Recently, a fridge magnet with an often quoted line caught my eye:
“Let’s kill all the lawyers.” A quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2.
It was interesting to research the exact contextual meaning of the phrase. Was it another attempt at lawyer bashing, or was it something else?
An article in the New York Times claimed that the phrase was made in praise of the legal profession. It argued that the quote recognised that removal of all lawyers, (the last guardians of freedom no less) would be necessary to enable a revolution to take place.
I prefer however the interpretation from Seth Finkelstein. He argues that it really is as it is meant to be – an attack on the legal profession itself. His analysis argues that when lawyers in fact attempt to define this quote in a favourable light, they do nothing more than justify the reason why lawyer jokes are made in the first place!
“As long as there are lawyers, there will be “lawyer jokes”. And lawyers will show how those jokes ring true by trying to explain how such lampooning really constitutes praise for their profession, thus by example justifying the jokes more than ever”.
From my perspective, the quote and the debate behind it neatly sums up a common pitfall for lawyers – never let your ego get in the way of discovering the most plausible definition.
Makes sense but as someone who studies Shakespeare and the law, the common misunderstanding of this quote intrigues me. It is considered by many to be an expression of exasperation with and disdain for lawyers. The meaning of the line within the context of the play, however, is very different. It is spoken by a character wanting to upset the natural order and to wrongfully become king. The character is hypothesising that where there is no one to uphold the law then the law can be of no protection to the vulnerable and no impediment to tyranny.
Perhaps it is a misnomer to call the two interpretations a “misunderstanding”, because it reveals a truth. It reflects two very different attitudes to lawyers to which many people subscribe: the lawyer as protector and the lawyer as profiteer and profligate.