What did Shakespeare mean when he wrote “let’s kill all the lawyers?”
Hello there. Perhaps you clicked on this link because you have heard people cite Shakespeare on the necessity of killing all the lawyers and wonder if it’s a myth. Or maybe you suspect it’s one of those misquoted aphorisms, the kind that gets written on a stand-up chalkboard outside a beer hall, like the oft-attributed-to-Ben-Franklin maxim, “beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Or maybe you’re here because you know a lawyer.
Well, first of all, the quote is real! It goes, “The first thing we do is, let’s kill all the lawyers.” It’s said by a character called Dick the Butcher in Act IV, Scene II of William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II, which was (we think) written between 1596 and 1599.
Approximately four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, this pithy phrase has become one of his most famous witticisms, appropriated often to disparage the legal profession, or at least acknowledge the ubiquitous caricature of the crooked, overpriced, counselor.
But the context in which Dick utters this phrase is key to understanding its true meaning. And there still are several possible readings.
This is where the quote lies, in dialogue:
JACK CADE: Valiant I am.
SMITH [aside]: A must needs; for beggary is valiant.
JACK CADE: I am able to endure much.
DICK [aside]: No question of that; for I have seen him whipp’d three market-days together.
JACK CADE: I fear neither sword nor fire.
SMITH [aside]: He need not fear the sword; for his coat is of proof.
DICK [aside]: But methinks he should stand in fear of fire, being burnt i’ th’ hand for stealing of sheep.
JACK CADE: Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows reformation. There shall be in England seven half-penny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hoop’d pot shall have ten hoops; and I will make it felony to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass: and when I am king,– as king I will be,–
ALL. God save your majesty!
JACK CADE: I thank you, good people:– there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.
DICK: The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
Dick is a villainous character—he is a large, threatening murderer, and he is also the right-hand-man of Jack Cade, who is leading a rebellion against King Henry. Cade and Dick are aggressively anti-intellectual; they kill anyone who can read and burn all the books and documents they encounter. They know that they’ll be able to take over an ignorant population with greater ease than one where everyone understands their rights.
One reading of this strange quote suggests, therefore, that society could not exist in a state of fairness and peace without the protectiveness of both the law and its staunch guardians. Dick is suggesting that, in order for their coup to prevail, they must eradicate society of the very defenders of justice who could both stop the revolt he intends to help spur and then remove the power he hopes to grab for Cade.
In other words, this suggests that Shakespeare represented lawyers as the most fundamental defense against the grossest manifestations of power-hungry antics wrought by the scum of humanity.
Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens shared this reading of the line, even analyzing it in a 1985 decision: “As a careful reading of that text will reveal, Shakespeare insightfully realized that disposing of lawyers is a step in the direction of a totalitarian form of government.”
But! As scholar Daniel Kornstein notes in his book Kill all the Lawyers: Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal, this quote could also have been a class-focused criticism of lawyers, a group of professionals committed to securing the interests of the wealthy. Cade is a laborer and longs to overthrow the oppressive upper-classes, and Dick recognizes that lawyers stand in their way.
Cade’s and Dick’s negative attitude toward lawyers must be understood in the context of a class revolt. The rebellion led by Cade in Henry VI, Part 2 is an uprising by the commons, a popular revolt by lower classes—”infinite numbers” of peasants, “laboring men,” and “handicraftsmen” such as clothiers, butchers, weavers, sawyers, tanners-against the power and luxury of the English upper classes. Cade tells his cohorts they were fighting to recover their “ancient freedom” so they would no longer have to “live in slavery to the nobility” (4.7.181-82).
Then as now lawyers were more available to the wealthy and powerful, who could afford to retain them, than to the poor and the weak, and were the very symbols of the inequities and oppression that provoke a revolution. As a result, the folk image of lawyers has often been bad. Common people have frequently seen lawyers in their roles as conservative defenders of property and the status quo, as unethical “hired guns” or “mouthpieces” available to the highest bidder, as a professional elite of technical wizards adept at using the law to cheat honest but poor people. Many upright citizens, wearied by what Hamlet called “the law’s delay” or caught in the intricacies of legal red tape, must have bitterly echoed Dick the Butcher’s sentiment through clenched teeth at one time or another.
In another reading, Kornstein notes that this line also reflects the play’s preoccupation with “the law,” and persons who embody the law, most prominently the honorable Humphrey, the duke of Gloucester, who is of such importance to the dramatic proceedings that he even appears in the play’s original title, The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, with the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey.
As lord protector, Gloucester in effect rules England during Henry’s minority. A “virtuous prince” (2.2.74), Gloucester symbolizes the rule of law, its fair execution and administration, as well as the need-reminiscent of Socrates-to submit to it when it wrongly turns on him. In Gloucester, one finds the humane impulses that should animate the law. Other advisers to the king, ambitious for themselves and jealous of Gloucester’s sway, unjustly accuse him, and while holding him for trial, kill him. All the time, everyone around the king—scrupulous or not—pays lip service to the law, its integrity and symbolism. In the three acts before Jack Cade appears, law—especially law in the person of Gloucester—is a dominant theme.
Gloucester is often seen passing laws, and interpreting them—and he abides by them without exception, even when his own wife is arrested for witchcraft. Although he wants to, he cannot spare her, explaining “I cannot justify whom the law condemns.”
But then he is killed! He is killed via the bastardization of the law by ambitious and greedy pretenders. That’s when Cade’s crowd rises up.
Most important, Cade’s mob emerges only at the moment of Gloucester’s death. They did not criticize the law before then. The people are compelled, through lack of a lawgiver, through the total breakdown of the constitutional rule of order, to take the law into their own hands. They do not protest all law, but only perverted, false law, such as [the kind that] accused and killed the good duke of Gloucester. As symbols of the evil legal system, lawyers become the object of hatred.
So there you have it! “Let’s kill all the lawyers” is a complicated phrase that (somehow always) refers to the importance of maintaining an fair rule of law that protects the people. Whether lawyers symbolize evil or good is almost irrelevant; the most important thing about this quote is the upholding of a fair and just law system, itself.