Carolina Critic

"Let's Kill All the Lawyers" and Other Insights from the Bard

Shakespeare's multi-layered commentary on the law

Jul. 31st, 2003
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RALEIGH—William Shakespeare’s literary works not only brim with shrewd social commentary but also offer profound insight into legal systems and our natural fascination with law, a legal scholar said Monday at a John Locke Foundation luncheon.

From the “nightmarish and cartoonish chaos” of life on a farmyard to the equally nightmarish and cartoonish chaos of life in our modern judiciary, legal scholar and foundation Vice President Kory Swanson provided his own upbringing as a backdrop in dissecting Shakespeare’s famous line “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Swanson, likening the chaos of harvesting chickens to the chaos of “a legal system in collapse,” first highlighted man’s “obsession” with law and cited the law’s prominence as entertainment in novels, newscasts, CourtTV, and other television programming. He emphasized man’s conflicting relationship with lawyers themselves: While lawyers are regarded as the standard bearers of the constitution and rule of law, they are also seen as instruments of the elite willing to bend that law to suit their clients’ interests

Shakespeare witnessed identical obsession and conflict in his own time, Swanson said, and in tailoring his plays to audiences that routinely included lawyers and law students Shakespearean literature is pervaded by legal themes. Swanson noted those various themes in a number of works, including The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Midnight Summers Dream, and the infamous “kill all the lawyers” exhortation by Dick the Butcher in Henry VI Part II.

Swanson scrutinized possible alternative meanings to the “kill all the lawyers” line, touching on whether it was intended as a criticism of lawyers, a compliment to them, or an indictment of perverted law and the artisans responsible for that perversion. In the first and most-often cited interpretation, Swanson argued the phrase could be taken literally: Given public hostility to lawyers and the nobility in this case, Dick the Butcher’s remark is a straightforward call for retribution against the lack of freedom.

While many see the law as an instrument of the elite and “kill all the lawyers” could be rightfully viewed as a call for revolt against the “conservative defenders of the status quo,” Swanson dismissed this viewpoint as too simplistic. He then discussed a counter-interpretation, favored by the legal profession, that claims Shakespeare was actually complementing lawyers. By demanding they be the first executed, Dick the Butcher was acknowledging that lawyers represent the defenders of law and order and even liberty itself.

Swanson argued that this, too, is likely an invalid interpretation because it is largely taken out of context. He argued that it was not merely coincidence that Dick the Butcher was the one exclaiming those famous words. “His name personifies revolutionary violence and bloodshed,” Swanson said.

Swanson concluded by offering a third, middle-of-the-road analysis that he thought accurately described the situation. Swanson said that, while the phrase itself and its surrounding context are both clearly intended to be humorous attacks on lawyers, Shakespeare also recognized the value of legal professionals in preserving liberty by having the line uttered by an insurgent. In doing so, he concluded that Shakespeare truly intended the phrase to be an indictment of corrupt lawyers and perverted law.

Swanson concluded that in doing so, 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.

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