“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”-- Henry VI, part 2
This line is one of the most famous lines in Shakespeare’s canon, and probably the one line of Shakespeare most people know. This expression is certainly one of the most famous lawyer jokes ever; the implication being that by killing all the lawyers society would be improved.
Understanding by whom and when the infamous statement is spoken, however, changes its meaning. The line is spoken by the character Dick the Butcher, an associate of Jack Cade. The real Jack Cade, as well as the character in Shakespeare’s play, led a revolt during the reign of Henry VI. Although Cade initially succeeded in assuming power over London, Cade’s rebellion eventually was defeated by London’s establishment, with Cade and his followers driven out of the city. Dick the Butcher is thus one of the play’s villains, and his statement about killing the lawyers represents one of the rebels’ top ambitions. By putting the line into the mouth of an evil character rebelling against the established order, Shakespeare clearly informs us of his positive view of the role lawyers play in society. The rebels advocate anarchy; lawyers represent the rule of law. Dick the Butcher is voicing the need to kill the very people who maintain civil society through the creation and enforcement of law. Shakespeare knew that by killing all the lawyers society would collapse into the anarchy demonstrated by Cade’s Rebellion. Shakespeare, and perhaps more importantly his patrons, would be against any form of rebellion, since it was they who formed the establishment. Shakespeare thus had no desire to kill all the lawyers; the proof is in his mouthpiece.