Shakespeare Is Everywhere: The Pam Smart Edition

Even when I ought to be going to bed, I just can’t escape the lure of Shakespeare…

…and apparently, neither can the folks who created Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, a new HBO documentary that examines how media intrusion may have interfered with justice in one of the first trials in history that became a gavel-to-gavel reality TV spectacle. Here are two mega-humdinger passages where Shakespeare pops up, one from the film itself:

“At its highest level, you have competing Shakespeares portraying characters in stories that may or may not be true. And of course, justice might miscarry if we wanted the defendant to be something maybe different from what she is.”

–Richard Sherwin, Professor of Law, New York Law School, speaking about testimony in the Smart case

and one in the intro to a Salon interview with Jeremiah Zagar, director of Captivated:

Zagar…told Salon that he hadn’t been interested in crime stories before getting hired to make the film–and that he sees the story as about more than guilt or innocence. “I’m interested in the trial as a narrative device, as a way of telling a story,” he said, “And the story that was most convincing was that [Smart] was a Lady Macbeth.”

To me, the greatest of ironies in both of these quotes is that, whether or not you think that Smart paid her then-teenaged lover and his friends to kill her husband, the speakers use Shakespeare as a shorthand for “virtuoso performance”–even though the reality of Shakespeare doesn’t sync up with the meaning they’re attaching to performer or text. Sherwin’s “competing Shakespeares” might emphasize how much all the participants in the trial, from the lawyers to the witnesses, were putting on the greatest show of their lives. But “characters in stories that may or may not be true”? Since when is Shakespeare, in text or performance, supposed to represent fact? How about never. Shakespeare wrote plays. His audiences knew that. The fact that Sherwin can so easily see Shakespeares in court proceedings should tell you how completely screwed up the Smart trial was, and maybe how broken the U.S. justice system is in general. Ideally, you would have zero Shakespeares in a courtroom, because Shakespeare never tells the truth, at least not in the sense of unvarnished, unperjured reality. In the sense of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Am I right, America? Shakespeare is entertainment–we can all agree on that, yes? Anyone? Or am I just a sentimental twit?

Yeah, I was afraid of that…

On to quote #2: Pam Smart as Lady Macbeth. I’ll give you that the viewing public probably did want a Lady Macbeth on their TV screens. But it may be wise to point out at the same time that Lady Macbeth did not murder her husband. No, despite being one of the greatest villainesses of literary history, Lady M was not a seductress or a femme fatale in any conventional sense. In the play, she encourages her husband to kill the King of Scotland and take the throne for himself, a rather unfeminine scheme concocted by a woman with a famously “masculine” desire for power. (In fact, Lady Macbeth is so unladylike, she even has a monologue where she begs the gods to “unsex” her–that is, take away her nurturing female qualities–so that she can help her husband kill the king.) Pam Smart, on the other hand, was supposed to be a vixen who used her feminine wiles to lure a pack of innocent teens to commit heinous acts on behalf of her terrifying, insatiable lust. Or something like that.

No, the analogy doesn’t make any sense, but it’s Shakespeare, and if Shakespeare made a really, really bad woman, then she must be the model to fit our murderess, because Shakespeare was the greatest, by gum! And if all of us Shakespeare-obsessed types got a nickel for every time a Shakespeare play was misapplied to some real-life situation, a lot of Ren faire-loving English nerds would be swimming in a crapload of nickels. Because Shakespeare is so heavily ingrained in our culture that whenever a female murderer is in the news, there’s always going to be some talking head out there who gets the brilliant idea to spice up his newscast by waxing philosophical about Lady Macbeth.

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