Misunderstood Shakespeare: “Let’s Kill All The Lawyers”

This line comes from Henry VI, Part 2, written in 1598. It was spoken by Dick the Butcher, a character nobody remembers except for this line, who was hanging about with his fellow rebels in a field at Blackheath.

It’s often quoted by people who are disillusioned with the legal system, or feel that certain members of the legal profession have less integrity than they should do. It is with these people for whom Dick the Butcher is likely to identify and sympathise. 

It is important to understand that the intent of the line was to be funny — a sardonic response from the sort of character who is likely to have suffered at the hands of a lawyer or witnessed them acting less than judiciously— rather than a serious suggestion or a statement of intent. When you read the scene as a whole, the jaded weariness of Dick and his mates is clearly evident as a contributing factor to their rebellion. This is the context in which this quotation must be read. 

Dick the Butcher is part of a group of rebels led by Jack Cade, who is extolling his qualifications to be king because of his noble connections, while the others are having a bit of a laugh at him because, realistically, he’s anything but noble. Jack does have ideas about a more egalitarian society, which form the context for Dick the Butcher’s punch line. As far as he’s concerned, if there were going to be some kind of ideal society, it wouldn’t have any lawyers in it. 

Cade concurs with Dick: lawyers using parchment to create documents is a waste of good lambs’ skins, and the beeswax used as a seal stings more than the bee does. He agreed to something legally once, and somehow gave up his freedom or rights by doing so. He doesn’t clarify what the issue was, but the audience certainly understands his sentiments regarding lawyers. 

The misunderstanding and misuse of this quotation arise from the interpretation that Shakespeare is saying that it’s the lawyers and upstanding citizens who would stand in the way of such a rebellion working because of their integrity and commitment to enforcing the law. 

I would be willing to put money on that theory having been dreamed up by a lawyer in the first place.  

If the predominant population of Shakespeare’s audiences were made up of lawyers, judges and clerks, this theory may have more credence.

However, the audiences were comprised of a much wider representation of society as a whole, only a small percentage of which was made up of lawyers. Many were quite common folk who stood throughout the performances, known as groundlings, while others were wealthier and could afford to pay for a seat. While some of those may have been lawyers, most were lords and ladies and members and other members of the gentry. 

It does seem that even in Shakespeare’s time there was a fair degree of scepticism about lawyers. While Shakespeare mentions the legal profession more than any other, this is by no means the only play in which Shakespeare makes a joke at their expense. Mercutio, for example, talks about lawyers grasping for money in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, while the Fool in ‘King Lear’ makes a pointed statement about lawyers not saying or doing anything unless you pay them first. 

Shakespeare was not trying to incite violence against lawyers, but he certainly wasn’t suggesting that they are the protectors or upholders of society, either.  Dick’s statement is clearly satire, expressing cynicism about lawyers in ways that people understood even then. 

Not Wrong.

My friends and I were standing in front of a portrait of Oliver Cromwell at the Tudors to Windsors portrait exhibition at the art gallery in Bendigo. .   

As I often do, I added my own commentary. In a posh English accent and lower vocal register, I quipped, “Look at me being all godly and humble and unroyal and stuff before I go and kill a bunch of people and destroy all the monasteries… you know, on God’s behalf.”

A well-dressed elderly gentleman had come to stand beside me. When I finished speaking, he added in a crisp, upper class accent: “Bastard.”
He was not wrong. 

Poem: ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ by Edward Lear

As a child, I always enjoyed this poem. I enjoyed the silliness of it, the musical rhythm and the sense of Fantasy. 

I
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’

II
Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.  

III
‘Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.



Image:Public Domain 
Edward Lear’s Own illustration of The Owl and the Pussy Cat

I must confess, though, that I hadn’t thought about this poem for many years until a friend quoted it in her newly-released paranormal romance novel. Having read and reviewed the book, it left me pondering the poem. 

In the poet’s Victorian setting it was classified as nonsense poetry, a bit of whimsy and silliness for the entertainment of children. 

I do wonder now, though, if there is a hint of rebellion against Victorian society’s moral and class standards in the unlikely union of those two mismatched creatures, and if that’s why they had to go away to be together. It could just be my 21st century sensitivities talking, but I’d like to think that maybe, back in the late 1860s, Lear was sending a subtle message to the morality police of the time that if two people were in love, they should be able to be together. 

I know people accuse English teachers of overthinking these things all the time, but just stop and think about it for a moment.

The owl and the pussycat weren’t supposed to be together, but they were quite free in expressing their feelings for one another and very happy together. Which of the two is male, and which is female? Or are they really even one of each? They do seem remarkably neutral in that regard, especially if you think of the strict gender stereotypes apparent in other Victorian literature such as that by Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope and the Brontes. 

It is just a curious thought, and I don’t want to shatter anyone’s enjoyment of a much-loved children’s poem. Maybe it is just whimsical make-believe. Maybe it’s not. We will never know. 

But it’s also a possibility that there are a whole bunch of people out there who might appreciate this poem a whole lot more on consideration of my uncommon little theory. Oh, I hope so!

What They’re Really Saying.

It should come as no surprise that when you’ve been listening to people say the same thing for a while, you get better at understanding what they really mean. 

Person Z. 
Take, for example, a young woman who approaches her friends and family members and says something like, “Hey, so, I’m having a fancy brand-name plasticware/linenware/healthy and beauty product/accessory/clothing party at my house in a couple of weeks, and I really hope you’ll come.” 

What she’s really saying: Option A: I got sucked into one of these parties by relative/friend X, and she looked so hopeful that someone would book a party so she’d get some reward, and my mouth was open before my brain could stop it. 

What she’s really saying: Option B: There’s a thing this company makes, and I’d really like to have it, but it’s expensive so I’m having a party and anything you buy will help me get it cheaper. 

I’ve been on both ends of the equation, and can totally sympathise. It’s fair to say I’ve smiled and nodded through a whole bunch of those evenings, and even bought a thing or three, to help friends and family members out. From time to time, I’ve also been the Option A person. 

Person Y.
In another example, a child approaches family members and friends and explains that the school is selling chocolates/holding a “fun run”/doing some kind of suffer-a-thon as fundraising for a new toilet block so the kids can “go” comfortably during breaks. 

What the child is really saying: Option A: The school insists that I must do this thing and there’s no way out of it, so please give me some money toward it so it’s not for nothing. 

What the child is really saying: Option B: There are prizes for doing this, and I really want the floppitywoppity that you can only get if you raise $5000, so please give me some money to give me a fair chance at winning one. 
Again, I’ve helped more than one kid out of the hole. I don’t know if any of them ever got the floppitywoppity, but I know I have helped to build more than one toilet block in my time. 

Person X.
Then, there’s the Indie author. Actually, it could be any Indie creative – an artist, musician, or crafter. I just decided to use an author as the example here, because that enables me to draw on my own experience again.
Person X has a passion for writing, a message they want to get out to the world, and they finally get their book published. They tell their friends and family members that they have a book out, and they’re about to tell them what it’s about…

What the author is really saying: Option A: I finally fulfilled my dream. Aren’t you happy for me? 

What the author is really saying: Option B: I did a thing! I may never become a millionaire, but I did a thing! Please proud of me!

What the author is really saying: Option C: Remember all those times I supported your party plan things? And your fun runs? And your kids’ school toilet blocks? And… 

…But as Person X talks, there are virtual crickets chirping, and eyes looking nervously at the door, and people checking their phones, and remembering appointments they need to be at, and…
What the others are really saying: Option A: Well, this is awkward… who ever thought he/she was brave enough to get out there and do the thing! 
What the others are really saying: Option B: Yeah, we know you’ve supported us and our kids, but we’d prefer not to mention that now, because I would rather put my cash toward fancy plastic ware/linen/clothes/beauty products/accessories or a gym membership than some book by someone nobody’s ever heard of.

What the others are really saying: Option C: What the heck are we supposed to do now? We hope he’s not going to ask us to actually read it… maybe if I don’t ask what it’s about, he’ll stop talking about it.

What the others are really saying: Option D: But… you’re my brother/sister/cousin/relative/friend… how could a book you wrote even be any good? A bit full of yourself, aren’t you?

Person W. 
The final example is the one person in the room who hugs you and says, “Awesome! That’s fantastic! I’ll buy your book! How much do you want for it? You’ll sign it for me, won’t you? I can’t wait to tell my friends what you’ve done!”

What they’re really saying: Option A: I’m proud of you, and I’m on your team. 

What they’re really saying: Option B: I’ll probably never read it, but I’m proud of you, and I’m on your team.

What they’re really saying: Option C: “Awesome! That’s fantastic! I’ll buy your book! How much do you want for it? You’ll sign it for me, won’t you? I can’t wait to tell my friends what you’ve done!” then looking over their shoulder with a glare at the rest of the people in the room who were too selfish to do or say anything. 

The moral of the story: Option A: 
I’m really thankful for every ‘Person W’ in my life. I had no idea when I embarked on my journey as an Indie author that it would hurt so much to know there were so many Zs and Ys in my circles, but I also had no idea how wonderful it would be to know who the Ws were, and that they were on my team.  

The moral of the story: Option B: 
Always be a W. Even if you never read the book, be a W. 

Happy 449th birthday, Mr Shakespeare!

Very few of my friends understand my love of the works of Shakespeare.
They’re not even interested in my explanations. I suspect they prefer to believe that I’m slightly crazy, or that I’m some kind of intellectual snob who talks about Shakespeare because I think it makes me look smart… or something like that.

It seems to me, those friends of mine must have had very poor English teachers at school.
The language is so beautiful. Shakespeare’s works express powerful ideas with clarity and passion. They provoke thought. They inspire discussion and debate. They touch on issues of the heart, the soul, and the human experience in ways that anyone can understand.

The ideas that are the foundations of Shakespeare’s works are still so relevant today. Which of us living in the 21st century do not understand anger, love, jealousy, greed, fear, insecurity, loneliness, or wishing that life were different than the way it is? Which of us cannot learn from seeing someone else handle their situation the wrong way?

When I teach one of Shakespeare’s texts in my classes, the key question I always bring my students to answer is, what does it mean? What message is Shakespeare delivering here? How would the Elizabethan audience understand it? How, and why, is that different than the way we understand it in the 21st century?

Engaging in interpretation of a text like Othello, Macbeth or Henry IV part I is less intimidating than it seems. It doesn’t take a teenager long to work out that Iago is not only jealous but also both manipulative and vindictive. They have an instinctive understanding of the ways in which Hal displeased Harry, but also of the ways in which Harry must have frustrated and discouraged Hal. Young men are quick to work out that any modern girl whose attitude resembles that of Lady Macbeth is, in all likelihood, not the girl for them. 

It’s all about common human experiences and what lessons can be drawn from the actions and misfortunes of others. The art of interpretation is discerning what the lessons are and how they should be understood. This can only be achieved if the text is known well, and thought about, and discussed, and debated, and challenged with different perspectives.
That’s what we do in my classes on Shakespeare.

Happy birthday, Will.

I still love you.