In honor of Shakespeare?s 453rd birthday (more or less), we take a look at one of his most famous ? and often misunderstood ? quotes.
We?ve all heard the line: ?The first thing we do, let?s kill all the lawyers.? Shakespeare wrote it in 1598 (Henry VI, Part 2) and people are still saying it today. It was the name of a movie in 1998, the title of a Newsroom episode in 2013, and the headline of a law blog published only days ago. Killing all the lawyers is a provocative line, for sure. Except according to those who study such things, the line wasn?t shocking at all. In fact, it was a good old-fashioned joke.
?In today?s world, many people can spout a line or two from the bard to earn social credit, but few of them are aware of the full context of the line itself,? says Dr. Jennifer McDermott, an English professor at John Abbott College in Montreal, who wrote her thesis on Shakespeare. ?Most notorious among these, is ?first thing we do, let?s kill all the lawyers.??
Jonathan Healey in his blog, The Social Historian, explains things a bit further: ?Out of all of Shakespeare?s lines, we can be pretty sure that few ? if any ? got as big a cheer as this one. The line is spoken by ?Dick the Butcher,? [?] and it?s part of a series of utopian promises offered by the rebel? But, it?s also a line ? and a joke ? that is seeping with irony.?
In Henry VI, it was a rebel calling for the ?killing? of other rebels. Shakespeare?s audience was made up of young, wealthy Londoners, many of whom were lawyers, and would have certainly understood the joke, according to Healey. ?[Lawyers] endangered the stability of the state ? threatened to turn the world upside down. So it?s a delicious irony to hear [?] a rebel denouncing lawyers.?
Says Dr. McDermott: ?One of the perils of fame is being misquoted. Shakespeare, as the most famous playwright of all, frequently has his words taken out of context precisely because his works are so canonical and are often anthologized piecemeal.? As for whether or not we understand his humor nowadays, she says, ?Shakespeare?s bawdy humor resonates with most audiences.?