For Hamlet, to be or not to be guilty — that is the question

One of the intriguing features of the 2019 Chicago Humanities Festival, for me at least, was “Please, Continue (Hamlet)”—an interactive play with twelve jurors selected randomly from the audience to sit in judgment of a defendant named Hamlet, who stands accused of murdering his girlfriend Ophelia’s father, Polonius.

The unscripted play, conceived by playwrights Yan Duyvendak and Roger Bernat, was presented three times at the Museum of Contemporary Art during this year’s festival. Actors play Hamlet, Ophelia, and Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, but real judges and lawyers try the case. In the rendition I saw, the judge was Arthur F. Hill, Jr., of the Criminal Division of the Cook County Circuit Court; the prosecutor was assistant U.S. Attorney Anne Kastanek; defense counsel were Nigel F. Telman and Marc R. Kadish.

Hamlet admittedly stabbed Polonius to death. The issue is whether the stabbing was intentional, as Ophelia claims, or accidental, as the defendant and his mother claim. Hamlet testifies that he was trying to stab what he assumed was a rat when he stabbed Polonius, who was standing behind a curtain in Gertrude’s bedroom during a party.

Ophelia testifies that Hamlet saw Polonius enter the bedroom.  Hamlet denies that, testifying that his view was obstructed by a wall as he conversed with two of the party guests named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The jury is left to wonder why “R and G,” as Hamlet calls them, are not called to testify—but their absence is peripheral to the enduring lesson of the play.

“Please, Continue (Hamlet)” has been staged 173 times in 15 countries. The verdicts following six of the presentations were inconclusive, but 87 of the mock trials (just over 50 percent) ended in acquittals, and 80 (just over 46 percent) in convictions.

What we have here is the adjudicatory equivalence of duplicate bridge.

The evidence, at least potentially, is the same in each presentation. The variables are the lawyers, the judge, and, of course, the jury.

Regardless of whether Hamlet is guilty or innocent, the bottom line is that the mock juries got it wrong roughly half of the time.

Yet, in real life, our society entrusts life-and-death decisions to juries.


Rob Warden is co-director of Injustice Watch.