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A Minor Shakespeare Controversy

August 25, 2010

Understandably, lawyers tend to get defensive when the Shakespeare line “Let’s kill all the lawyers” is trotted out. They are quick to point out the context of the line, which is, after all, uttered by a less-than-sympathetic character in Henry IV, Part 2.  Indeed, many argue that because the words come from the mouth of a villain, then Shakespeare was in fact scornful of the sentiment they express. Thus, for some the line is even seen as “paying great and deserved homage to our venerable profession as the front line defenders of democracy.”

It’s true the words shouldn’t be read out of context or accepted as a face-value statement of Shakespeare’s own views.  But it’s nearly as simplistic to suggest that because a “bad, dumb guy” said it, then Shakespeare must have held the opposite view.  That too ignores much important context and bulldozes over any nuance. Here is Seth Finkelstein’s more insightful gloss on “kill all the lawyers,” in which he argues – pretty persuasively, for my money – that the line is in fact closer to being a “lawyer-bashing joke” than many lawyers would probably like.

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