William Shakespeare Woke Me Up Today

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

I used to have a t-shirt that had that written across the front. I am once again awake earlier than usual and this was near the first thing that came to mind today.

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” It is a line from William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2. Dick, the Butcher utters those words in Act IV, Scene 2. I bought the t-shirt at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival when Hubby took me there before we were married. (Well, more likely is that he bought the shirt for me. And, as I recall, we thought it was so funny that each of us got one.)

Dick, the Butcher is the “right hand man” to Cade who attempts to rally the working class folk to help him in a bid for the crown with claims that he was a royal who had been raised secretly “on the wrong side of the tracks.”

Dick is in it for blood. He loves the idea of causing anarchy and while he doesn’t really believe any of Cade’s claims, he is willing to wreak havoc nonetheless. As Cade calls for a shift of power, Dick calls for violence.

Shakespeare Companies across the world have made a lot of money using it as a funny slogan on t-shirts and coffee cups.

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Cade’s response is fascinating.

“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.”

Why is this on my mind this morning? I’m writing to try to find out. In response to the idea of killing all the lawyers, Cade talks about innocent lamb’s having their skin used to write the documents that lawyers use to put things into practice. If you read a little further into this scene, a clerk is brought before him and because he proudly states that he was taught to read and write — that he can sign his own name rather than use a symbol — Cade sends him off to his death.

It has been a long time since I read the entirety of Henry VI, so I do not claim to have the big picture here. I am focused in on this one scene, in fact, that one line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Some have said it was sarcasm, but I’m not sure we can easily dismiss it as such. Cade seems ready to rid the world of educated folk who are not hard-working and create a society of working-class rulers.

Maybe that is what I’m struggling with this morning. This false narrative that there is “Us” and “Them.” It seems inevitable that when we see the world divided so cleanly and clearly that someone will suggest that the “other” must die.

Sometimes that is done with real, physical violence. Sometimes it is done by taking away the ability to work and provide for a family. Sometimes it is done by such inequality in healthcare that lives are unnecessarily lost.

I doubt Shakespeare imagined a day when that one line from one scene in one act in one play would be used as a joke on novelty items. I don’t think he hoped it would rally the audience member to acts of violence against those who could read and write. After all, he was in that group of the educated. He made his living by serving the Queen.

I wonder if it was such a ridiculous statement in order to jar the audience into thinking about this “us” vs. “them” mentality that we humans seem to have such a difficult time moving away from. I don’t know why this line was in my brain this morning. It has something to do with living in a society that tells us that there must be winners and losers. It has something to do with Jesus — as most of my thoughts, it comes back to Jesus.

I’m thinking now of those final moments during the execution of Jesus. The story goes that he was hanging between two criminals, that everyone knew he was innocent, not deserving the death penalty, but the system had gone through its process and convicted him anyway. One criminal saw himself as “other” but begged for Jesus to save him. One criminal saw himself as “other” and saw no hope that he would ever be anything but that. Jesus treated them as brothers, reminding the one who was terrified of what was coming next, that he would be with him throughout eternity.

Dick, the Butcher suggested killing all the lawyers because he thought of himself as “other.” Whether anyone else saw it or not, he thought of himself as less than and felt the only way to even the playing field was violence. That is what happens when we believe there have to be winners and losers. That is what happens when we believe if we are not on top, then we are nothing. Jesus, the living Christ, is giving us another option. There is no “other.” We have made it all up. There is no huge divide between this side and that side. It is a lie that we are being told.

I don’t mean to over-simplify. We have families in the United States that are divided over politics right now in a way that we haven’t seen since the Civil War. Brothers and sisters are refusing to speak to each other because they believe there are really sides. Of course, we have created a two-party system which inevitably will cause it to feel like this is real, but the myth of division is just that. It is a myth and its power is growing every day. It is a myth because we have the power to do something about it. Our families can have real conversations and know that disagreeing does not make the other person a monster. Our churches can have people who interpret the Bible in vastly different ways who still hold hands and sing and pray.

I realize that sounds like I’m suggesting we all gather round the campfire and sing and everything will be okay. No, this is not a Pollyanna dream. This is the hard work of seeking to see each other the way that God sees us. And, not just each other, but all of creation (thank you Fr. Richard Rohr!). When we can begin to do that, we will see others like Jesus saw that criminal hanging on the cross next to him. When we can begin to do that, we will trade our weapons for separation to tools for inclusion.

Look around. The Christ is there. There is no “other.” There is only the living Jesus. Working our way to this kind of living, this kind of seeing, is literally the ushering in of the Kindom that Jesus teaches.

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T. H. McClung, she/her(s)

T. H. McClung, she/her(s)

In no particular order: Writer, pastor, Mama Bear, LGBTQ+ ally, wife, preacher, watcher of TV, seeker, mystic want-to-be