In the play, a rebellion has broken out under the leadership of one Jack Cade. The rebels have marched from Canterbury to London, and are encamped in London. Cade’s second-in-command, Dick the Butcher, utters the line. Dick the Butcher ( a killer as evil as his name implies) was a follower of the rebel Jack Cade, who thought that if he disturbed law and order, he could become king. 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 portion where Cade makes vain boasts, which are 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 is the paragraph that follows that is most interesting. Cade replies:
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 . . . . Emphasis added.
In plainer words, it is Cade’s view that the language of lawyers (words written on parchment) enslaves; it is not his view that it liberates. It is lawyers’ language that takes away liberty; it does not protect liberty. It is the lawyers themselves who are instruments of the oppressors, not the defenders of liberty. Later, in Scene VII, Cade levels charges against Lord Say, charges that again indicate that lawyers and judges are the oppressors, not the protectors of liberty:
Thou hast appointed justices of peace, to call poor men before them about matters they were not able to answer. Moreover, thou hast put them in prison; and because they could not read, thou hast hanged them .
Dick’s statement comes from a murderer, not a friend of liberty. Shakespeare knew that such anarchy could only succeed if lawyers were eliminated. The interpretation was initially advanced in 1985 by Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissenting opinion in Walters v. National Ass’n of Radiation Survivors, 473 U.S. 305, 105 S.Ct. 3180 (1985) which denied the right to counsel to veteran’s in administrative hearings. In Walters, Justice Rehnquist, writing for a six-justice majority, articulated remarkably negative (how much of this attitude is shared by the rest of the judiciary is a question for another day) view about the legal profession and the adversary system-so negative, in fact, that Justice Stevens both began and ended his dissent with the extraordinary charge that the Court, "does not appreciate the value of individual liberty." Id. at 358, 372 (Stevens, J., dissenting). Simply stated, the argument that the line is meant to praise lawyers is that the sentence was uttered by a thoroughgoing blackguard, a “riotous anarchist whose intent was to overthrow the lawful government of England.” Shakespeare knew that such anarchy could only succeed if lawyers were eliminated.
A very rough and simplistic modern translation of Cade’s words 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 a clearly lawyer-bashing joke. The "kill the lawyers" joke is expressed by villains, who later commit murderous deeds. This is their rough solution to a social problem. As stated by the web page Lawyers are Our Friends!:
Cade's friend Dick the Butcher, being only barely smarter than Cade, knew Cade's scheme could not succeed if the learned advisors to the real King actually investigated Cade's lineage. So, Dick the Butcher advised Cade that "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," hoping that this tactic would prevent Cade from being discovered as an imposter. At least in Shakespeare's time, lawyers were regarded as the protectors of truth.
Perhaps the line ‘kill all the lawyers” is a warning to all us lawyers to engage in self examination of ourselves and our profession to do what we can to protect liberty and so law is not an instrument of oppression by the powerful against the powerless. What lawyer’s do on an everyday basis was explained by Justice Stevens: “There is no reason to assume that lawyers would add confusion rather than clarity to [ ] proceedings. As a profession lawyers are skilled communicators dedicated to the service of their clients. Only if it is assumed that the average lawyer is incompetent or unscrupulous can one rationally conclude that the efficiency of the agency's work would be undermined.” Walter at 363 (Stevens, J., dissenting). A defendant's need for a lawyer is nowhere better stated than in the moving words of Mr. Justice Sutherland in Powell v. Alabama: "The right to be heard would be, in many cases, of little avail if it did not comprehend the right to be heard by counsel. Even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law."' Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S.335, 344-45 (1963)