By Donna Cornelius
Journal feature writer
Those who have only a nodding acquaintance with Shakespeare might think history’s most well-known playwright had scant respect for lawyers.
And it’s all because of a line that’s often misinterpreted: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” from Henry VI, Part 2.
Birmingham attorney Kim West is happy to set the record straight.
When Dick the Butcher says the line to Jack Cade, West said, “It would usually draw a laugh if it’s taken out of context. But what it means is, if you want to take a society down, you start by getting rid of the people who stand for law and order.”
Shakespeare, in fact, “wrote for lawyers and ate and drank with them,” said West, a Crestline resident and an attorney with Birmingham’s Wallace, Jordan, Ratliff and Brandt law firm. “He was very familiar with many aspects of the law.”
As a member of Cumberland School of Law’s adjunct faculty, West teaches a course called Shakespeare and Trial Advocacy. Her goal is to help her students become more persuasive advocates by studying Shakespearean texts and acting them out in class, she said. And as far as she knows, it’s the only course of its kind for law students and is taught only at Cumberland.
“I use the texts to teach lawyers how to be persuasive by using courtroom scenes in Shakespeare’s plays,” she said. “But I don’t let the students read the texts until we watch the plays, usually on DVDs.”
West has her students watch from seven to eight Shakespearean plays such as “The Merchant of Venice, “Measure for Measure” and “The Winter’s Tale.”
“Students stage the scenes as a trial, using the text of the trial scene,” West said.
The students can modernize the language and change characters’ names—but their reenactments have to follow the scene’s general plot, she said.
“All trials are drama, and there’s storytelling involved,” she said.
Her students, she said, might study a circumstantial case “such as Iago presented about Desdemona (in “Othello”) and see how it builds to a totally false conclusion,” she said.
West said her students usually don’t mind getting into the spirit of the exercises.
“Most law students are real hams,” she said.
West’s students and other guests got to see two of Shakespeare’s plays on the stage last month. The American Shakespeare Center, based in Staunton, Va., brought its touring company to the Samford University campus Feb. 15 and 16 to present “Othello” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
West, who serves on the ASC board, said the performances were staged much as they would have been in Elizabethan England.
“In Shakespeare’s day, the plays were presented by candlelight or daylight,” she said. “For these ASC productions, the lights are on. It creates an intimacy because the actors are closer to the audience. When Othello strangles Desdemona, it was like you were in the bedroom with them. People were weeping.”
West used the performances as teaching tools. On Feb. 15, she and some of the ASC actors taught a special workshop for lawyers that included Continuing Education Unit credits.
The performances also celebrated the 25th anniversaries of West’s law firm and of the ASC’s “World Mine Oyster” tour.
West, a Huntsville native, started in a different career. She graduated from the University of Alabama Huntsville with a bachelor’s degree in English and taught for a year.
“My seventh-graders convinced me I wanted to go to law school,” she said, smiling.
She earned a law degree from the University of Alabama School of Law and has been with Wallace Jordan Ratliff and Brandt since 1997, she said.
She went back to school in 2007 to earn a Master of Arts degree through the School of Letters at Sewanee: The University of the South, she said.
“I’d always enjoyed Shakespeare,” she said. “I’d even tried teaching ‘King Lear’ to seventh-graders.”
Her interest in Shakespeare was intensified by Ann Cook, her mentor at Sewanee and a retired professor emerita from Vanderbilt University.
“She’s the world’s foremost authority on Elizabethan matrimonial law and was the president of the Shakespeare Association of America,” West said. “She introduced me to her method of teaching based on performance. We became good friends. She directed my thesis.”
The ASC productions in Birmingham were given in Cumberland’s Great Hall.
“I have an engraving I bought in London last summer of Gray’s Inn,” one of London’s four Inns of Court, West said. “It really looks like Cumberland’s Great Hall.”
Although the Great Hall was an apt setting for the ASC plays, West is hoping that the touring company can return to Birmingham to perform in larger arenas.
“There is limited seating in the Great Hall, so these performances had to be by invitation only. I hope others may be interested in hosting a performance,” she said. “I really hope this will be the start of more interaction between the law school and the company—and on a broader level, the Birmingham community.”
For more information about the American Shakespeare Center, visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.