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Shakespeare Theatre Company

Coriolanus' Libel Case Gets Hearing
Before Justices in Annual Mock Trial

Shakespeare Theatre CompanyThe Shakespeare Theatre Company will host the Supreme Court of Rome as it hears the case of the state of Coriolanus (Appellant) vs. The Latin Herald (Appellee) in the company's annual Mock Trial.

Note: the Supreme Court of Rome includes justices who are currently members of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Called The Pen vs. The Sword, the trial, preceded by a dinner for invited members, will be held Monday, May 13, at Sidney Harman Hall (610 F St. NW).

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will preside, along with Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., and Justice Stephen G. Breyer from the U.S. Supreme Court. Other participants will be Judge Merrick B. Garland, Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, and Judge David S. Tatel. Seth P. Waxman of WimerHale LLP will serve as counsel to the Appellant; Lisa S. Blatt of Arnold & Porter LLP will serve as counsel to the Appellee. Pamela Talkin, Marshal of the United States Supreme Court, will serve as Marshal during the Mock Trial, and Abbe D. Lowell, STC Trustee, will moderate.

Since 1994, the Shakespeare Theatre Company has hosted a Mock Trial based on one of each season's plays. This season's Mock Trial focuses on the characters in William Shakespeare's Coriolanus, which runs in repertory with Friedrich Schiller's Wallenstein from March 28–June 2 in the Company's Sidney Harman Hall. The Trial aims to examine the links between classic works and contemporary legal theory that is both thought-provoking and entertaining. Past Mock Trials have explored whether Malvolio (Twelfth Night) was entitled to damages for wrongful imprisonment; whether Iago (Othello) was guilty of the murders of Desdemona and Othello; whether Hamlet (Hamlet) was insane when he murdered Polonius; and whether Sir John Falstaff (Henry IV) should have been compensated for his services to Prince Hal and reinstated as a member of the royal court.

Trial-only tickets will be available for STC Bard Association members to purchase on Monday, March 11. STC Season Subscribers and Contributor-level patrons can purchase trial-only tickets on Wednesday, March 20. Dinner and trial tickets can be purchased by calling 202-547-3230 ext. 2330 or e-mailing Trial-only tickets for the general public will go on sale Tuesday, March 26. General Public tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at 202-547-1122.

Part of the fun of the Mock Trial is the case scenario and accompanying documents filed with the court. What follows is the "Petition for a veto of magistrate's decision" that forms the case.

Factual Background: This case arises from—and is part of—the great struggle for power in Rome after the overthrow of its kings in 505 B.C. In those early days of the Roman Republic, governmental structures were ill-established, and organs of the developing state competed for political authority. The underlying facts are accurately set forth in William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Coriolanus, as summarized below.

A nobleman descended from a Roman king, General Caius Marcius believed that Roman society had cheapened itself by giving ordinary citizens a voice in governmental affairs. These plebeians, in turn, suspected that Caius Marcius threatened their newly won liberties.

Caius Marcius had repelled an invasion of Rome by, and then destroyed, the Volscian city of Corioli. For his valor, Caius Marcius won the name “Coriolanus.” On his return to Rome, he began campaigning for a seat as one of Rome's two consuls, who ruled the Republic for one-year terms. But consuls shared their authority with Rome's tribunes, who protected the plebeians' interests.

Brutus and Sicinius, then among the tribunes, resisted Coriolanus' selection as consul. They claimed Coriolanus sought “power tyrannical” and the “means to pluck away” the people's power. They called Coriolanus a “traitor to the people” and a “criminal.” The Latin Herald—Rome's version of The News of the World—in which Brutus and Sicinius held substantial equity, published as front-page headline news stories reporting as fact these attacks by Brutus and Sicinius. These attacks and news stories had their intended effect, as all now realize, when the plebeians reversed their earlier approval of Coriolanus. Enraged by his rejection, Coriolanus expressed his contempt for the plebeians. Brutus and Sicinius then demanded his banishment, the plebeians assented, and Coriolanus decamped for a city of Rome's traditional Volscian enemy.

There, Volscian leader Aufidius accepted Coriolanus' offer of military service. Coriolanus then led the Volscian army to attack Rome. Coriolanus' beloved mother, Volumnia, persuaded Coriolanus to break off the attack. When Coriolanus returned to Volscian territory, Aufidius insulted his valor by calling him “a boy of tears.” Incensed, Coriolanus threatened Aufidius, as Aufidius had expected. By prearrangement, Aufidius' conspirators then killed Coriolanus.

Legal and Procedural Background: Forward-thinking as it is, the Roman Republic has rights to freedom of the press and speech similar to those eventually made explicit in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. To protect these rights, the Republic requires a public figure bringing a defamation case to prove that the defendant made its allegedly injurious statement with (what in U.S. law would become known as) “actual malice.” See Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974); New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). Unlike most states in the United States, the Republic allows a right of action for damages for defamation of a deceased person.

Volumnia, as executor of Coriolanus' estate, sued Brutus and Sicinius for slander and the Herald for libel. Before trial, Brutus and Sicinius settled on confidential terms. At trial, the estate argued that the Herald published as fact assertions about Coriolanus which the Herald knew were unsubstantiated or untrue. The estate claimed the newspaper did so to make money by increasing its circulation and to further the political agenda of its owners, who thought that plebeians should have more authority and Roman nobles less. The estate elicited testimony from Brutus and Sicinius, saying they feared that Coriolanus would be an uncompromising and incorruptible consul, unresponsive to the tribunes' wishes. The estate also argued that Brutus and Sicinius envied Coriolanus' wealth, prestige as a military hero (especially after his successful campaign against Corioli), and consequent popularity among the plebeians. The estate claimed that Brutus and Sicinius concocted lies about Coriolanus because they feared erosion of their own power. The estate thus argued that Brutus and Sicinius obviously were unreliable sources for a news story about Coriolanus. The estate further urged that, but for the intentional, conspiratorial, false, and malicious defamation by Brutus, Sicinius, and the Herald, Coriolanus would have had a successful term as consul with ample opportunities thereafter for a highly remunerative career as a lobbyist. The defamation thus caused Coriolanus monetary injury for which the estate should receive damages.

The Herald countered that everything it published concerning Coriolanus was “substantially true” and cited as proof Coriolanus' subsequent alliance with Aufidius. The Herald denied that it knew its allegations were false or that it recklessly disregarded whether or not they were true. Alternatively, the Herald urged that a tort claim could not arise from its articles because they were statements of opinion. Further, it denied that Coriolanus suffered compensable damages from the Herald's articles because his reputation was already mixed: He had as many detractors as supporters. The Herald also argued that Coriolanus waived any claim to damages to his reputation in Rome by embracing banishment and then betraying his homeland in a traitorous alliance with the Volscians. Finally, the Herald argued that it could not be liable because Coriolanus was a public figure and the Herald did not publish its stories with “actual malice.” In addition, the Herald insisted that even if malice could be shown, its commentary was “political speech,” and, thus, constituted the most protected form of communication under the laws of Rome.

The magistrate trying the estate's claims against the Herald rejected them. Lacking a right to appeal under the laws of the Roman Republic, the estate has sought a veto of the magistrate's decision from the College of Tribunes.

Questions Presented:

March 19, 2013

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