Karen E. Boxx, Shakespeare in the Classroom: How an Annual Student Production of King Lear Adds Dimension to Teaching Trusts and Estates, 58 St. Louis U. L.J. 751 (2014), https://digitalcommons.law.uw.edu/faculty-articles/172
St. Louis University Law Journal
ethics, fiduciary duties, law and society
I always begin the first day of my Trusts and Estates course by discussing the reasons for taking the class. While I note that some students may take the class to help in passing the bar exam or because family members have already asked them to draft wills, my list of reasons instead include: (1) exposure to the fiduciary relationship; (2) the real life ethical dilemmas faced by the lawyers; (3) learning to read and interpret state statutes; and (4) consideration of how law responds to societal changes and governs human relationships. This last reason is critical: Trusts and Estates is a unique opportunity to understand the interplay between law and society because its subject-matter is accessible to all students. They all can relate to the conflicts to be resolved in the cases, and they are able to form opinions as to how well the rules suit the needs of the range of relationships presented in the community.
King Lear is the archetypal story of the tension and difficulties in parent-child and sibling relationships and reinforces the message that those relationships are the starting point and bedrock of this body of law and the vast system of rules that has been developed to resolve these conflicts.
I wish I could say that I began using an in-class production of King Lear in my Trusts and Estates class as the result of careful thought about my pedagogical goals and integration of an understanding of "generational strife." But no, King Lear arrived in my classroom by sheer luck. Over a decade ago, I was waiting in the checkout line at Barnes and Noble and saw on the sale table something called "Shakespeare in a Box: King Lear." It was a kit for staging a forty-five minute version of King Lear, complete with scripts, a couple of rubber eyeballs, and a collapsing stage dagger. King Lear is the estate planner's favorite Shakespearean tragedy, so I had to buy it. Once I got it home, the coincidence of a forty-five minute script and a fifty minute class period made me realize that I could avoid an hour of teaching by having the students perform the play, and I could justify it because King Lear was the premier example of estate planning gone bad.
Thus began the annual King Lear production, which has now gone through eleven casts. Along the way, I have come to realize that a student production of King Lear is not only fun but incredibly useful as a teaching tool in a Trusts and Estates class. It drives home the human element that is critical in all of the stories we study in the wills and trusts cases, and it also teaches valuable skills to students and raises broader questions about the role of societal norms and expectations in inheritance law.
This Article first summarizes the plot of King Lear and then describes the process I use to get the play produced. It then sets forth some of the estate planning and lawyering lessons King Lear presents and describes some of the skills I think the play production helps develop. Finally, the Article discusses the less traditional benefits from holding an in-class performance of a play. In preparation for this Article, I emailed all the members of the King Lear casts and asked what they remembered about the experience and what they leamed, and I have incorporated many of my former students' responses in this discussion.