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Professors Debate Hamlet’s Innocence

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By Christina Acevedo

UCI’s first mock trial debated Hamlet’s guilt over first-degree murder at the Irvine Barclay Theatre last Wednesday, April 11.

Centered around the titular protagonist from William Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet,” the trial featured UCI School of Law Dean L. Song Richardson as Hamlet’s defense attorney and former UCI Law dean and current Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky as prosecutor. The audience served as the jury in determining whether Hamlet was at fault for killing Polonius.

United States District Judge Andrew Guilford oversaw the trial.

“The facts of this case have haunted humanity down through the centuries,” said Guilford. “And tonight we are finally going to determine that key question of guilt or innocence.”

Before the trial began, audience members could already be found expressing their opinions and perspectives. Outside the theatre, a small group gathered to shout phrases such as “not guilty” while holding handmade posters in support of Hamlet.

Among the sayings written on these signs was “Denmark loves Hamlet.” When asked if she was behind the protests, Richardson refused culpability. She made it clear, however, that she was not opposed to them either.

“What I say is let the people speak,” she said.

Throughout the trial, Richardson used claims of self-defense to assert Hamlet’s innocence, arguing that he mistook Polonius for his allegedly murderous uncle, Claudius. She also referred to his emotionally vulnerable position as justification for his actions.

“He did what any reasonable person would do. He acted to defend his own life from a killer,” Richardson said.

Chemerinsky counteracted these statements by insisting that Hamlet was well aware of his actions and had murdered Polonius intentionally after exhibiting signs of premeditation.

“What’s so troubling about the defense that Song [Richardson] presents to you is it basically justifies being a vigilante,” Chemerinsky said.

To help the audience come to a conclusion, viewers were supplied with a copy of the record, an excerpt from Act 3, Scene 4 of the play.

Ultimately, Richardson’s case received greater support from the audience, as the verdict declared Hamlet innocent. The difference in votes, however, at 327 to 310, nearly resulted in a tie.

“This was very, very close,” said event organizer and English professor Julia Lupton.

With the Chancellor’s professor of drama, Eli Simon, as director, the trial contained theatrical moments as well. The physical space was also set up to mimic an actual court.

While the verdict was decided, alumnus Zak Houston performed three well-known Hamlet monologues. Houston also partook in a performance prior to the trial that revealed how the killing occurred. In the scene with Houston were professors Cynthia Bassham as Gertrude and Richard Brestoff as Polonius.

One attendee derived enjoyment from the style and ambience of the event. When commenting on how it went, she demonstrated an appreciation for its elements of humor.

Some of this humor stemmed from the manner in which Chemerinsky and Richardson playfully picked on one another while still trying to remain professional.

“It was great,” Estancia High School senior Jessica Garcia said. “I thought it was really funny, [watching] the two just arguing.”