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March 1, 2004

Shakespeare and Lawyers: the Bar’s propaganda

Filed under: — David Giacalone @ 8:07 pm

[This essay origingally appeared as part of a posting, First Thing . . . Let’s Quell All the Liars, at ethicalEsq, by David Giacalone, October 8, 2003.]

The Bar Beards the Bard: Having discussed why the public distrusts lawyers, please allow me to sound-off about a particularly dastardly example of disinformation by lawyers — the party line propaganda used to combat the famous quotation from Shakespeare: “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” [Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part II, IV, ii 86-87; click for full text]

The classiest response by the Bar to those nine little words by the Bard, would be to ignore them and merely smile at all the notepads, t-shirts, bumper stickers, and baseball caps upon which they now appear.

Another dignified option would be making a professional, non-defensive response; something like: “It’s just one line from a 400-year-old play. No one can say whether a particular character is echoing an author’s beliefs. Even though Shakespeare often uses his comedic characters to make barbs at society’s ills and injustices, we can’t know if that was his purpose here. Shakespeare was an entertainer and many of the rabble in the audience almost certainly enjoyed hearing such populist sentiments.”

lawyer cellphone small However, instead of taking such a reasonable approach, the Bar has decided to put down its lawyer’s license and engage in artistic license and fiction writing. In the name of setting the record straight, they have decided to misinform the public about the meaning and context of Shakespeare’s famous line.

The bar association party line is, therefore, that the sentence demonstrates Shakespeare’s unshakable recognition of the important role lawyers play in maintaining the rule of law and the fruits of civilization. The phrase is twisted into a tribute to lawyers. See, for example the assertions here, here, and here.

For example, attorney and mediator Linda C. Fritz, Esq., passes on the Bar’s propaganda on her Conflict Resolution home page, quoting an ABA President:

The truth about “Let’s kill all the lawyers”!

“Service to others is a worthy goal for an aspiring professional and the best response all lawyers can make to our critics. We might also urge the bashers to read their Shakespeare more carefully.

The words, ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers,’ were not spoken by a disgruntled litigant (or even by Henry VI’s press secretary). They were uttered by the conspirators in Cade’s Rebellion, who planned to overthrow the English government, destroy the ancient rights of English men and women, [as such “rights” were available to women at that time], and establish a virtual dictatorship.

Through the rebels’ threat, Shakespeare reminds the groundlings that lawyers, as protectors of that system of ordered liberty, are as much an obstacle to a rebellion that would curtail liberty as any garrisoned castle. Thus, Cade’s path to oppression leads inevitably over their bodies…”. — John J. Curtin, Jr., Esq., President, American Bar Association, published in the ABA Journal, September, 1990.

No less a luminary that the venerable Dean David T. Link makes the same argument (emphasis added):

In fact [lawyers insist], the famous quote from Shakespeare is not a criticism of lawyers, but actually is the greatest possible compliment. The scene from “Henry VI” (Part II) concerns the planning of an evil revolution–a takeover of power by Cades and his companion, Dick the Butcher, for their own greedy purposes. Dick the Butcher, recognizing the one group of people that might save the citizenries’ property and rights, says: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” The lawyers, in other words, were the potential enemies of the despots.

This propaganda has been repeated so often that even an astute observer and skeptic like St. Petersburg Times columnist Howard Troxler, has accepted it(“Don’t kill the lawyers, just the frivolous lawsuits,” July 10 2002):

Lastly, for the record, so lawyers will quit accusing me of being ignorant, I am perfectly aware of the context of the original “kill the lawyers” quote. It comes from Shakespeare (2 Henry VI, Act IV, Scene 2), in which there is a conspiracy to establish a dictatorship.
The plotters are boasting about how they will make everybody bow down to them. That is when one of the conspirators chimes in, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” His goal was to destroy the law, so that the citizens would have no legal protection. I admit this freely. You will notice, however, that Shakespeare was silent on the question of a less drastic reform.

update (May 31, 2008): Even ex-lawyer Paul Levine, author of the successful Solomon vs. Lord series, had his protagonist spew the misinformation (at page 225) of the novel “Kill all the Lawyers“. See our posting “et tu, Solomon?

theater masks There’s one problem with the Bar’s approach, neither the play itself nor English history supports the legal profession’s interpretation of Shakespeare. [For a concurrence, see Seth Finkelstein’s article in The Ethical Spectacle.] First, the conversation between Jack Cade and Dick the Butcher is not a discussion on how to plot to win a rebellion against lawful government. Quite the opposite, Cade is proclaiming what he will do “when I am king, — as king I will be.” When Butcher yells out that the first thing he wants done is to kill all the lawyers, Cade responds, “Nay, that I mean to do,” and laments “I was never mine own man” since signing a contract [“scribbled” on parchment by a lawyer and sealed with bee’s wax]. (The full conversation that contains the line can be read at the foot of this page.)

This exchange rings true, from a historical perspective, as a proposal to kill all lawyers was a central feature of the earlier rebellion led by Wat Tyler in 1381, and Shakespeare (never a strict historian) appears to meld the Tyler and Cade uprisings together. As one source has explained, lawyers were targetted in Tyler’s Peasants Revolt, because they “enabled landlords to force many labourers to return to the old conditions by finding faults in deeds of manumission ” [That is, peasants who had been freed from servitude or serfdom by their masters were returned to bondage, when lawyers found loopholes in the documents that had purportedly freed them.]

The English do not view Cade and Tyler as mere riff-raff in revolt against a benign government, as the lawyer propagandists insist. Here’s a description of the Cade Rebellion on the bbc website:

Jack Cade’s rebellion

Henry VI was an unpopular king, who imposed crippling taxes resulting in poverty for the people, whilst being accused of extravagant living and corruption in his own court. John Mortimer, an Irishman living in Kent and calling himself Jack Cade, led a rebellion to protest about laws, taxes and extortion of food and goods which kept them poor. The rebels wanted justice and claimed that the King was not keeping to the solemn oaths he had sworn to abide by. One demand was that Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, (whom Cade claimed as a Mortimer cousin) should be recalled from exile in Ireland and made King instead. Unusually, Cade’s followers were not only peasants but also landowners and gentry.


Similarly, here is the History of the Peasants’ Revolt found at (written by Jeff Hobbs):

The targets that the peasants attacked, plus the demands that they made to the King, show the pressures they faced at the time. The immediate cause of the revolt was the unprecedented amount of taxation the peasantry faced from the Government. The poll tax of 1380 was three times higher than that of the previous year and, unlike its predecessor, taxed rich and poor at the same rate. Hence, it was very unpopular with the peasantry.

However, the main call of the peasant rebels was for the abolition of serfdom. This was because, since the middle of the century, their lords had prevented them from making the most of the changing economic conditions. Visitations of the plague since 1348/9 had reduced the population by between a third and a half. As a result, labour became more scarce, wages rose and the economy began to suit the peasant more than it suited the landowner. However, the landowners of Parliament legislated to keep wages low and to restrict the free movement of serfs.

[For additional discussion of Cade’s Rebellion, click hereand here.]


That’s the unlawyered version of the story. In this historic context, lawyers were seen as protecting the privileged and corrupt establishment, as part of the resistance to needed social change and justice. Whatever William Shakespeare actually felt about the legal profession, a good part of his audience would have enjoyed hearing Dick the Butcher’s idea for improving society once their rebellion was successful. The royal “we” here at ethicalEsq are not advocating slaughtering all the lawyers — just stifling all the liars.


update (Nov. 7, 2004): A thoughtful “middle” position on just what Shakespeare meant is offered by Kory Swanson, Vice President, John Locke Foundation, and discussed in Let’s Kill All the Lawyers” and Other Insights from the Bard: Shakespeare’s multi-layered commentary on the law, by Teresa Nichols (Carolina Journal Online, July 31, 2003). According to Nichols, Swanson concludes “Shakespeare truly intended the phrase to be a portrayal of corrupt lawyers and the laws they pervert as the true enemies to sound government, justice, and freedom.” Also, see our post on Nov. 7, 2004, describing a rather sorry “defense of Shakespeare” and an indy film from 1992 called Let’s Kill All the Lawyers.


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Here’s the conversation between Jack Cade and Dick the Butcher in King Henry VI, Part II, IV, ii (from the Yale Shakespeare series, Yale University Press, 1923):

Cade. 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,–

All. God save your majesty!

Cade. 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.

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

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 my own man since.


  1. Ninety percent of the lawyers make the rest of them look bad.

    Comment by Mark Civarello — August 8, 2008 @ 9:33 am

  2. Lawyers are cancerous blight on society. They make a living by soliciting litigation for anything and everything possible. When they take a day off, they write instigate the writing of more laws to create a myriad of new ways that facilitate their solicitations. I will agree to disagree with Mr. Civarello, but only in his numbers. Ninety-nine percent of the body of practicing attorneys makes the one percent that is devastatingly malignant look like saints. The Bard and Dick the Butcher were correct: “…, let’s kill all the lawyers.” We can only wish….

    Comment by Michael W Slagle — August 14, 2008 @ 9:02 am

  3. Michael, As the above piece shows, I’m no cheerleader for the legal profession, but your assessment seems a bit exaggerated. Are you the Michael W. Slagle in this case?

    If so, I can see why you might be unhappy with some lawyers. More than a few of us, however, provide vital services and even help make the world a little better now and then.

    Long ago, I learned that angry hyperbole might win cheers from the choir but hardly ever wins converts.

    Comment by David Giacalone — August 14, 2008 @ 9:19 am

  4. Well, I happen to be a cheerleader for the legal profession and a champion for access to justice in our courts. My colleagues and I have established weekly and monthly pro bono clinics in our community and often represent many individuals without cost, especially in dire situations. I am not paid by the State or local government, I am a sole proprietor who feeds my soul by the doing of good deeds. The problem in our society is not with the lawyers, but the media who continue to report the minutiae of negativity in the profession while skipping the positive things.

    Comment by Kevin Balkwill — November 26, 2008 @ 10:53 am

  5. I salute you for all you do, Kevin. You are, sadly, far too rare in our profession, which does fairly little pro bono work per lawyer, and has left a giant portion of our society locked out of the courts due to the high cost of legal services, while (in some states) even fighting against services provided to help those appearing pro se.

    We need to stop blaming the media, it’s really not the core of the public’s dissatisfaction with the legal profession (which existed long before their was a media). This is not a public relations problem and a profession should not need cheerleaders. Of course, my main point in this essay is that by presenting a distorted picture of what Shakespeare meant, the profession merely makes it more difficult for the public to trust it.

    Comment by David Giacalone — November 26, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

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