Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The mistempered weapons of the criminal law

By Jonathan Simon

Verona in 1595: Knife Crime. Gang violence. Stabbings. Social disorder. Celebrity politicians. Disaffected youth. Teenage suicide... and love.

I'm living and working in Edinburgh, Scotland this year and arrived in time to enjoy the annual "Fringe Festival" which presents an international collection of innovative plays and performances, generally by new groups. Yesterday we saw a stunning version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, by the secondary school students of Kidbrooke School in Association with Greenwich Theatre, and directed by Lucy Cuthbertson. This production staged the classic in contemporary urban context (based on South London but familiar to anyone who has been to LA, Oakland, or Chicago as well). The Capulets and Montagues were tracksuit and hoodie wearing gang-bangers, who rode around on a the small "Y" handled trick bikes favored by many urban teens. Their knife wielding ambushes on each other were marked on stage by the accumulation of flowers stuck in the chain linked fence, in the style of informal memorials one often sees in cities in the US and the UK, and in photo montages of the dead, depicting them as young children, or in happier times.

One of the most striking characterizations was that of the Prince, here portrayed as a telegenic suit wearing female celebrity politician (vaguely Sarah Palin). She invariably appeared flanked by police officers at a lectern speaking to a televised press conference. Her speeches, although written by Shakespeare himself, really could have come from modern "governing through crime" politicians. The response to the tit for tat gang murders of Capulets and Montagues is to threaten yet more violence in the name of peace. Constructing the gang warfare as an assault on the "peace of the city," she threatens to take the life of anyone engaged in violence. Later, when Romeo kills Tybalt, who has killed Romeo's cousin Mercutio, the Prince banishes him for life, on pain of death should he return to Verona.

But as everyone knows, these threats to "get tough" with those who engage in gang violence, do not work. The violence, then and now, is largely based on perceptions of honor that loom larger, at least in the eyes of the youthful protagonists, than the abstract threat of punishment at the hands of a powerful state. Having watched their closest friends and cousins struck down in sudden attacks, and expecting to end up in the same way, the participants are unlikely to be deterred by the remote chance of being caught and convicted by an invariably slower state security apparatus. Better to live in honor and enjoy the esteem of their fellows at hard drinking celebrations, like the feast held by the Capulets, at which Romeo in disguise first sees Juliet.

As will be familiar to almost everyone (plot spoiler warning), the peace is only restored to Verona when the Capulets and Montagues unite in the presence of the bodies of Romeo and Juliet, by the common realization that their quest for honor has deprived them of what they loved most, their children. It is in the context of confronting the emotion of real loss that the Prince's admonition to "lay down your mistempered weapons" is finally heard and responded to with action.

The ending seems to question whether we gain anything from political authority at all. But could not the Prince have used her high office to bring the Capulets and Montagues together earlier? Each had already lost much loved family members. Could a restorative justice circle, convened but not dominated by the Prince, have saved Romeo and Juliet? We will never know of course. With great insight about our current politics, the Kidbrooke School production has the Prince's final words broadcast as if at yet another press conference, while police officers in CSI like protective coveralls zip the corpses of the young lovers into black body bags as they smile and joke.

Cross-posted from the blog Governing through Crime.