Shakespeare: Was the Bard a basher? Let's look at the context of the oft-quoted line.
December 14, 1993|ROBERT W. PETERSON | Robert W. Peterson is an associate dean and professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law
"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." You know the line, from Shakespeare's "Henry VI, Part 2." Like a mantra, it is mindlessly quoted by pundits, stenciled on T-shirts and generally marshaled as condemnation of the legal profession from the very pen of the Bard of Avon.
Not only is this a gross calumny, it is a symptom of gross cultural illiteracy.
To put this line in historical context, imagine you lived at the time of the Wars of the Roses--about 1455. This was a terrible war, lasting for more than three decades and killing perhaps 100,000 English men, women and children.
Henry VI was a weak, bookish king, given more to prayer and contemplation than to governance. The Duke of York, sensing a power vacuum, laid claim to the throne.
To foment rebellion and instability, Shakespeare has York hire an ex-convict, soldier of fortune and general troublemaker to set fire to London Bridge and instigate looting, burning and general havoc.
This fellow is Jack Cade, whom the Duke of York instructs to claim falsely that he, Cade, is rightful heir to the crown because he is the long-lost child of a noble family--a complete fabrication.
Cade rides into London with a bunch of ruffians, claims the crown and sets up a rump court.
To whip the crowds into a frenzy of support, Cade uses a familiar device. He, like politicians today, knows that entitlements are popular and taxes are not. So what does he promise if he is crowned?
* There shall be no money: "All shall eat and drink on my score."
* Seven half-penny loaves (3 1/2 cents) shall sell for a penny (since there was to be no money, it is not clear how one was to pay the penny--but this is voodoo economics, another ally of politicians).
* All the realm shall be owned in common--no private property; just take what you want.
* All shall wear the same livery, "that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord."
Well, that sounded pretty good to the crowd. Dick the Butcher shouts enthusiastically, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
There it is--the phrase so frequently used to damn the legal profession, shouted by a butcher in response to an ex-convict and confidence man who was in London to foment anarchy, burn the city and loot the commonwealth.
But that's not all. Cade shows us what his world would be like without lawyers.
Immediately after Dick the Butcher mouths his famous line, a clerk enters. Someone accuses the clerk of being able to write and read. Cade orders, "Hang him with his pen and inkhorn about his neck."
Yes, second thing let's do, let's kill anyone who can write or read.
Well, what goes round, comes round. Cade, the friend of lawyers, is killed in the end. His head is paraded through London and his body is left for "crows to feed upon."
We do not know for certain, but Jack Cade's last words on Earth might appropriately have been: