In writing the other day about humor in the legal profession, I observed that, among cynical wisecracks about lawyers, the best known, perhaps, is the rebel's proposal in Shakespeare's "Henry the Sixth II"--"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
Some lawyers have taken umbrage, though they seem more disappointed than angry.
"To your credit," writes Paul P. Selvin of Selvin & Weiner, "you characterized the quote as 'the rebel's proposal in Shakespeare's Henry VI, II.' But that brief characterization is insufficient to overcome the popular belief that this line reflects Shakespeare's true feelings about lawyers."
Selvin points out that the line is spoken by Dick the Butcher, a follower of Jack Cade, who in the play is depicted as "the head of an army of rabble and a demagogue pandering to the ignorant."
Selvin argues: "The proposal to kill all the lawyers in fact illustrates that society, education and morality cannot endure without law and lawyers."
Alan Paul Gooding, a Studio City lawyer, writes in a similar vein:
"I was sorry to see that you, whom I regard as an erudite writer (I'm as erudite as the closest volume of Encyclopaedia Britannica), fell into the trap of so many and misinterpreted an oft-misused quotation as a needle to lawyers and the legal profession."
He points out, like Selvin, that Shakespeare really meant the line as a tribute to lawyers:
"This proposal is not meant by way of derision about another scoundrel. Rather, the scene shows a group of traitors plotting what they must do in order to overthrow King Henry VI. . . . In order for Dick and Cade and the murderous crew to seize London and eventually take over the crown, they knew it would be necessary to kill the lawyers who would be a bastion against such rebel forces. . . .
"I would prefer to think that it is the army of lawyers in this country (along with many others) who are helping to protect our system of government, the rights of the common man and the remedies by which any of us can seek redress against wrongs, be they wrongs of government officials or wrongs committed by our fellow citizens. . . ."
First, I thought that by characterizing the line as a "cynical wisecrack" and by identifying its author as one of the rebels, I had put it in perspective.
I don't see how anyone, even if he were not familiar with the play or with the life of Henry VI, could imagine that that line, considering those qualifications, represented the true feelings of Shakespeare, or my own.
Does anyone suppose that Hamlet's lament, "Frailty, thy name is woman!" represents Shakespeare's true feelings about women?
As for the Bard's attitude toward lawyers, surely everyone knows the story of Portia's advocacy in "The Merchant of Venice," when she argues that Shylock may take his pound of flesh, but that if he spills one drop of blood his own life will be forfeit.
Coincidentally, I was bicycling in the Pasadena Athletic Club the other morning, watching the "Today" show on the little TV between the handlebars, and I heard a young woman say, "So Shakespeare was right. First we have to take all the lawyers out and shoot 'em."
That sounds more like the kind of reckless use of the quotation to which I think Selvin and Gooding might well object.
What started this was my quoting a few anecdotes from "It's Legal to Laugh--A Collection of Humor About the Legal Profession," (Vantage Press), by Milton D. Green.
As long as we're kidding lawyers, here are a few more from readers:
"My father," writes Robert F. Kaufmann of Pasadena, "who studied law in Boston around 1910, was fond of telling about one of his law professors, possessed of a fine legal mind, a crusty temperament, and a biting wit. Once, when appearing before a particularly incompetent judge, the professor raised numerous objections, and was overruled each time. Every time he was overruled, he served notice that he intended to appeal. Finally, the judge told him that if he continued in this fashion, the judge would fine him $50 for contempt of court. Whereupon the lawyer shot back, 'Fifty dollars would not begin to show my contempt for this court.'
"The judge raised the fine to $100."
Emery R. Walker Jr. of Claremont recalls another one involving contempt:
"Judge, angrily to a lawyer: 'Are you showing contempt for this court?'
"Lawyer, 'I hope not, your honor; I was doing my best to conceal it.' "
Alan Keogh recalls one in which God and Lucifer are quarreling over the boundary between heaven and hell. "The dispute became quite acrimonious, and finally, in exasperation, God said, 'All right, if you won't be reasonable, I'm going to sue you.'
"Whereupon Satan, with a triumphant look, asked, 'Where are you going to find a lawyer?' "
In similar vein is one from Thomas D. Cullen of San Pedro, which he found in one of Fletcher Pratt's books on the Napoleonic Wars:
"During one of the French invasion scares of the early 1800s some leaders of the English bar raised a home defense regiment composed entirely of lawyers. The sponsors presented their new regiment at a review for inspection by King George III, and inquired if His Majesty might be pleased to suggest a name for it. 'Ha!" said the king with a thump of his cane. 'We'll call 'em the Devil's Own!' "
I do hope no one will think that I believe all lawyers should go to hell.