The Multiple Meanings of Shakespeare’s “The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All The Lawyers”

By: Brian Mangan

It is no secret that lawyers are generally viewed unfavorably by the population at large. A recent Gallup poll showed that only 19% of people rated lawyers “high” or “very high” in terms of “honesty and ethical standards,” compared to 85% of nurses, 58% of police officers, 28% of  bankers, 24% of journalists, and 21% of business executives (while car salesmen, at 8%, and members of congress, at 10%, were two of the few professions to lag behind)

The generally low opinion of lawyers, combined with the general prominence of lawyers and lawmakers in general society, have lead to most of us hearing more than our share of lawyer jokes.  Lawyers like myself, who have a pretty decent sense of humor, usually laugh along with them (Q: What do you call three lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A: A good start).

Another thing you hear often from friends and family (and acquaintances trying to make conversation) is the famous quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VI where a character suggests that, in order to create a better society, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”  What most people do NOT know, however, is that the person making that suggestion is a character attempting to aid in the overthrow of government, and that in some respects, the quoted line is actually a compliment to the profession.

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Of course, I am no Shakespearian scholar, but have been fascinated by this quote for a long time.  It turns out that the quote is by a character known as Dick the Butcher, who was a follower of Jack Cade, the leader of the rebellion against the Crown.  Jack Cade was depicted by Shakespeare as “the head of an army of rabble and a demagogue pandering to the ignorant,” who sought to overthrow the government.  [FN1] The phrase “let’s kill all the lawyers” was emblematic of one of the main themes of Jack Cade’s rebellion: namely, that people were tired of being oppressed by the upper class — who could read and write — while the general unwashed masses were illiterate and helpless.

FN1 I’ll share the definition because I had to look up the exact one.  Wikipedia defines “demagogue” as “a political leader in a democracy who appeals to the emotions, prejudices, and ignorance of the less-educated people of a population in order to gain power and promote political motives. Demagogues usually oppose deliberation and advocate immediate, violent action to address a national crisis; they accuse moderate and thoughtful opponents of weakness.”

Man, what were you thinking? (credit: wikicommons)

A site called Shakespeare Online did a thorough (if not difficult to read) job encapsulating Cade’s demagoguery: The demagogue has the ignorance of his audience on his side. He has in behalf of his appeals that sullen jealousy of the masses who are conscious of classes, that is, of a caste above them and more accomplished. That a man can write and read and cast accounts is monstrous to the peasants who never hold a book save in awe, or a pen without fear of sorcery.  (Shakespeare Online)

To cement the point, Shakespeare has Cade follow Dick the Butcher’s comment with a question of his own: “Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man?” (read the full text of the scene here).

Rather than just killing lawyers for pleasure, or because it would somehow improve society on its own, is it possible that Cade and Dick the Butcher want to remove the lawyers who, through their reason and their administration of justice, stand as a bulwark against rebellion?  Quite possibly.  To illustrate the point, the very next part of the scene involves Cade’s followers hauling in the local clerk for judgment before their leader:

SMITH: The clerk of Chatham: he can write and read and cast accompt.
CADE: O monstrous!

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CADE: Let me alone. Dost thou use to write thy name? or hast thou a mark to thyself, like an honest plain-dealing man?
CLERK: Sir, I thank God, I have been so well brought up that I can write my name.
ALL: He hath confessed: away with him! he’s a villain and a traitor.
CADE: Away with him, I say! hang him with his pen and ink-horn about his neck.

Discontent among classes has long been the means and casus belli for rebellion, and the overthrow of the Rule of Law has long been the methods of achieving it.  [FN2]  There are competing ideas, as well, both that the line either a) has its obvious meaning and/or b) is entirely comedic.  All of these scenarios are quite possible, especially given the fact that bad, unethical lawyering, is just as likely to oppress as good and ethical lawyering is to help people remain free.  Perhaps Shakespeare intended only to highlight the difference between good and bad lawyering by having the famous line be uttered by an insurgent (as is suggested here).

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As I mentioned earlier, I am no expert, so I enlisted a friend of mine who knows a thing or two about Shakespeare for a second opinion.  Justin Schneider studied Shakespeare at Mary Baldwin College and has worked with both the Shakespeare Theatre Company (Washington, DC) and the American Shakespeare Center (Staunton, VA), so he had plenty interesting to say about our “first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” line.  The most interesting, is that Shapespeare may have intended the ambiguity:

I think you’re right to point out that Shakespeare can be interpreted in different ways, but I tend to take things one step further and say that if you can interpret something in his plays in two ways, Shakespeare probably meant both. Part of his genius is that he can be all things to all people, because he was a theatre professional writing for a large, cosmopolitan audience.

An audience for Henry VI would have included lawyers and law students from the Inns of Court, but for every gentleman there would have been who knows how many Londoners of the lower classes. In other words, for every Clerk there would have been a dozen Dick the Butchers.  At the end of the day, everyone gets to leave thinking the other guy was the real butt of the joke and also little bit worried that maybe they’re wrong.

Really cool stuff from Justin who, most importantly, confirmed that I was not crazy for thinking there could be more to the quote than people think.  Given that we are discussing the quote and its meaning hundreds of years later merely highlights Shakespeare’s brilliance.

Ultimately, we cannot know what Shakespeare truly intended with the line (indeed several sources, some quite reputable, believe that any positive spin is “twisted” “misinformation.”) So the next time that someone tells you that old, clever Shakespearian line, “let’s kill all the lawyers,” make sure that you tell them that there may be more to it than they realize.

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Brian Mangan is an attorney from a family that loves lawyer jokes, and never thought he’d read Shakespeare for fun.

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[FN2] On the flip side, keeping the masses uneducated is often the way that those in power have sought to prevent rebellion.  As Shakespeare Online points out:

A century later, in 1671, Sir William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia, wrote home to England, “I thank God there are no free schools or printing, and I hope we shall not have them these hundred years. For learning has brought heresy and disobedience and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them and libels against the best government. God keep us from both.” — Douglas Campbell’s “Puritan in Holland, England and America,” vol. i., p. 32.

[FN3] Other Sources:

http://www.nytimes.com/1990/06/17/nyregion/l-kill-the-lawyers-a-line-misinterpreted-599990.html

http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig2/denson1.html

http://www.howardnations.com/shakespeare.html