Berkeley Law dean, Stanford professor to argue case of Shakespeare’s friar

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Eran Kohen Behar/Staff
UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and Stanford Law School professor Bernadette Meyler will decide whether the Romeo and Juliet friar is guilty of criminal charges at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley.

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With his messenger quarantined in Verona to contain the spread of the plague, Friar Laurence failed to notify Romeo that Juliet was in fact alive and that she was under the influence of a potion. Seeing Juliet unconscious, Romeo took his own life.

The ill-fated guidance of Friar Laurence, mentor and confidant to the show’s two young lovers, weighs heavily over the famous final act of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Whether Friar Laurence is guilty of criminal charges will be litigated March 5 at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, where UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and Stanford Law School professor Bernadette Meyler will argue the case before retired U.S. District Court judge Andrew Guilford. The show, “Romeo, Juliet and the Case of Friar Laurence,” will be acted and directed by members of UC Irvine’s New Swan Shakespeare company and produced by Berkeley Law.

“(His) directions misfire and young people die,” said Julia Lupton, co-director of the show and professor of English at UC Irvine. “The question is — is the friar culpable?”

The friar provides spiritual guidance and serves as a mentor, Lupton said. Actors playing Friar Laurence must explore their own feelings about his role in the deaths of Juliet and Romeo.

Eli Simon, co-director of the show and professor of drama at UC Irvine, said he has always been fascinated by the relationship between Friar Laurence and the young lovers.

“I’ve always thought his solution is just really suspect,” Simon said. “It makes for a great plot, but he’s the adult in the situation, and they’re turning to him in distress.”

The New Swan Shakespeare company has presented similar shows recently, including a trial of Hamlet, Marcus Brutus from “Julius Caesar” and Shylock from “The Merchant of Venice.”

Meyler served as counsel opposite Chemerinksy in the trial of Brutus last year. It has not yet been decided who will advocate on the friar’s behalf and what charges will be filed.

“We’re trying him under contemporary legal standards,” Meyler said. “One interesting phenomenon is that there was nothing like manslaughter in historical common law context. It was either murder or not murder, and pardon power was often used to mitigate charges.”

Meyler teaches British and American common law and is the author of a recent book about 17th-century drama and political theory. She also has a doctorate in English literature from UC Irvine, where she studied under Lupton.

Chemerinsky, formerly the dean of UC Irvine School of Law, has served as counsel in the previous three trials.

“He is a very complex character: kind-hearted, but also very scheming and political,” Chemerinsky said of the friar in an email.

To prepare for the trial, Chemerinsky will read everything relevant to the friar’s role in the play that he can find.

Meyler, too, expects to prepare extensively, noting last year’s show required research into not only the evidence appearing in the play but also the historical and political context.

Meyler said she came to these Shakespeare trials as a skeptic but found that last year’s show raised interesting questions.

“Staging the trial of the character in a play foregrounds a lot of issues that were relevant in Shakespeare’s time and even more relevant today,” Meyler said. “It brings us a little bit closer to the questions and values that underlie his drama.”

Contact Alexander Wohl at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @dc_arwohl.