Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Shakespeare and Lawyers

I just read a great article about Shakespeare's (in)famous quote: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

The article explores the meaning of the quote, and whether or not Shakespeare was truly inciting violence against members of the legal profession.

I am not surprised that many lawyers, including David Epstein, argue that Shakespeare did not support killing lawyers. I doubt that any reasonable person really wants to murder all lawyers.

And yet, most people will laugh at dark humor directed at lawyers. I am reminded of the old joke: 

Q: "What do you call 100 lawyers on the bottom of the ocean?"

A: "A good start."

I think Shakespeare understood this tension between needing lawyers yet disliking them, and he was exploiting that tension for effect. The fact that we are still talking about this quote some 400 years later is evidence how effective he was.

I really admire how Mr. Epstein is addressing the issue. Rather than write an article about the matter, he has been taking a creative writing course, and is currently writing a play that puts us in the audience, to see and hear what is going on as the Henry VI play is performed.

It is an inspired idea. In fact, I had the same idea almost ten years ago, and that's how my versions of Shakespeare's plays came about.

The idea was based on one of my favorite quotes/challenges: "Don't criticize. Create."

Rather than write criticism about Shakespeare's life and plays, I am creating my own versions.

But let's take a look at this (in)famous line:

The "let's kill all the lawyers" line is in Henry VI, Part 2, and is spoken by Dick the Butcher, a co-conspiror in Jack Cade's rebellion against King Henry VI.

Jack Cade's Rebellion

The fact that the line is spoken by some minor henchman is significant. If Shakespeare had given the line to another character, someone more heroic, like Henry V perhaps, it would take on a greater significance, and perhaps show what Shakespeare really thought of lawyers in general.

By giving it to such a minor character, Shakespeare is essentially covering himself and evading the Elizabethan censor, the Master of the Revels, who might have struck the line or even disallowed the entire play for such incendiary language.

But what Jack Cade says in response to Dick is perhaps more significant: 

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

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

Cade is saying that the law, and written contracts between men, can "undo a man."

Another term to express this could be to emasculate, which in turn becomes to castrate. What better way to undo a man than to make him not a man, and take that which most signifies manhood?

This leads me to The Merchant of Venice, written a few years after the Henry VI plays, which has arguably Shakespeare's most famous trial scene.

The trial scene

While I was researching my version of this problem play, I solved a very important problem. What is Shylock referring to when he speaks of "a pound of flesh?"

I had discovered that this play, Shakespeare's most problematic problem play, is not a tragicomedy at all, but rather a very bawdy farce. 

The entire play is filled with hilarious jokes, and whenever you think the play will get serious, it gets even more funny, and Shakespeare doubles down on the farce.

So, when Shylock refers to taking a pound of Antonio's flesh, he is in fact demanding to castrate him. Yes, the pound of flesh is Antonio's penis, his manhood.

The fact that the taking of a pound of flesh is written into the contract between Shylock and Antonio is reminiscent of what Jack Cade said about contracts.

I have written recently about the fact that Shakespeare created the character of Shylock to represent himself and his father, John Shakespeare, and the fact that the meaning of Shylock's name is Shakespeare.

Shylock means Shakespeare, and Shakespeare means Shylock

John Shakespeare was in and out of court, and the lawsuits against him may have been the financial and psychological ruin of him. 

This happened just at a time when Shakespeare would have been going off to university.

It has been argued that Shakespeare would have become a lawyer himself. Perhaps he admired the lawyers he saw as a child. Perhaps his father and mother had told Shakespeare that he should one day practice law, at the Inns of Court in London perhaps.

But with his father's reversal of fortune, from the lawsuits brought against him, Shakespeare never went to Cambridge, or Oxford, as was more likely since it was only a day's ride away.

Shakespeare may have witnessed the trials himself. At the very least he saw the emotional and financial toll they took on his father.

What did Shakespeare see? What happened to his father?

I think he saw his father become undone. This undoing would have stayed with Shakespeare his entire life, and it looks like it made its way into his plays.

So, when Shakespeare wrote "let's kill all the lawyers" he is being funny. He is also being provocative. He is also speaking his mind, and expressing a lifelong anger, and frustration at a system of contracts and courts that could destroy a great man like his father.

The fact that this line represents something very personal about Shakespeare and his father is part of the reason the line resonates all these years later.

What do you think?


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