O, Monsterous

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It’s conventional wisdom, for a very large number of unwise people, to claim Shakespeare was right when he wrote “The first thing we do,.let’s kill all the lawyers.” The phrase appears approximately 94,200 times in a Google search, usually by peopl~engaged in law- yer-bashing.

What these. ignoramuses do not realize is that the .line, from “King Henry VI,” is uttered by a villain.

In the play, Cade, who plans to lead a rebellion, is making demagogic promises which are so illogical that they could only appeal to fools: “There shall be in England seven half-penny loaves sold for .. a penny; the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops; and I shall make it a felony to drink small [weak]beer.” In other words, he imagines that government can repeal the laws of economics.

“Dick the Butcher” – a fool and therefore an admirer of Cade – chimes in with the “let’s kill all the lawyers” line.

Cade agrees, and then puts the campaign against lawyers in the context of hatred for literacy, as· he complains “That parchment, being scribbl’d o’er, should undo a man.” Cade also complains about being forced to live up to a contract which he had previously agreed to.

Then, a clerk (a prisoner of some of Cade’s followers) is brought in. When Cade is told that the clerk “can read and write,” Cade responds, “O, monstrous.”

Thus, Shakespeare was mocking illiterate rabble-rousing “leaders.” The rule of law – as the educated people of Shakespeare’s time well understood – was the greatest accomplishment of English civilization, and an essential restraint on the powers of the government.

Today, as in Shakespeare’s time, persons who rail against lawyers and ignorantly repeat Dick the Butcher’s foolish statement undermine the foundation of civilization. The alternative to lawyers and the rule of law is the rule of tyrants and knaves.

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