The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

Let’s Kill All the Lawyers! Shakespeare (Might Have) Meant It


In the article

, “ The First Thing We Do, Let’s Get Shakespeare Right!1

J.B. Hopkins concludes that Shakespeare’s line, “Let’s kill all the lawyers,” is, contrary to its facial meaning, a statement in praise of lawyers, not in derogation of them. In so doing, he perpetuates a political, although professionally flattering, deconstructive interpretation, one that, I believe, goes beyond valid inference.

It is with deep trepidation and reluctance that I enter this dispute of literary interpretation as devil’s advocate, taking issue with those who would praise lawyers, not bury them.2 Having drunk a little of Pope’s Pierian Spring,3 and finding only that, the more one drinks, the deeper the spring seems to get, I find only that the more I learn, the less I know. Nonetheless, since, as most of my acquaintances and all of my former students are well aware, I am apparently endowed with the temerity of fools rather than the perspicacious reluctance of angels,4 let’s begin.. . .

The line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” appears in the play, King Henry the Sixth, Part II. In the play, a rebellion has broken out under the leadership of one Jack Cade. The rebels have marched from Canterbury to London, and are encamped in London. Cade’s second-in-command, Dick the Butcher, utters the line. Simply stated, the argument that the line is meant to praise lawyers is that the sentence was uttered by a thoroughgoing blackguard, a “riot ous anarchist whose intent was to overthrow the lawful government of England.” Shakespeare knew that such anarchy could only succeed if lawyers were eliminated. The interpretation was initially advanced in 1985 by Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissenting opinion in Walters v. National Ass’n of Radiation Survivors.5 Although it is an interpretation that has often been used in recent years to praise lawyers,6 the evidence supporting the interpretation is unfortunately less than compelling.

First of all, Shakespeare, whoever he was,7 was a poet and dramatist, not a political philosopher or social critic, however much political philosophy and social criticism are evident in his works. His work embodies various kinds of drama, ranging from the comedies to the tragedies to the histories. Henry VI, Part II is, first, foremost and always, a historical drama, emphasis on the word drama. It was meant to be performed on the stage, captivate an audience, and, not inconsequentially according to some Shakespearean scholars, earn a bit of praise and favor from the reigning monarch.

A Little Revolting History. . . .

In the later Middle Ages, two revolts took place in England within a fairly short span of time: the Jack Cade Revolt during the reign of Henry VI (1421-1471) and another which had taken place 69 years earlier, the Peasants’ Revolt under Wat Tyler in June of 1381. Shakespeare combines both rebellions to create the scenes in Henry VI.

The historical Jack Cade’s revolt — the one that actually did take place in the reign of Henry VI — was not a revolt of peasants, but rather of substantial, involved citizens.8 the demands they made of the king were primarily monetary, related to the abatement of taxes and the dismissal of corrupt public officials.9 In the actual Cade’s revolt, there were no complaints or demands from the rebels regarding lawyers, laws, or unjust oppression.10 the revolt began in Kent, swept through the countryside to London where it was eventually repressed with the rebels then retreating back toward the Kentish coast.

The earlier Peasants’ Revolt under Wat Tyler actually took place during the reign of Richard II. Unlike the Cade revolt, this rebellion was directed against lawyers and against what the revolutionaries considered unjust laws and oppressively harsh legal enforcement of those laws. The peasants revolted against the legal slavery imposed on them by law and their consequent lack of political and legal rights. The peasants viewed lawyers not as defenders of liberty, but as the instruments of slavery and oppression.

Like Jack Cade’s later rebellion, the Peasants’ Revolt began in Kent. The rebels then marched to London, killing whatever unfortunate lawyers happened to be near:

At the same time, peasant spokesmen swore to kill “all lawyers and servants of the King they could find.” Short of the King, their imagined champion, all officialdom was their foe…but most especially men of the law because the law was the villeins’ prison. Not accidentally, the Chief Justice of England, Sir John Cavendish, was among their first victims, along with many clerks and jurors. Every attorney’s house on the line of march reportedly was destroyed.

[Emphasis added.]11
The peasant rebels under Wat Tyler arrived in London, camped at Smithfield, gained control of London Bridge and burned the Savoy, the home of the Duke of Lancaster. They also destroyed the Temple, the center of the law. Tyler gained possession of the Tower of London, and murdered Archbishop Sudbury and Sir Robert Hailes. The revolt was put down when the King rode out to meet the rebels and promised to meet all their demands, pardoning those who had taken place in the revolt.12

The Revolting Scenes
in Shakespeare’s Play. . . . 13

Shakespeare introduces Jack Cade in Act IV, Scene I, where Cade is also referred to as Mortimer, and shows him as the instigator of a rebellion. Shakespeare immediately conflates the two historical rebellions. The progress of the stage Cade Rebellion does not so much follow the historical facts of that rebellion as it does the historical facts of the earlier Peasants’ Revolt. The stage rebels camp at Smithfield, take the Tower of London and destroy the Savoy — all historical incidents of the Peasants’ Revolt, not of Jack Cade’s.

Shakespeare then has Dick the Butcher utter the lines at issue, lines which reflect the sentiments of the Peasants’ Revolt rather than Jack Cade’s Rebellion: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

It is the paragraph that follows that is most interesting. Cade replies:
Cade. Nay, that I mean to do. 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. Some say the bee stings; but I say, ’tis the bee’s wax; for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since .. . .

[Emphasis added.]
In plainer words, it is Cade’s view that the language of lawyers (words written on parchment) enslaves; it is not his view that it liberates. It is lawyers’ language that takes away liberty; it does not protect liberty. It is the lawyers themselves who are instruments of the oppressors, not the defenders of liberty. Later, in Scene VII, Cade levels charges against Lord Say, charges that again indicate that lawyers and judges are the oppressors, not the protectors of liberty:

Cade.. . . Thou hast appointed justices of peace, to call poor men before them about matters they were not able to answer. Moreover, thou hast put them in prison; and because they could not read, thou hast hanged them. . . .

There are at least four different ways in which the passages portraying Cade’s Rebellion can be read.

First, they can be read at face value. Shakespeare meant what he said. Lawyers are oppressors, they need to be eradicated, let’s kill them all. A thorough discussion of the possibility of this reading would require a far more extensive review of Shakespeare’s contacts with law and lawyers than the space in this publication permits, because we know that Shakespeare’s contacts with law and litigation were extensive and long lasting. One commentator puts it this way, “Shakespeare was a lawyer’s dream, a walking litigation factory.”14 His father was also quite litigious, and was involved in one case, Shakespeare v. Lambert, that lasted for over 20 years and resulted in a significant loss of property to the Shakespeares, a loss which, not incidentally, adversely affected William’s inheritance.15 This case would have been in progress at the time that King Henry VI, Part II was written. It is quite possible that a young man disillusioned by litigation meant exactly what he said.

Second, the passage can be read, as it was by Justice Stevens, to praise lawyers as defenders of liberty. The argument in support of the interpretation that Shakespeare’s language is truly a misunderstood paean of praise for lawyers is based on the fact that both Cade and Dick the Butcher are revolutionaries. The argument is that, since it is those who would destroy the liberty of citizens who utter these phrases, it must mean that they recognized that lawyers were the defenders of the liberties they would destroy: therefore, before one can successfully abrogate the liberty of the populace one must destroy the defenders of that liberty — the lawyers.

Some tangential inferences can be drawn from the text to support this argument. For instance, Shakespeare portrays Cade and Dick the Butcher, not as principle-driven revolutionaries, but as thoroughgoing villains. Shortly after uttering the line about killing lawyers, Cade has a clerk executed merely for the offense of being able to read. Jack Cade and Dick the Butcher stand for “rampant ignorance, anarchy, chaos and disorder, coupled with the blood lust of the mob.”16 The fact that Dick is called “the Butcher” may enhance the impression of the rebels as bloodthirsty villains.17

Third, the passage may, strangely enough, be comic relief, at least in part. It may be a blatant Elizabethan “lawyer joke.”18 Shakespeare places comic characters in many of his works, generally to provide a break in the more serious action. Assuming an audience made up of lawyers, judges and others acquainted with the judicial process, all of them on a night out and ready to be entertained, such a line might have drawn snickers and chuckles both from them and from other members of the audience who knew they were in attendance. In parts of the scene obviously intended to be comic, Cade begins to show himself a pompous fool in talking of himself as the fount of English law, while Dick fawningly supports him by saying, “the laws of England may come out of your mouth.” The comic aspects of this scene are enhanced by three stage whisper asides from other players. One says, “T’will be sore law.” Another adds, “It will be stinking law,” and a third concludes, “Then we are like to have biting statutes unless his teeth be pulled out.”19

To construct inferential meaning on a foundation of inferential meaning, it is even possible that Shakespeare was using comedy as a mechanism for social criticism. Kornstein makes the argument:

Using comedy as a mask for serious social commentary may be the only way to make such criticism under a regime of censorship, such as existed for Shakespeare. A government functionary called the master of the revels and his staff strictly scrutinized and carefully reviewed the texts of Elizabethan plays to make sure they were in accord with law, order and current government attitudes. When authorities act as censors, as they did in Shakespeare’s time, a playwright with a critical bent will search for a way to get his message across without it being gelded by the bureaucrats; the creator will make an end run around the censors.20

A fourth interpretation is the most probable. The passage is the dramatization of a historical event without any intention of either praising or vilifying lawyers. We know that Shakespeare was writing a play. We know that it was one of his earlier efforts, written before he became well-established. We know that the play was a historical drama. We know that, in order to heighten the interest of his audience, he took extensive liberty with actual historical fact, combining the historical rebellions of Jack Cade and Wat Tyler into a single stage event in order to construct a more powerful dramatic conflict, and perhaps used them as comic foils as well. We know that the historical rebels involved in the Wat Tyler rebellion did indeed view lawyers as oppressors, not as protectors of liberty, that they did, indeed, attempt to “kill all the lawyers,” and that Shakespeare was reflecting their view in his play in order to increase dramatic conflict. Shakespeare intended neither to praise nor to condemn lawyers. He intended to reproduce, for his audience, a historically documented rebellion, and he conflated historical accounts of Tyler’s and Cade’s rebellions for dramatic effect. Beyond that, the assertion that Shakespeare intended either to praise or to condemn lawyers is a deconstructed conclusion based on idiosyncratic, political interpretation. To read more into the line is to engraft on it our own political predilections, not to extract the meanings put there by William Shakespeare.

The Revolting Conclusion —
Look to Your Own House. . . . 21

That multiple layers of interpretation exist in truly great literature is not merely possible, it is a certainty, and the works of Shakespeare are universally recognized as great literature. Shakespeare was anything but unidimensional in his portrayal of human beings and human events. However, any conclusion that he intended something other than the dramatic portrayal of a historical event in the scenes from King Henry VI has no hard evidence to support it, although it is a possible interpretation certainly for modern readers. What did Shakespeare really mean? We do not know, and the truth is that it really does not matter. It is the potential for a variety of interpretations that speaks to Shakespeare’s greatness and his ability to address us all down through the ages. It is not what he put into it that is important, it is what we take out of it. I prefer to draw a different lesson from the passage, one more in tune with historical accuracy. Law is a potent force which can be used either to protect liberty or to oppress. Lawyers have not always been viewed as the protectors of liberty. We have all too frequently been viewed as using the law to cheat and to oppress. Rather than being a paean of praise to lawyers through the ages, one which permits us to sit back in smug self-satisfaction, the line is a warning to all of us to examine our own profession so that we who are entrusted with the law ensure that it functions to protect liberty and not as an instrument of oppression. Perhaps Shakespeare was simply telling lawyers through the ages to look carefully at their own house. q

1 72 Fla. B.J. 9 (Apr. 1998).
2 Of course, the alert reader will have noted the subtle reference to Mark Antony’s “Lend me your ears” funeral oration in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I.
3 Not to be confused with the martinis mentioned infra, note 4.
4 Also, since it is a warm Sunday afternoon, since I have already visited the driving range with no appreciable improvement to a persistent slice, and since I have already had my second martini of the day, I have nothing better to do.
5 “That function was, however, well understood by Jack Cade and his followers, characters who are often forgotten and whose most famous line is often misunderstood. Dick’s statement (‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’) was spoken by a rebel, not a friend of liberty. See W. Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part II, Act IV, scene 2, line 72. 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.” 473 U.S. 305, 371, n.24 (1985).
6 See, e.g., President’s Page: Lawyers and Public Image: Time for Damage Control, Trial (Feb. 1993).
7 I shall make no attempt whatsoever to enter the debate about whether the author of the works attributed to Shakespeare was the citizen of Stratford-upon-Avon or was really the Earl of Oxford. Forests have already been destroyed in the battle between the opposing forces in this debate and I shall bypass it here. For the purposes of this article, I shall assume that the author of Shakespeare’s works was William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon.
8 Cade himself is believed by some to be John Mortimer, a relative of the Duke of York. He was known to use the name “Mortimer” as well as the name “Amendalle.”
9 In the demands made by the rebels on the king, there is no mention of lawyers or legal oppression, but rather of treason and of financial matters.
10 For a full analysis of the rebellion, see I.M.W. Harvey, Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 (1991).
11 Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror 392 (1978).
12 Of course, the pardons were revoked as soon as the rebellion was over.
13 Most of Act IV is concerned with the Cade Rebellion.
14 Daniel J. Kornstein, Kill All the Lawyers? Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal (1994).
15 Id. at 17.
16 Id. at 29.
17 On the other hand, Dick the Butcher was a historical personage. On July 9, as Cade was retreating from London, he attacked Queenborough Castle in Dartford. The attack failed. Sir Roger Chamberlain received a reward for the defense of the castle. At the same time, Sir Roger is noted as having captured some of Cade’s associates, one of whom went by the name “The Captain’s Butcher.” Shakespeare used the title because it was, in fact, the name of Cade’s historical accomplice.
18 For a more extensive discussion of this issue, see Kornstein, supra note 14, at 30, 31.
19 Act IV, Scene VII.
20 Kornstein, supra note 14, at 31.
21 Obviously, at this point, one may wish to characterize the piece as the Revolting Article, and its author as r….. Nah, that’s too easy!

Gerald T. Bennett is emeritus professor of law at the University of Florida. Before entering the world of law, he spent some of his otherwise misspent youth obtaining a graduate degree in English literature, with little to show for it other than an appreciation for the paradox so much a feature of Victorian essayists.