.

“With such excellent advocates, it was hard to make a choice. But in the end, we thought how lovely life would be if everyone could weave a dream to keep them from despair and next we considered if the world were populated by people who see it as it is, and not as how it should be, how could civilization progress? And for that reason, we think that Alonso Quixana, Don Quixote, needs no guardian.” (Applause.)

The Judges return to render their verdict, read by Chief Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Mock Trials from previous years continue below.

Shakespeare Theater Company