A Play on Justice: The Trial of Phryne at (Occupied) Old Street Magistrates Court

by | 23 Jan 2012

Yet it is precisely the disenchantment of beauty in the experience of nudity, this sublime but also miserable exhibition of appearance beyond all mystery and all meaning, that can somehow defuse the theological apparatus and allow us to see, beyond the prestige of grace and the chimeras of corrupt nature, a simple, inapparent human body. (Agamben 2011:90)

The hetaera or courtesan, Phryne, who lived in Athens during the 4th century BC, was known for her beauty, wit and intelligence. In classical Greece, courtesans were women who used to be slaves and who had managed to escape their serfdom. They became women with independent means and were the equals of the men who courted them.

According to the comic poets, prior to becoming a hetaera, Phryne used to support herself by collecting capers (McClure 2006: 357). She was a companion to a lot of influential men, including the sculptor Praxiteles, who is rumoured to have sculpted his Cnidean Aphrodite in her image. Phryne became one of the wealthiest Greek women of her time.

Around the year 350 BC, Phryne was put on trial. What did the beautiful Phryne do to find herself before the judges? It is said that, during the Eleusinian mysteries, she shed her clothing, let her hair loose and submerged herself in the sea. Had she been found guilty of profaning the gods, she would have been executed.

Her defence lawyer was the orator, Hyperides, who was apparently one of her courtiers. Hyperides defended her with all his rhetorical skills, but despite his mastery, he was losing the case. So he moved Phryne to the centre of the court and exposed her breasts to the judges (another version of the story has Phryne exposing herself to the judges).

The judges were startled by what they saw. Her breasts were said to be so beautiful that the judges thought they must be divine or, at least, hold within them the seeds of divinity. A divine creature could not have profaned the gods, therefore the judges absolved Phryne of the charge. Phryne’s trial has retained the interest of rhetoricians who, as Laura McClure tells us, use it to discuss, amongst other things, tropes of good oratory (McClure 2003: 135).


On the evening of the 14th January 2012, I found myself at the abandoned Old Street Magistrates Court (335–337 Old Street EC1V 3UD), which is currently occupied by a group that are part of the Occupy London alliance: they call themselves precisely Occupy Justice. The events to be held at Old Street Magistrates Court were advertised by the Bank of Ideas, another branch of the Occupy London alliance that, some time ago now, took up residence in a discarded UBS Bank building. A friend and I agreed to visit the Court to enjoy the cabaret and other entertainment promised on the website. I arrived there just after 8 pm (the performances were to take place between 8 and 11 pm), expecting a low-key event. I was totally taken by surprise to see about 50 or more people waiting to get in and others arriving in droves. Old Street Magistrates Court appeared to be the hottest thing happening in hipsterland/Shoredich E1.

When we tried to get in at 8.30 pm, we were told to queue to the left of the entrance. I recall smiling as I wondered how an abandoned court managed to maintain its authority. When I conveyed my thoughts laughingly to my friend, she rightly pointed out that at least in this court we wouldn’t be searched, nor would we have our cameras and mobile phones confiscated, a common practice at functioning UK courts.

“I’ve read too much Kafka”, I thought. I see his thoughts inscribed everywhere. Here’s to another new year’s resolution: stop reading Kafkaesque scenarios into everything.

Old Street Magistrates Court is a palatial building albeit in a state of decay. Its ceiling is decorated with a colourful glass mural, a beautiful remnant of its once glorious days. The entrance hall was welcoming: instead of the expected voices of frantic lawyers, clerks, police officers or offenders and victims, we were welcomed by the sound of music. The occupiers had indeed transformed the Court in such a way that, upon entry, the insignia of law, order and fear had been removed and the space infused with a party atmosphere. I remember thinking what a lovely surprise this was. What else, I wondered, could we expect from this group?

As we are were looking around, enjoying the music and investigating how the court had been turned from a place of law and justice into a social and housing space, we noticed people surging towards a room on the left-hand side of the building. We followed them into an old courtroom, where the occupiers were about to stage a play in the form of a trial. I didn’t know what to expect and, before I’d had a chance to survey the space and to wonder what was going to be performed, the play began.

A tall, imposing judge with a wig and sunglasses promised us that we would see justice being done in his courtroom. In the dock, we could see a group of women. They were courtesans who were charged with exposing their bodies in the presence of children. The women were not your typical accused, quiet, timid, and dreading the trial that could lead to conviction. Oh no, they were not at all quiet. They were rowdy, argumentative and strong: they defended without hesitation their right to expose their bodies, the connection between women’s bodies and children, and their profession.

To the right of the dock you could see the prosecution lawyer, but I don’t recall how he looked. I was overwhelmed by the strength of the women. The prosecution lawyer accused them of scandalising the values of British society. On the left was their defence lawyer. He defended their right to their bodies.

After the defence lawyer finished his speech, the judge turned to us, the audience, and asked whether we thought they were guilty as charged. With one voice we shouted ‘no’. The judged pretended to listen and promptly pronounced the women guilty.

The women were taken to prison cells behind the courtroom. But the play did not end there. The judge invited us to follow the women to the cells, along with a number of politicians (actors dressed as Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, George Osborne, to name but a few), to witness how justice was executed by the English Criminal Justice system.

This play was a parody of an English trial and a reinterpretation of the trial of Phryne. The latter reading became apparent when a courtesan asked the judge how he viewed his body. He predictably replied that his body was his temple and then asked “Phryne” to “shut up”. The rowdy audience may have missed the reference to Phryne, but if it hadn’t, it could be forgiven for being puzzled by this decision. The case was meant to reinterpret Phryne, yet here the courtesans, unlike Phryne, found themselves guilty of exposing their bodies in front of children.

The audience may also have been puzzled by the parallels the occupiers where trying to make. How can an accusation of profaning the gods be analogous to women exposing their nude bodies to children? Are both acts the same? Have our contemporary courtesans been ‘undivine’? The parallel between Phryne’s profanation and our contemporary courtesans’ indecent exposure is not, on second thoughts, that farfetched. Critical theorists like Lauren Berlant (1997) have been reminding us for a while of the sacred position that children hold in our society. With this in mind, the act of indecently exposing your body in front of a minor may indeed be considered a profanation.

But why end it with the conviction of the courtesans? As I was walking towards the prison cells, I was trying to understand why the occupiers had perverted the ending of Phryne’s trial. I had no immediate answer, but as it happens, the answer lay only a step away. Once we had passed the prison guard and entered the cell block, we were exposed to tough justice. The politicians who had accompanied the police officers to the cells to see how the English Criminal Justice system executed justice found themselves locked in the cells. They were being punished by and in place of the convicted courtesans.

In Phryne’s trial, we are told that justice ensues because of the physical beauty the gods had bestowed upon her: justice as divine beauty. In this reinterpretation—where there are no gods, where god is dead—we have only human justice and the suggestion thrust upon us that human justice is not beautiful. Justice is transformed into punishment or the punishment of those who were not even under trial.

The courtesans are punishing the politicians, but not only them. On the outside of certain cell doors, we read in chalk that investment banks like Goldman Sachs are inhabiting the space, as well as subprime mortgage companies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, suggesting that even invisible corporate bodies are to be punished. Justice is indeed being done. The judge had sentenced the courtesans to imprisonment. The audience or the people had asked for them to be set free. In the cells, where justice is supposed to be done, we see the judicial sentencing perverted and the people’s justice prevailing.

The occupiers have given us a different play on justice: here justice does not bow to beauty, nor is it seen to be done in the courtroom. Justice and punishment are inextricably linked. This, of course, does not mean that the justice that prevails is pure or even justifiable, but rather that it may take on the colours of the very methods by which we enter the door of the law, the methods that the left criticises: manipulation, opaqueness, forcefulness and, yes, even violence. If nudity still retains its beauty or if nudity still surprises, as this satirical play on justice suggests, it is perhaps because it shows us what justice ‘is’, not what we imagine it to be.

As I exit this play on justice, as we exit this aesthetic experience, where I have witnessed what justice is, I feel a sense of optimism. Not in justice per se, but in our ability to play with justice. As I exit, I hope for more ways of profaning our sacred institutions. As I exit, I dream of more. And to be able to dream or to be given the possibility to do so is quite something.

Dr Elena Loizidou is Senior Lecturer in Law at Birkbeck, University of London.

Agamben, G (2011) ‘Nudity’ in Nudities (Stanford University Press: Stanford).
McClure, L (2006) in Ditmore, H M (ed) Encyclopaedia of Prostitution and Sex Work. Vo. 2 (Greenwood Press: Westport).
McClure, L (2003) Courtesans at Table (Routledge, London, New York).
Berlant, L (1997) The Queen of America Goes to Washington City (Duke University Press: Durham, London).

Many thanks to Gilbert Leung for his editorial corrections. This text has benefited tremendously from his input.

1 Comment

  1. Delighted to see this piece, Elena – the image and theme were too interesting to leave unexplored. Many thanks!


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