News & Politics

Coriolanus the Subject of This Year’s Shakespeare Theatre Company Mock Trial

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once again presided.

Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Samuel Alito, Judge Douglas Ginsburg, and Judge Brett Kavanaugh at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s mock trial. Photograph by Kevin Allen.

He’s a former US solicitor general and one of Washington’s most skilled lawyers, but
Seth Waxman ran into difficulty representing his latest client—a politician with a serious image

While on the campaign trail, this candidate proved incapable of connecting with common,
everyday people, earning a reputation as an elitist with no regard for the working
class. He is, in fact, such a diva that he goes by a single name: Coriolanus. You
may have read about him in William Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name, or even
watched his story unfold onstage during the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current
production of the play.

If you thought we were describing someone else, don’t
worry, it’s an easy mistake
to make—had the technology been available in BC times,
Coriolanus is undoubtedly the
kind of guy who would’ve commissioned a car elevator for his
beach house

Given the electorate’s widespread distaste for him, it’s easy to see why Waxman faced
an uphill battle Monday evening when he argued at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s
annual mock trial that Coriolanus’s downfall was the result not of his own actions,
but of defamatory coverage by the ancient Roman newspaper
The Latin Tribune.

Coriolanus’s story goes like this: He returned to Rome a war hero and began his bid
for consul, an office in the city’s nascent government. He was known for his anti-populist
views, such as his belief that the people didn’t have the right to set their own grain
prices. After getting driven into exile by his political rivals, he allied himself
with one of Rome’s enemies, Aufidius. But just as he was about to attack his former
city, his mother, Volumnia, convinced him to make peace—a foolish choice as it turns
out, since Aufidius’s cohorts then killed Coriolanus. Got all that?

Washington legal luminaries look forward to the mock trial
every spring. As is tradition
at the event, a panel of some of the nation’s most esteemed
judges assembled to hear
the case in front of a packed house at Sidney Harman Hall.
Supreme Court justice and
Shakespeare lover

Ruth Bader Ginsburg presided, as she has in every mock trial since 2003. She was joined by justices
Samuel Alito and
Stephen Breyer, and judges from the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit
Merrick Garland,
Douglas Ginsburg,
Brett Kavanaugh, and
David Tatel. It was clear the jurists had followed another Shakespeare Theatre Company tradition—coming
well prepared with clever one-liners and references to current events to sprinkle
throughout the proceedings.

While Waxman made his case, Judge Garland brought up a rumor he’d heard about a video
of Coriolanus, in which the candidate allegedly said “47 percent of the people would
vote against him because all they wanted was free corn.” Waxman, a partner at WilmerHale,
appeared confused at the mention of “video,” reminding Garland, “We are in an era
of papyrus.”

Lisa Blatt, a partner at Arnold & Porter and a top Supreme Court lawyer, mounted a strong defense
The Latin Tribune, arguing that it certainly wasn’t her client’s fault that Coriolanus was so disdained.
In act one, she reminded the judges, Coriolanus said he wanted to “skewer people with
his lance.” She added that the National Lance Association had filed a brief in the
case. “Their argument that lances don’t kill people, people kill people only strengthens
our case,” she said, getting a good laugh from the audience.

But in the end, it wasn’t the lawyering that decided the dispute—it was a technicality.
Justice Ginsburg delivered the majority’s opinion: “We have to begin at the beginning.
And at the beginning is Lady Volumnia, who is responsible for all of this,” she said.
Because Coriolanus’s mother—who represented her dead son’s estate at the trial—arguably
caused his assasination, Ginsburg explained that Volumnia is legally barred from profiting
from his death. Thus, she had no right to sue the
Tribune on behalf of her son in the first place.

As Blatt had quipped earlier in the evening, the case really was “much ado about nothing.”

Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 and was a senior editor until 2022.