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“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Everyone knows this quote and that it is from Shakespeare. It is from Henry VI, Part 2. And it has generated some controversy.

Defenders of lawyers (mostly lawyers) say that it is misunderstood and was intended as a “complement to lawyers and judges who protect the people from tyranny and anarchy.” This argument stems from the identity of the character speaking, Dick the Butcher, a dastardly villain and follower of the rebel Jack Cade, a pretender to the throne and a sort of libertarian. Dick the Butcher was supporting Jack Cade’s campaign and encouraging him in his quest for anarchy.

But not so fast, say others.  In fact, Dick the Butcher is making a joke, as Shakespeare was wont to do, at the expense of lawyers.

“Far from “eliminating those who might stand in the way of a contemplated revolution” or portraying lawyers as “guardians of independent thinking”, it’s offered as the best feature imagined of yet for utopia. It’s hilarious. A very rough and simplistic modern translation would be “When I’m the King, there’ll be two cars in every garage, and a chicken in every pot” “AND NO LAWYERS”.¬†“

Perhaps Shakespeare was not taking sides, but commenting on the ambiguous status of lawyers in his own day. And perhaps it is so popular today because it still evokes the same ambiguity. The legal industry was growing in Shakespearian England. According to David Riggs, a retired Stanford University professor of English, Shakespeare may have been dramatizing social divisions within Elizabethan society while keeping an ironic distance from lawyer-haters.

The line was even commented upon by former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in a 1985 dissent: “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.”

So take your pick. If nothing else, this debate speaks of the Bard’s lasting influence.

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