We should stop obsessing over one of the playwright’s most famous lines. It was just a joke.
Many people get it wrong about one of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes, the one about lawyers. It is usually thought of as ‘first let’s kill all the lawyers’, and those same people are hard put to say which play it comes from, who said it and in what context.
With apologies to Shakespeare geeks who know all this anyway, let’s get the basic facts out of the way. It was said by Dick the Butcher in Henry Vl, Part 2, a rarely performed play, and the real quote is: ‘The first thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers.’ To anyone who reads the whole scene, it is obviously a comic interlude, with all kinds of silly repartee played back and forth for laughs between peasants rebelling against the crown.
This has not stopped a po-faced industry from growing up to investigate whether Shakespeare meant the line to be pro- or anti-lawyer, as opposed to just grabbing the nearest target to keep the one-liners coming.
The anti-lawyer interpretation is obvious; the pro-lawyer one not so much. But the pro-lawyers say that, since the rebels wanted to overthrow the ruling order, they had to get the lawyers out of the way first. Ergo, the lawyers represent the rule of law and are a good thing standing in the way of bad men.
This is not really sustainable the more you look into the scene.
The uprising in Henry Vl is led by Jack Cade, but Shakespeare ignored the real events of the Cade Rebellion of 1450 and substituted events from the Wat Tyler peasant revolt of 1381, 70 years earlier. In other words, this is not a scrupulous documentary with honest representation of actual events, showing how lawyers bring blessings to mankind. It is a drama cobbled together with those scenes which will be most striking (or funny), even if stolen from another historical period altogether.
It is a play! It is a joke!
If the comment were to be taken to reflect the Wat Tyler rebellion, then it might well reflect anti-lawyer sentiment, because lawyers were seen as part of the feudal oppression of the time. But such analysis leads nowhere, since the era and its meanings were so different.
This is well illustrated by the career of another character from Shakespeare’s Henry Vl, the Bishop of Winchester, who appears in Part 1. This part centres around the struggles of the English to keep hold of their French possessions. Joan of Arc makes an appearance. The Bishop of Winchester (who in the play is shown to have paid the Pope to make him Cardinal Beaufort – anti-clerical sentiment!) is also reputed to have presided over the trial of Joan of Arc.
There is a French historical painting from the 19th century showing him interrogating Joan of Arc in prison. What are we to make of that? It is the equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury today taking charge of an investigation for terrorism in Belmarsh Prison.
It often seems that Shakespeare was obsessed by lawyers. For those who have counted the lines, he apparently mentions lawyers more often than any other profession. They appear in some of his most famous speeches.
In Mercutio’s beautiful Queen Mab speech from Romeo and Juliet, ‘she gallops night by night… O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees’. In Hamlet’s graveyard speech, just before ‘Alas, poor Yorick’, he muses on a skull - ‘why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery?’ and so on.
The playwright’s father, John Shakespeare, was apparently a ferocious litigant (50 law suits as plaintiff or defendant in Stratford-upon-Avon), and he was high bailiff, too. Shakespeare was himself a litigant, often for small debts.
I have an interest to declare. Brussels is a hotbed of amateur theatre, and I am playing the Bishop of Winchester/Cardinal Beaufort in the first two parts of Henry Vl. So I am curious about that most famous quote, even if I do not appear in the scene in which it is uttered. Acres of interpretation are fun.
But my sense of Shakespeare, as I try to hammer his complex speeches into my head, with their many inversions and odd choices of word, is that he was writing at speed to entertain a very mixed crowd. The jokes are just that.
Many other parts are mere hurried and necessary explanation. His genius lies in the creation of vivid and beautiful lines, that resonate with truth, around very dramatic scenes. But such lines are not constant. In some plays, they are rare.
And the ‘kill all the lawyers’ line is a joke, nothing more. We should stop trying to interpret it.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs