Mostly an encore post — something we shouldn’t have to repeat, but thoughts that deserve a place in everyone’s mind in an election year. I originally posted this back in 2006.
In an otherwise informative post about a controversy over alternative certification for school administrators, at EdWize, I choked on this:
The Department leaders, Klein, Seidman and Alonso, lawyers all (perhaps Shakespeare was correct), are rigid ideologues who have alienated their work force as well as the parents of their constituents
Did you catch that? Especially the link to the Shakespeare line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers?”
This is not exactly history we’re fisking here — it’s drama, I suppose. Still, it falls neatly into the category of debunkings, not too unlike the debunking of the story of Millard Fillmore’s bathtub.
The line from Shakespeare is accurate. It’s from Henry VI, Part II. But it’s not so much a diatribe against lawyers as it is a part of a satirical indictment of those who would overthrow government, and oppress the masses for personal gain.
It is Dick the Butcher who says the line. Jack Cade has just expressed his warped view that he should be king, after having attempted a coup d’etat and taken power, at least temporarily. Cade starts in with his big plans to reform the economy — that is, to let his friends eat cheap or free, while other suffer and starve.
Dick chimes in to suggest that in the new regime, the lawyers ought to be the first to go — they protect rights of people and property rights, and such rights won’t exist in Cade’s imagined reign. Cade agrees. The purpose of killing the lawyers, then, is to perpetuate their rather lawless regime.
At that moment others in Cade’s conspiracy enter, having captured the town Clerk of Chatham. The man is put on trial for his life, accused of being able to read and keep accounts. Worse, he’s been caught instructing young boys to read.
There is no saving the poor Clerk at that point. Cade orders the Clerk to be hanged, “with his pen and inkhorn around his neck” (even the pen was considered dangerous!).
Thus Shakespeare relates how terrorists of old steal government and rights, by killing the lawyers, the educated, and especially the teachers.
It’s still true today. Those who would steal rights from people, those who would oppress others, assault the rule of law, education, and those who spread learning. Beware those who urge death to law and learning; they are related to Dick the Butcher, philosophically, at least. (No offense to honest butchers, I hope — especially to members of the UFCW. Dick the Butcher was not a member of any butcher’s union.)
Here is the text, from the site “William Shakespeare — the Complete Works”:
Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows
reformation. There shall be in England seven
halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped
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,–
God save your majesty!
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.
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
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. How now! who’s there?
(Enter some, bringing forward the Clerk of Chatham)
The clerk of Chatham: he can write and read and
We took him setting of boys’ copies.
Here’s a villain!
Has a book in his pocket with red letters in’t.
Nay, then, he is a conjurer.
Nay, he can make obligations, and write court-hand.
I am sorry for’t: the man is a proper man, of mine
honour; unless I find him guilty, he shall not die.
Come hither, sirrah, I must examine thee: what is thy name?
They use to write it on the top of letters: ’twill
go hard with you.
Sir, I thank God, I have been so well brought up
that I can write my name.
He hath confessed: away with him! he’s a villain
and a traitor.
Away with him, I say! hang him with his pen and
ink-horn about his neck.
>Exit one with the Clerk
More, Resources (some from Zemanta):
- Beware “The Quote” (wdfyfe.wordpress.com)
- Yes, legal aid will be cut, but not where it hurts the silks | Polly Toynbee (guardian.co.uk)
- Revolting Blackheath (greenwichlib.wordpress.com)
- William Shakespeare: The World as Stage – Bill Bryson (agoldoffish.wordpress.com)
- “A line misinterpreted,” 1990 letter to the NYTimes
- “For better government, don’t kill all the lawyers,” Noah Feldman at Bloomberg Voices in 2011
- Oklahoma Bar, “Shakespeare and lawyers: The Rest of the Story” (if only Oklahoma actually practiced what the bar preaches . . .)
- 101 Reasons to Kill all the Lawyers.com
- Libertarian abuse of the quote at dailypundit.com
- “Education Louisiana style: ‘First we kill all the teachers” (cutting out the middle people)
- So-called “Patriots for America” thinks a literal practice of repressing lawyers to be a good idea (more libertarian abuse of the quote)
- Turkey imprisons the lawyers, AmnestyUSA complains (this blog is banned in Turkey, you know)
- Jonathan Turley, who holds forth at my alma mater of law, featured a guest post pondering the idea; Eagles, a drive through the Shenandoah, thinking about Shakespeare and human rights — what could be better?