The second season of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom has started airing on HBO, and we’re hooked. Yes, I know Sorkin’s faults. I know that the characters are all so obsessed with their (horrible and awkward) romantic lives to the point that it looks like the main reason they even do their super important jobs is to distract them from how lonely and miserable they are dating. And I know he’s self-righteous, like, annoyingly sure of himself at a level rivaled only by Bill Maher. Yes, yes, yes. Shut up. I still like the show. Anyway, that’s not what I want to talk about.
What I want to talk about is the title of the first episode of the second season. “The first thing let’s do is kill all the lawyers.” It’s an episode about, surprise!, lawyers. And that quote is by Shakespeare, so we get to feel all literate about using it.
But context is all, and this famous line doesn’t mean what you think it means. It’s from Henry VI Part 2, Act IV, and it’s spoken by a character named Dick the Butcher. It comes in the middle of a revolution, led by a thug named Jack Cade. Dick is a particularly sycophantic member of his entourage. Here’s the scene:
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,–
God save your majesty!
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.
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
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?
Cade’s gang then brings in a lawyer, the Clerk of Chatham, who confesses to being literate. “Oh, monstrous!” says Cade. Then, when the good Clerk admits that he can, in fact, read and write, Cade orders him hung. Which the gang promptly does.
Cade is a buffoon and a bully in the play. His revolution is deadly and its consequences are horrific, but he himself is not a character to take seriously. He’s a fool, a preening, bragging idiot. The line ‘let’s kill all the lawyers’ is how two stupid men, Dick and Jack Cade, think they’ll establish some kind of anarchic paradise, where everyone will eat cheap bread and drink strong beer. And everything will work out fine. The way to accomplish this utopia: kill anyone who can read or write.
So yes, Shakespeare wrote the line ‘let’s kill all the lawyers.’ And it makes for a good coffee mug slogan, with Shakespeare’s name as author serving as punch line. Makes a nice gift for that lawyer in your life. And he’ll laugh and put it on his desk. But Shakespeare was a playwright, and he put this famous line in the mouth of a contemptible creep. The line itself is key to understanding a thuggish and violent uprising, a war that’s anything but civil.
Shakespeare wrote for a theater located across the Thames from the main law courts and offices of his day. The Globe was in Southwark, south of the river. Just north, and a bit west, were the Inner Temple and Middle Temple, Inns of Court, which served the same role in Elizabethan/Jacobean society as Bar Associations serve in our day and our country. Law students studied there. Lawyers practiced there. For anyone unwilling to brave the congestion of London Bridge (just a little further east down the river), the easiest way to get to the Theatre District of Shakespeare’s day was to take a boat across–and that’s how hundreds of ferrymen made their living. All of which suggests that lawyers and law students made up a sizeable part of Shakespeare’s audience.
Shakespeare seems rather to have liked lawyers. The Merchant of Venice concludes with a court scene, in which the clever Portia outwits Shylock and saves Antonio’s life. That trial scene may leave contemporary directors flummoxed, trying to find a non-anti-Semitic way to cope with Shylock’s forced baptism (along with many many troubling issues in that brilliant but problematic play), but in Shakespeare’s day, it’s not hard to imagine lawyers digging the scene. A much better play, Measure for Measure, is a lawyer’s delight. The main plot involves the application of unjust laws by Angelo, and efforts, then, by all the characters, to undo or avoid them. Perhaps his first play, Comedy of Errors likewise turns on legal questions. Hamlet uses legal language throughout much of Hamlet, leading to speculation that he wasn’t so much in college as in law school. That’s not to say that Shakespeare only wrote heroic lawyer characters–in fact, he was fond of making fun of lawyers, with his fools–Touchstone, Falstaff, The Fool in Lear–telling lawyer jokes. Shakespeare knew lawyers, understood lawyers, and understood as well that nobody knows more lawyer gags than lawyers. (From those few written documents we have of Shakespeare’s life, he was also a somewhat litigious cuss, for whatever that may be worth.)
I understand people who get frustrated with lawyers. I do get that. The ‘first thing let’s do’ line gets attached to legally oriented news stories all the time, especially tort judgments that strike people as unfair. I saw it the other day, in a story about a court case involving a guy in Maine who was given a week in jail because he pooped his pants in a federal courtroom restroom. (The link above is to a different story about the same case than the one I saw earlier, the one with the Jack Cade quote, which, this morning, I couldn’t find). No kidding, poor guy, having a seriously unfortunate reaction to heart meds, ended up making such a mess in a federal courtroom restroom that judges ruled that he had to have done it intentionally. And he got jail time. For a really horrible bowel movement.
We read that judgment, and we shake our heads in disbelief. And the same goes for other major news stories. I know lots of people, for example, who still regard the McDonald’s coffee case as the worst miscarriage of justice ever. You remember the case–the little old lady who spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee on herself and sued the company for a million dollars. Liebeck v. McDonald’s, it’s called, and everyone knows it.
Thing is, that jury verdict was completely and entirely justified. I promise you, if you were on the jury for that case, you would have ruled exactly the same way they did. Study it. The jury, in that case, went in convinced that they were being asked to decide a case that frivolous. They were ticked off about it. And in court, the jury generally thought the McDonald’s lawyer was much much better than the lawyer for the plaintiffs. They liked him more, and thought he presented his case better. They still ruled for the plaintiff. On the merits of the case.
Not long ago I was talking to a lawyer friend, and I said something idealistic about the practice of law, and the nobility of it, and the proud tradition of. . . . and I couldn’t finish my sentence. She was laughing too hard. And yet rule of law is important, really really important. And I know there’s a different law for rich people than for poor people, and I agree there are serious problems in our courts and too many criminal defendants get inadequate representation and yes, there are inequities and unfairnesses.
But if you want to destroy a nation, if you want to reduce a great country to utter ruin, if you want to wreck a country so thoroughly it may be impossible to ever fix things again, if you want violent, ferocious, unremitting anarchy, despair and anguish and human misery to increase, if you want to reduce the world to a jungle, then the first thing let’s do is kill all the lawyers. Shakespeare said so, and he got it right.