By Brittany Kate Melone
“It is quite possible that [Shakespeare] might have come across a Falstaff of some kind; but it’s most unlikely that he ever met a villain quite so villainous as Iago.” – Giuseppe Verdi
I am a law student in love with Shakespeare. When a professor uses the word touchstone, I think of the excessive, bombastic clown in ‘As You Like It’. When another professor advises the class not to read about mechanical royalties, my mind flies to the blundering craftsmen in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘. The “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” standard = BARD. I have even from time to time found myself writing out scenes from ‘Hamlet’ from memory in my notebook during my Con Law class when my brain has reached its capacity for details about the Commerce Clause. If you’re not convinced yet, I wrote two paragraphs about ‘Measure for Measure’ on my Criminal Law exam during my first semester of school.
Lucky for me, legal issues appear quite frequently in the Bard’s plays. ‘Measure for Measure‘ and ‘The Merchant of Venice‘ are perhaps the two most well-known Shakespearean plays in which legal themes are pervasive. However, even when there are no obvious parts of the law or legal system set forth in the play, a legal perspective can still be used to evaluate the action. For example, in ‘Othello’, the character of Iago is clearly morally responsible for the deaths of Othello and Desdemona. Yet because Iago never lays a hand on either of them, it is generally believed that he would never be prosecuted for these deaths under the American legal system.
During the play, through deception and trickery, Iago slanders Desdemona, Othello’s wife, and tortures Othello with the accusation that she is having an affair with his lieutenant, Michael Cassio. Iago pollutes Othello’s mind, separating him psychologically from his wife who he loved so passionately at the start of the play. Othello is pushed to the point where he kills the innocent Desdemona and then himself. Iago’s machinations, which result in murder and suicide, are malicious and evil. The use of the stolen handkerchief and the manipulation of both Cassio and Roderigo are just a few of the ways Iago reaches his end goal. Iago even goes so far as to instruct Othello on how to kill Desdemona. “Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed.” There is no doubt that these malicious acts indeed directly cause Othello to murder his wife and then take his own life. But if Iago were brought before an American court today, would he face punishment?
Our legal system generally reduces all human experience to the physical, the mechanistic. Iago never physically touches Othello or Desdemona. He simply proclaims that he will “pour pestilence into [Othello’s] ear” in order to insure the murder of Desdemona. It is Iago’s manipulations, not his hands, that serve his goal of exacting revenge on Othello. He moves Othello to kill only with poisonous words. To say that Iago is not ultimately responsible for the tragedy is to look no further than the physical body. It is a limited and narrow view, a view that would likely be taken by any American court. But has the Model Penal Code changed that?
The MPC judges criminal homicide as murder when it is committed purposely or knowingly. A person acts purposely with respect to a material element of an offense when, if the element involves the nature of his conduct or a result thereof, it is his conscious object to engage in conduct of that nature or to cause such a result. It was clearly Iago’s conscious object that his actions would lead Othello to kill Desdemona. But what is criminal homicide? The MPC says that a person is guilty of criminal homicide if he purposely, knowingly, recklessly or negligently causes the death of another human being. We know that Iago purposely acted with the conscious object to cause Othello to kill Desdemona, and that “but for” Iago’s actions Othello would not have killed his wife. But is that the same thing as Iago causing the death of Desdemona? One generally would say no, that it was Othello who caused her death. But if we look closely at how the MPC deals with causation, we may get a different result.
Comment 4 to Section 210.5 of the MPC, which deals with causing or aiding suicide as constituting criminal homicide, gives an example of the case of a distraught lover who threatens to kill himself if he is abandoned. The other party perceives that the threat is genuine and may even hope for that result. The MPC clearly states that if the other party still ends the relationship, and the distraught lover commits suicide, no criminal penalty should be imposed. The party escapes criminal liability not on causation grounds but on the specific narrowing of liability in the case of suicide by requiring in addition to “but for” causation that the cause be by force, duress or deception. The MPC acknowledges that the application of the “but for” or factual causation formula would not prevent a finding of causation from being made.
The crime of murder contains no such limitations on causation. Iago’s actions could be considered the “but for” causation of Desdemona’s death. In the case of the distraught lover, the MPC acknowledges that despite the fact that the conduct was “morally distasteful” a conviction for murder would “unduly curtail the scope of individual liberty in matters of personal choice.” In the case of Iago, there are no such reservations about personal choice. Indeed, all acknowledge that his conduct is morally culpable. The MPC may actually hold Iago responsible for Desdemona’s death. Watch for the next post for the analysis of justice for Othello!