If there is one misquote that has made its way into the collective consciousness of the legal profession, it's this: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." As is often the case with soundbites that trickle down through history, this quote from Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2, has been stripped of its rich context. A more nuanced reading of the Bard's prose will reveal a different interpretation. Rather than belittling the legal profession, Shakespeare was, in fact, demonstrating the importance of attorneys in maintaining the fabric of society.
The quote, spoken by Dick the Butcher, a follower of the rebel Jack Cade, has been used over centuries as a shorthand for lawyerly vilification. But the true intent behind Shakespeare's words was far from derogatory. In fact, it is the lawless anarchists, embodied by Cade and his followers, who dream of a world without law and order, where might makes right, and justice is a foreign concept.
Viewed in context, "Let's kill all the lawyers" is not a condemnation of the legal profession but a recognition of its crucial role in preventing such dystopia. By suggesting the elimination of lawyers, Dick the Butcher highlights their importance as Caesar's line of defense. They are the bulwarks of society, preventing the devolution into anarchy and chaos. The proposal to kill them is a testament to their power, their value, and the threat they pose to those who seek to overthrow the rule of law.
This sentiment echoes through another of Shakespeare's works, Julius Caesar. Like the lawyers in Henry VI, Part 2, Caesar himself faces a cadre of individuals who plot his downfall. Brutus, Cassius, and their co-conspirators scheme to eliminate Caesar, not out of a disdain for his character, but in fear of his growing influence and power.
Caesar's line of defense, like the lawyers, are those who stand between order and chaos, between a structured society and anarchy. His loyal followers, his public support, his formidable influence - these are his defense, his legal counsel. The plot to remove these defenses mirrors the call to "kill all the lawyers" in its recognition of their crucial importance to society.
But the conspirators' triumph is short-lived. With Caesar's death, Rome plunges into chaos, underlining the importance of those lines of defense. Just as Rome suffered when Caesar's defenses were removed, society would suffer from the loss of lawyers.
Shakespeare, being the masterful playwright he was, would not have included such a line frivolously. His plays were often rich with political and social commentary, and his choice to put these words in the mouth of a lawless rebel should tell us that the intention was not to degrade lawyers but to elevate them. It was to illustrate that lawyers, like Caesar's defenses, are crucial to maintaining order, justice, and society itself.
Regrettably, the quote has been woefully misinterpreted over the centuries. It's wielded as a cheap joke or as a critique of the legal profession. But this does a disservice to both Shakespeare and lawyers. Lawyers are not just officers of the court; they are defenders of the principles that underpin our society - the rule of law, justice, and fairness.
As an Estate Planning law firm, we understand the value and importance of our role in society. We are a part of the line of defense for our clients, ensuring their assets are protected and their wishes respected. The Shakespearean commentary underscores our profession's significance. It is a celebration of the lawyer's role, not a denigration.
Let's reclaim this quote for what it is: not a pejorative comment, but a recognition of the central role that attorneys play in preserving justice and maintaining the delicate balance of society. In its correct interpretation, it becomes clear: far from wanting to kill all the lawyers, we should respect and appreciate their essential work. After all, Shakespeare, in his wisdom, knew this truth: lawyers are not the enemies of society, but its steadfast guardians.
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