Legally Speaking: Shakespeare and the lawyers

By John G. Browning | Sep 10, 2013

It is one of those famous lines, right up there with “To be or not to be,” that have enshrined William Shakespeare as one of the greatest playwrights of all time: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

It is one of those famous lines, right up there with “To be or not to be,” that have enshrined William Shakespeare as one of the greatest playwrights of all time: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

This phrase from Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 2 has appeared on coffee mugs, T-shirts and tote bags, and it’s frequently quoted by people criticizing the legal profession.

But did the Bard of Avon really hate lawyers, or did he have a much different message in mind?

The truth is, like Shakespeare’s plays themselves, more nuanced and complex.  The fourth act of Shakespeare’s historical play (set in roughly 1450) was inspired by two real-life rebellions: an uprising in 1450 led by a man named Jack Cade on behalf of small landowners seeking political reforms, as well as an earlier revolt by peasants in 1381 against all landed classes, and the lawyers and written system of records that supported them.

In the play, a charismatic character named Cade leads an illiterate mob of peasants and tradesmen distrusting of the upper classes, and indeed anyone who can read and write.

Imagining how they can achieve their goal of overthrowing this society and replacing it with one where all lands are held in common and there are no educated classes to govern, one of Cade’s followers, Dick the Butcher, utters the famous line “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Cade agrees, “Nay, that I mean to do.”

Shortly thereafter, the rebels bring to Cade the clerk of Chatham, who is accused of being able to “write and read and cast accompt [add up figures]” as well as to perform the legal tasks of making “obligations” and writing “courthand” [shorthand used for recording judicial proceedings].

Cade orders the clerk to be hanged “with his pens and ink-horn about his neck.”

As the rebellion continues, it becomes clear that Cade is a ruthless megalomaniac who wants to destroy the very fabric of an ordered society.  As a messenger later reports to King Henry, Cade is after all of the educated members of society—“All scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentlemen, they call false caterpillars [parasites] and intend their death.”

Cade’s bloody vision begins with wanting to get rid of all the lawyers, but as it goes on it includes getting rid of anyone who can read or write.

On one level, then, Dick the Butcher’s line is both a cry of frustration against those whom he and the mob see as keeping them down—the wealthy and educated, as well as the lawyers and clerks who do their bidding—and an indirect compliment to lawyers. Lawyers are seen as the guardians of order and reason, protectors of the rule of law and a bulwark against the kind of violence and chaos being preached by Cade.

In order to further his bloody quest, first he needs to get rid of the lawyers.  As U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens would later observe in his 1985 dissent in Walters v. National Association of Radiation Survivors, “Shakespeare insightfully realized that disposing of lawyers is a step in the direction of a totalitarian form of government.”

Shakespeare could hardly be characterized as anti-lawyer.  Two of his earliest works were dedicated to a lawyer and patron of his, Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton.  His other patrons over time included lawyers, as did his circle of friends. Shakespeare’s plays were occasionally performed at the heart of Britain’s legal establishment, the Inns of Court.

Yet at the same time, Shakespeare in other works would echo many of the frustrations that his audiences (and for that matter, future audiences) had with the legal profession.  Shakespeare exhibited understandable exasperation with lawyers’ sometimes over reliance on legal technicalities, or what he called the “quiddities” and “quillets” of the law.

He was also critical of lawyers who are anything but competent in what they do.  Just look at his comedy Much Ado About Nothing and his searing portrayal of the captain of the watch, Dogberry.  In his cross-examination of two criminals (and his later report about it), Dogberry makes a bumbling mess and is the very picture of incompetence.

So, the line “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” may seem to those unfamiliar with Shakespeare or the context within which he was writing to be a slam on lawyers and a violent precursor to society’s fascination with lawyer jokes like “What do you call 10,000 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean?  Answer: a good start.”

But the fact is, Shakespeare thought more highly of lawyers than that.  At our best, we really are those who stand for law and order and the protection of an individual’s rights.

Whether it is military dictators in Pakistan, religious fundamentalists in the Middle East, or drug cartels in Mexico and South America, violence against lawyers and judges has frequently been used as a means of thwarting the administration of justice.

At our worst, we can be bumbling incompetents who care more about technicalities than true justice.  We can be society’s architects of its greatest good, and we can be complicit in society’s worst failures.  These observations are as true today as they were in Shakespeare’s time.

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