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VOL. 37 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 22, 2013

Who wants to ‘kill all the lawyers?’ Not Henry VI

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One of my favorite quotes is from a Shakespearean play: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” It gets me hot and bothered when people abuse and/or misuse this nugget of literature.

Years ago, I read an opinion piece that began, “As Shakespeare wrote it, King Henry VI said: ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.’ …”

Being an English major and all, I wrote the author of that story. And told him that King Henry VI said no such thing – at least not in anything Shakespeare wrote.

Which, I suppose, raises the issue of what, as Shakespeare wrote it, was said and by whom.

In “The Second Part of King Henry the Sixth,” the Duke of York plots a revolution. He enlists Jack Cade, a blue-collar general of sorts. Cade’s army is described as a “rude and merciless” group of “hinds and peasants.” That’s hinds, as in rear-ends (a well-meaning proofreader once changed this word to “kings” in a letter to the editor I wrote; the editor and I both went “Ack!”).

Counterplotting against the Duke, Cade decides that he himself should be king. In the company of Dick, the Butcher of Ashford, Cade describes what life will be like in his kingdom:

“[A]ll the realm shall be in common…. 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 says, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” and Cade agrees. So, it’s not King Henry who says these words!

I’ve heard it proclaimed that Shakespeare was making a statement about how important lawyers were; that, for a society like that described by Cade to come about, lawyers – whose role is to uphold the law and protect people’s civil liberties – would have to be eliminated.

But I think Shakespeare was making a joke of sorts. As despicable as Cade was, the regime he envisioned was ludicrous. Shakespeare’s audiences probably laughed at the lawyer line, some with respect, some with bitterness and anger. My guess is that then, as now, some held lawyers in high esteem, others not so much.

Cade and his cronies set off on a murderous rampage. Henry is briefed by a messenger:

“Jack Cade proclaims himself Lord Mortimer …

His army is a ragged multitude

Of hinds and peasants, rude and merciless …

All scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentlemen,

They call – false caterpillars, and intend their death.”

The king’s reply: “O graceless men! They know not what they do.” Then he runs off and hides.

If you want to know how the play comes out, then read it. Hint: Lawyers really never become involved.

For many years, I held to the notion that, in those days and in modern times, lawyers would be the ones who could and would rein in the Jack Cades of the world.

And then came Bush v. Gore and Citizens United.

Hmm.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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