From William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2, Act IV, Scene 2.
It is among Shakespeare’s most famous lines, as well as one of his most controversial, and has been used as the title of movies and books. Shakespeare may be making a joke when character “Dick The Butcher” suggests one of the ways the band of pretenders to the throne can improve the country is to kill all the lawyers. Dick is a rough character, a killer as evil as his name implies, like the other henchmen, and this is his rough solution to his perceived societal problem.
Few people are unfamiliar with the phrase, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Rueful, mocking, it often expresses the ordinary person’s frustration and hatred with the arcana and complexity of law. Sometimes it’s known that the saying comes from one of Shakespeare’s plays, but usually there’s little awareness beyond that.
The line is actually uttered by the character “Dick The Butcher”. While he’s a killer as evil as his name implies, he often makes highly comedic and amusing statements. The wisecracking villain is not an invention of modern action movies, it dates back to Shakespeare and beyond.
The setup for the “kill the lawyers” statement is the ending portion of a comedic relief part of a scene in Henry VI, part 2.
Dick and another henchman, Smith are members of the gang of Jack Cade, a pretender to the throne. The built-up is long conversation where Cade makes vain boasts, which are then cut down by sarcastic replies from the others.
Cade proceeds to go more and more over the top, and begins to describe his absurd ideal world:
Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows reformation. There shall be in England seven half-penny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hoop’d 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!
Appreciated and encouraged, he continues on in this vein:
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.
And here is where Dick speaks the famous line.
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
It’s hilarious. A very rough and simplistic modern translation would be “When I’m the King, there’ll be two cars in every garage, and a chicken in every pot” “AND NO LAWYERS”. It’s clearly a lawyer-bashing joke. This is further supported by the dialogue just afterwards (which is actually quite funny even now, and must have been hilarious when the idiom was contemporary):
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? Some say the bee stings: but I say, ’tis the bee’s wax; for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.- How now! who’s there?
He might just as well have been describing “shrink-wrap” software licensing agreements today in the last sentence. To understand what Cade is saying here, you have to know that documents of the time were likely parchment, and sealed with wax. So when he says “Some say the bees stings; but I say, ’tis the bee’s wax”. he’s making an ironic comment somewhat akin to “Some men rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen”. And the fact that he himself is an evil man only serves to heighten the irony, not discredit the sentiment – the more evil he is, the more the contrast is apparent.
It makes as much sense to conclude that since the “kill the lawyers” joke is expressed by villains, who later commit murderous deeds “there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score” is an approval of Libertarian thought, and a warning about Communists.
Now, just after this exchange, the scene changes tone. The gang commits the murder of the clerk of Chatham. Here is the second level of Shakespeare’s commentary on law and lawyers, where the murder is carried out according to scrupulous procedure, a parody of law:
I am sorry for’t: the man is a proper man, of mine honour; unless I find him guilty, he shall not die.- Come hither, sirrah, I must examine thee: what is thy name?
By this contrast Shakespeare thus makes in an alternating, connected, comedic and tragic manner the age-old point about the difference between *law* (and those who argue it) and *justice*. Cade makes up his “version” of law to his own ends, to the justification of his evil deeds, which is reminiscent of the context which commonly provokes “kill the lawyers” (where the phrase is in wry protest of actions thought to be the same in form, if not in degree). Far from being “out of context” the usage is more true to the original than most people know.
In fact, Shakespeare used lawyers as figures of derision on several occasions. In “Romeo and Juliet”, Mercutio uses the line “O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees;” In “King Lear”, the fool defends a speech in riddles by comparing it to an “unfee’d lawyer”:
EARL OF KENT.
This is nothing, fool.
Then ’tis like the breath of an unfee’d lawyer,- you gave me nothing for’t.- Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?
There’s a very long and lawyer-uncomplimentary passage in Hamlet. Note the similarity of the “parchment” joke to that seen in Henry VI, part 2.
There’s another: why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddits now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery? Hum! This fellow might be in’s time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries: is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt? will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?
Not a jot more, my lord.
Is not parchment made of sheep-skins?
Ay, my lord, and of calf-skins too.
They are sheep and calves which seek out assurance in that. I will speak to this fellow.- Whose grave’s this, sirrah?
As long as there are lawyers, there will always be “lawyer jokes”. And lawyers will show how those jokes actually ring true by trying to explain how such lampooning is not true…