Kill All the Lawyers? Nope, We Need Them

Henry Woods, "Portia"

Henry Woods, “Portia”(1888)


I am delighted to once again share a talk on Shakespeare and the Law by U.S. District Judge Thomas W. Thrash. Tom, who married a close childhood friend of mine, turns to Shakespeare to help him in his work. This particular talk, delivered before the Intellectual Property Law Institute on September 16, 2016, includes observations on the need for civility in the practice of the law. Among other plays, Tom cites Macbeth, Merchant of Venice, and practically all of the history plays.  

Tom reflects powerfully on the well-known Shakespeare line, “Kill all the lawyers.” He points out that what sounds like a joke becomes a terrifying reality, thus serving as a warning about what can happen when the law is disregarded. In an election season where we are seeing many norms broken and where one candidate has threatened to jail his opponent if he is elected, this citation is only too timely.

I also find fascinating how Tom categorizes different Shakespeare villains. As a judge who sees many criminals, he is able to draw on Shakespeare to help him understand why they behave as they do.  

Lessons in Professionalism

By Thomas W. Thrash, Chief United States District Judge, Northern District of Georgia

At the outset, let me say that it is an honor for me to be invited to speak to you on the topic of professionalism. The challenges that we face as a profession are not entirely new, but they do seem to be accelerating as we move into the 21st century. They include the loss of civility and professional courtesy, the win at all costs mentality that I see particularly in intellectual property cases, the unseemly hustle for business, the focus upon profit at the cost of healthy professional relationships, the growth of mega law firms that are partnerships in name only.

With that in mind, I am going to do something a little different from your usual CLE professionalism talk. Today, I am going to talk about lessons of professionalism from the works of William Shakespeare. Just in case any CLE police are listening in, I will make occasional references to the Lawyer’s Creed promulgated by the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism. I commend it to you along with the Aspirational Statement on Professionalism, which can be found at the State Bar’s web site. If you were here last year, you heard Version 1.0 of this talk. This is Version 2.0 and contains much new material.

Okay, so lessons in professionalism from William Shakespeare. This may seem to be an odd choice of material for a CLE program addressed to a bunch of hotshot intellectual property lawyers. After all, Shakespeare was not a lawyer. To the best of my knowledge, he never used the word professionalism. With only a couple of exceptions, lawyers and judges do not play large roles in his major plays. Nevertheless, there is much to be learned from him.

In my opinion, Shakespeare was the greatest single writer in the history of the English language. His only rival is the King James Version of the Bible. Indeed, the Bible teaches us much about professionalism. For example, virtually everything that needs to be said is contained in Proverbs 22:1: “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” But the King James Version was written by a committee of scholars, not one man.

There is much that we can learn from Shakespeare, not just because of his grand and beautiful use of the English language, but because so many of his plays address the basic and fundamental questions of why people do bad things and why bad things happen to good people.

Although only two of Shakespeare’s major plays have lawyers and judges as their central characters, he talks a lot about lawyers and judges and trials. One Shakespearian scholar has suggested that before his father’s financial problems arose, Shakespeare was a pupil at one of the Inns of Court. He poses the hypothesis that Shakespeare got his first taste of the theater by staging plays at his Inn of Court.

Whether that is true or not, there is no doubt that Shakespeare knew a lot about lawyers and the courts of justice. It is well documented that his plays were regularly performed at the Inns of Court. I suspect that there were more than a few law students drinking in the taverns and whorehouses that surrounded the Globe Theatre on the south side of the Thames River – across from the City of London proper – and outside of the jurisdiction of its authorities.

Indeed, in the Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare has one character say, “And do as adversaries do in law–Strive mightily but eat and drink as friends.” This addresses one of the core concepts of professionalism: civility. The Lawyer’s Creed includes this promise: “To the opposing parties and their counsel, I offer fairness, integrity, and civility.” Unfortunately, lack of civility–particularly in the litigation context–is one of the major problems that we have as a profession in 2016. With the win-at-all-costs mentality that exists, especially in high stakes civil litigation, lawyers are quick to demonize their adversaries, and too quick to accuse opposing lawyers of unethical and dishonest misbehavior.

After that, it is hard to imagine eating and drinking as friends. As often as not, this scorched earth approach to litigation backfires. Even when it succeeds in the short term, it makes it impossible to develop the professional relationships and friendships with opposing counsel that so enrich the practice of law. It also contributes to a decline in the public perception of lawyers as ethical practitioners in an honorable profession.

Let me begin by talking about the most famous statement by Shakespeare about lawyers, from Henry VI, Part 2: “First thing, let’s kill all the lawyers.” This is often quoted as a Dan Quayle like statement that there are too many lawyers, or that life would be better without having to have lawyers, or that lawyers are bad people.

In context, however, exactly the opposite is true. Henry VI, Part 2, is set in England in the late 15th century at the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. Henry VI is a weak and ineffectual king, and the nobles and great lords rule the country. England is in turmoil, with a charlatan named Jack Cade leading an armed mob of angry tenant farmers and tradesmen in a march on London with the aim of overthrowing the ruling elites and all of England’s legal and governmental institutions.

The statement about killing all the lawyers is made by Dick the Butcher, one of the leaders of the mob of anarchists. He wants to get rid of the lawyers because they are the defenders of the rule of law. Lawyers are defenders of a system of justice that curtails the arbitrary use of force. To me, recognizing our special role as defenders of the rule of law is an important aspect of professionalism.

Henry VI, Part 2 is rarely performed these days, which is a shame because it is a fine play. While I have never seen it performed in front of a live audience, I have read accounts by two Shakespearian scholars who have. Their experiences were identical. When Dick the Butcher says, “First thing, let’s kill all the lawyers” the audience laughs. This is a lawyer joke, right? Lawyer jokes are funny. But then Jack Cade follows is up with this:

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.

Then some of Cade’s men come in with the Clerk of Chatham:

Weaver: “The clerk of Chatham: he can write and read and cast accompt.
Cade: O monstrous! Here’s a villain!
Weaver: Has a book in his pocket with red letters in’t.
Cade: Nay, then, he is a conjurer.
Butcher: Nay, he can make obligations, and write court-hand.
Cade: Come hither, sirrah, I must examine thee: what is thy name?
Clerk: Emmanuel.
Cade: Dost thou use to write thy name? or
hast thou a mark to thyself, like an honest plain-dealing man?
Clerk: Sir, I thank God, I have been so well brought up that I can write my name.
All: He hath confessed: away with him! he’s a villain and a traitor.
Cade: Away with him, I say! hang him with his pen and
ink-horn about his neck.”

So Jack Cade and his mob hang the Clerk because he can read and write.

At this point in the live performances, the audiences get quiet and serious. Maybe this is not supposed to be funny. Then the mob kills Lord Stafford and marches on London, where Cade commands his followers to destroy the Inns of Court.

Cade: “So, sirs: now go some and pull down the Savoy;
others to the inns of court; down with them all.
Butcher: I have a suit unto your lordship.

Cade: Be it a lordship, thou shalt have it for that word.

Butcher: Only that the laws of England may come out of your mouth.

Cade: I have thought upon it, it shall be so. Away, burn
all the records of the realm: my mouth shall be
the parliament of England.

So all the lawyers will be killed and the Inns of Court will be destroyed so that no future lawyers may be trained. All property records are to be destroyed, as are all titles and class distinctions. Jack Cade’s words are now the law of England.

A messenger enters and announces the capture of Lord Say:

Messenger: My lord, a prize, a prize! here’s the Lord Say, which sold the towns in France; he that made us pay
one and twenty fifteens, and one shilling to the
pound, the last subsidy.
Cade: Well, he shall be beheaded for it ten times. Ah, thou say, thou serge, nay, thou buckram lord! now
art thou within point-blank of our jurisdiction regal…. Thou hast most traitorously
corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to
the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear. 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; when, indeed, only for that cause they have been most worthy to live. Away with him, away with him! he speaks Latin.

When Lord Say pleads for his life, describing the good works that he has done during his lifetime, Cade responds:

Cade: Go, take him away, I say, and strike
off his head presently; and then break into his son-in-law’s house, Sir James Cromer, and strike off his head, and bring them both upon two poles hither.
All: It shall be done.

Lord Say and his son-in-law are beheaded and their heads are stuck on long poles and paraded through the streets of London. At each street corner the severed heads are put together in a grotesques charade of a kiss.

By this time this time, the live audiences that had laughed at the lawyer joke are recoiling with horror at what is being done once the rule of law is overthrown.

Eventually, the mob is disbursed and Jack Cade is killed. Before then, however, Shakespeare has taught us an important lesson about the rule of law. As I said, I think that we have a professional responsibility to speak out when the rule of law is threatened. We should be vigilant to warn against modern day Jack Cades.

Let me repeat the Lawyer’s Creed that I mentioned just a moment ago: “To the opposing parties and their counsel, I offer fairness, integrity, and civility.”
The concept of fairness includes not overreaching–not taking unfair advantage of an adversary. The most famous example in all of literature of overreaching or taking unfair advantage is in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Antonio, a merchant, has borrowed three thousand ducats from local moneylender Shylock, who hates him. As collateral for the loan, Antonio has signed a bond in which he promises to allow Shylock to cut out a pound of his flesh if he does not repay the loan on time. All of Antonio’s ventures fail and he defaults on the loan.

Shylock then demands a judgment awarding him a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio’s friends offer to pay double the principal of the loan, Shylock refuses them and insists, “I would have my bond.” When the Duke of Venice pleads for mercy, Shylock replies,

The pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought. ‘Tis mine and I will have it. If you deny me, fie upon your law; there is no force in the decrees of Venice. I stand for judgment. Answer; shall I have it?

Then the heroine Portia, disguised as a young Doctor of Laws, enters the court to advise the Duke. She makes the most eloquent plea for mercy ever heard in a court of law:

The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown. His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, the attribute to awe and majesty, wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings. But mercy is above this sceptred sway. It is enthroned in the hearts of kings; it is an attribute to God himself, and earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.

Shylock, however, refuses: “I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond.” Portia then advises the Duke that Shylock is entitled to claim his pound of flesh under the law.

As Shylock summons Antonio to cut out his pound of flesh, however, Portia shocks and amazes everyone in the court when she says,

Tarry a little. There is something else. This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood. The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh.’ Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh. But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate unto the state of Venice.

Shylock demurs and asks for the return of his three thousand ducats. But Portia says that he can have nothing but his pound of flesh. Portia then advises the Duke that all of Shylock’s goods and lands are forfeited to the state because he – an alien – has sought to take the life of a citizen. In other words, Shakespeare counsels us against overreaching and making unfair demands of our adversaries.

I often think of Shylock demanding his pound of flesh when I am hearing a particularly nasty discovery dispute.

To me, as a former lawyer and now a judge, one of the great things about Shakespeare is his insight into why people behave badly. Some of his most vivid characters are simply amoral. They have no moral sense of what is right and wrong. For whatever reason, whether ego, envy, or ambition, they will do anything to get what they want. Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear are characters such as this.

Othello tragically does not recognize Iago for what he is. Thus, by the lies and machinations of Iago, Othello is transformed from a respected and heroic general into a homicidal maniac. Beware the Iagos of this world.

Other Shakespeare characters know that what they are doing is wrong but do it anyway because of greed, ambition, or sheer folly. King Claudius in Hamlet, MacBeth, and Lear are characters like this. King Claudius, who has murdered his brother to become king and then married the brother’s widow, is particularly eloquent in describing the struggle between his conscience and the desire to keep what he has gained through his evil deeds. After the play within the play, he has difficulty praying:

Oh, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven. It hath the primal eldest curse upon it, a brother’s murder. Pray can I not. My fault is past–but, O, what form of prayer can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder?’ That cannot be, since I am still possessed of those effects for which I did the murder–my crown, mine own ambition and my queen. May one be pardoned and retain the offense? My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

King Claudius recognizes that bad behavior has consequences that cannot just be wished away.

Others like Othello and Antony in Antony and Cleopatra do not intend to do evil but are destroyed by their own passions and lack of self awareness. Shakespeare knows well that bad behavior usually begets more bad behavior. MacBeth, who first murders King Duncan and his attendants while the King is an overnight guest and then murders his comrade Banquo, says to Lady MacBeth,

For mine own good all causes shall give way. I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.

He goes on to cause the slaughter of Macduff’s wife and children before he himself is killed in battle and beheaded. One of my favorite Shakespearean scholars, Harold Goddard, said this about Macbeth:

How did Shakespeare have the audacity to center a tragedy around a murderer and tyrant, a man so different in his appeal to our sympathies from a Romeo, a Brutus, or a Hamlet? But Macbeth is at bottom any man of noble intentions who gives way to his appetites. And who at one time or another has not been that man? Who, looking back over his life, cannot perceive some moral catastrophe that he escaped by inches? Or did not escape. Macbeth reveals how close we who thought ourselves safe may be to the precipice.

Almost every lawyer that I have sent to prison for stealing from his clients has been a Macbeth. He starts out stealing just a little to support a declining law practice or an unaffordable standard of living. He sincerely intends to pay it back. Then he steals a little more from another client to pay off the first. He then steals more from another client to pay off the second and so on. He tells a little lie, and then a bigger one to cover up the first lie, and then a bigger one, and so on.

He then ends up sitting in a federal prison after his law license has been revoked thinking to himself, “How the hell did I get here.” Always remember that it is easier to tell your wife, “Honey we can’t afford the country club,” or “We have to take Johnny out of private school,” or “We can’t take that ski vacation this year,” than it is to explain why the FBI is knocking on your door at 6 a.m. with a warrant for your arrest. But back to Shakespeare.

Another lesson in professionalism is the importance of trustworthiness in relationships. Nothing is more destructive to trust than dishonesty and scheming for advancement. In Shakespeare’s King Richard III, lying and treachery are developed into an art form. Richard, the Duke of Gloucester and younger brother of King Edward the Fourth, wants to be king but has an older brother and two nephews ahead of him in the line of succession. In the preceding play Henry VI, Part 3, he tells us how he will get the crown:

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.

Richard, who has a hunchback and a crippled arm, begins his famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech by announcing his intentions:

And therefore since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair, well-spoken days,
I am determinèd to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductious, dangerous,
By drunken prophesies, libels and dreams
To set my brothers, Clarence and the King,
In deadly hate, the one against the other.

Of the King, he says,

I’ll in to urge his hatred more to Clarence
With lies well steeled with weighty arguments
And, if I fail not in my deep intent,
Clarence hath not another day to live.

He then proceeds to have his bother Clarence murdered in the Tower by hired assassins, after which he begins wooing Lady Anne, the wife of Edward the prince of Wales and daughter-in-law of Henry the Sixth, both of whom he has just murdered. This scene shows Richard’s spectacular talent for lying.

First he tells her is that all that he has done has been because of his love for her. When she spits in his face, he responds with,

Richard: “Why dost thou spit at me?

Anne: Would it were mortal poison for thy sake.
Richard: Never came poison from so sweet a place.
Anne: Never hung poison on a fouler toad;

Out of my sight, thou dost infect my eyes.

Richard: Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine.
Anne: Would they were basilisks to strike thee dead.
Richard: I would they were, that I might die at once,
For now they kill me with a living death. [He weeps.]

Those eyes of thine from mine have drawn salt tears,
Shamed their aspect with store of childish drops.

I never sued to friend nor enemy,

My tongue could never learn sweet soothing words,
But now thy beauty is proposed my fee

My proud heart sues and prompts my tongue to speak.

[She looks scornfully at him.]

Teach not thy lips such scorn, for they were made
For kissing, lady, not for such contempt.

If thy revengeful heart cannot forgive,

Lo, here I lend thee this sharp pointed sword,
[Richard hands Anne his sword.]

Which, if thou please to hide in this true bosom
And let the soul forth that adoreth thee,

I lay it naked to the deadly stroke

And humbly beg the death upon my knee.

[He kneels and lays his breast open. She offers at it with his sword.]

Nay, do not pause, ’twas I that killed your husband,
But ’twas thy beauty that provokèd me.

Nay, now dispatch, ’twas I that killed King Henry,
But ’twas thy heavenly face that set me on.

[Here she lets fall the sword]

Take up the sword again or take up me.
Anne: Arise dissembler, though I wish thy death,

I will not be the executioner.

Her curses at Richard are truly magnificent, but he does not take no for an answer, telling lie after lie until he ultimately breaks down her defenses:

Anne: I would I knew thy heart.
Richard: Tis figured in my tongue.
Anne: I fear me both are false.
Richard: Then never was man true.
Anne: Well, well, put up your sword.
Richard: Say then my peace is made.
[Richard stands and sheathes the sword.]
Anne: That shall you know hereafter.
Richard: But shall I live in hope?
Anne: All men, I hope, live so.

Anne is in a very vulnerable position. Her husband is dead, and her father and father-in-law have been defeated and killed by the Yorkists in the Wars of the Roses. Now here is he brother of the king making love to her, so at the end of the scene she accepts Richard’s ring. After she leaves the stage, Richard exults,

Was ever woman in this humor wooed?
Was ever woman in this humor won?

I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.
What, I that killed her husband and his father,
To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,
With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,
The bleeding witness of her hatred by,
Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,

And I nothing to back my suit at all

But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her? All the world to nothing.

After Anne marries Richard, she never has a moment’s happiness and she dies of grief and sorrow. Richard, meanwhile, achieves the throne by lies and treachery, murdering his brother and executing his ally against the Queen, Lord Hastings, for not supporting Richard’s claim to the throne.

He then turns on his ally Buckingham, who spreads lies about the illegitimacy of King Edward’s children but then refuses to go along with the murder of the young princes. Richard becomes King after spreading rumors that his mother was an adulterer and his older brother a bastard. He then has the young princes in the Tower murdered and executes Buckingham. His villainy is been spectacularly successful in the short term.

As the butchery accelerates, however, Richard’s talent for dissimulation wans. His attempt to woe Princess Elisabeth fails. On the night before the fateful battle of Bosworth Field, the ghosts of Richard’s victims appear to him in a dream, and he confesses to himself that he is a villain, perjurer and murderer. On the battlefield, Richard fights valiantly, famously crying at one point, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” The forces of Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, defeat and kill him, thereby ending the Wars of the Roses.

Richard III was the first of Shakespeare’s plays to show what a genius he was at dramatic characterization.
 The lesson that we can learn today from the play is that what is gained by lying, treachery and scheming for advancement is inevitably lost.

As a judge, it is the speech of another of Shakespeare’s villains that I think of when criminal defendants want to blame their crimes on everything but their own bad behavior. In King Lear, the bastard Edmund is scheming to get his legitimate brother disinherited. He forges a letter which he allows his father to see. The Duke of Gloucester then blames his legitimate son’s supposed treachery upon eclipses of the sun and moon. When Edmund is on stage alone, he observes,

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit
of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!

Shakespeare has Cassius say much the same thing more succinctly in Julius Caesar when he says to Brutus,

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves.

In other words, we are morally responsible for our actions and their consequences.

As I said earlier, Shakespeare does not talk about professionalism as such. Two things that he does talk about a lot – and that are relevant to us today as members of the legal profession – are reputation and honor. The terrifying thing about Iago is that he starts out telling Othello the truth, assuring him that he should not be jealous. In doing so, however, he plants the seed that maybe he has something to be jealous about. When Othello demands to know what he thinks about his lieutenant Cassion and his wife Desdemona, Iago says,

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls. Who steals my purse steals trash. ‘Tis something, nothing; ‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands; but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.

Iago uses his reputation for honesty to destroy those he envies, as he in turn is destroyed in the end. Remember that a lawyer’s good reputation is more important than any case or any client.

The other thing that Shakespeare talks about a lot is honor. It is in the history plays that Shakespeare talks the most about what it means to be an honorable–or a dishonorable–man. In Richard II, act I, for instance, Henry Bolingbroke accuses the Duke of Norfolk of being a traitor. They each challenge the other to a duel: trial by combat.

Richard wants to prevent a quarrel, which will reflect badly upon him regardless of the outcome, and tells Norfolk to forget the insult to his honor. Norfolk responds,

Myself I throw, dread sovereign, at thy foot. My life thou shalt command, but not my shame. My dear dear lord, the purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation; that away, men are but gilded loam or painted clay. Mine honor is my life; both grow in one. Take honor from me, and my life is done. Then, dear my liege, mine honor let me try. In that I live, and for that will I die.

King Richard foolishly forbids the trial by combat and banishes Norfolk from England for life. By the end of the play Bolingbroke has usurped Richard’s crown.

A discussion of the concept of honor in Shakespeare would not be complete without mention of the prince of dishonor, Sir John Falstaff, the fat old knight who eats, drinks, cheats, lies, and fornicates his way through life. Prince Hal, the heir to the King of England, much to his father’s dismay has fallen in with Falstaff and his crowd of riotous brigands at the Boar’s Heads Inn. Falstaff claims that he is a professional, and when Prince Hal berates Falstaff for making a living by highway robbery, Falstaff replies,

Why, Hal, ’tis my vocation, Hal. ’tis no sin for a man to labor in his vocation.

As members of an honorable profession, we must appreciate that professionalism means more than just technical competence.

Falstaff, as a loveable old rogue, is not motivated by honor. When just before the battle of Shrewsbury Prince Hal reminds Falstaff that “thou owest god a death,” Falstaff soliloquizes,

‘Tis not due yet. I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honor pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word honor? What is that honor? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.

True to form, when the crisis comes in the battle, Falstaff flops down on the ground and pretends to be dead in order to save himself. I could go on for hours about Falstaff’s topsy-turvey ethical world. But enough.

We love Falstaff because he is witty, irreverent, a teller of a tall tales. He is a great drinking buddy. He is fun to be around. But when Hal becomes King, he knows that he must leave Falstaff and turn to more honorable advisors such as the Lord Chief Justice. The life of Falstaff is a great lesson to those who would be tempted to sacrifice honor and reputation for ill-gotten gain or self-indulgent pleasure. Although Falstaff expects to be first man when Hal ascends to the throne, Hal knows that a good ruler must possess and exercise virtues and values that are the opposite of Falstaff’s.

The good ruler must have a conscientious devotion to duty, and not be ruled by his passions and appetites. In a word, he must behave professionally. Hal knows that he must abandon Falstaff and the dissolute crew from the Boar’s Head Inn. Thus, in the coronation procession, when Falstaff cries out, “God save thee, my sweet boy!” the King responds,

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers. How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester! I have long dreamt of such a kind of man, so surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane; but being awaked, I do despise my dream. Presume not that I am the thing I was, for God doth know, so shall the world perceive, that I have turned away my former self; so will I those that kept me company. When thou dost hear I am as I have been, approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast, the tutor and the feeder of my riots. Till then I banish thee, on pain of death, as I have done the rest of my misleaders, not to come near our person by ten mile.

Over the years this scene has provoked much anguish because we love Falstaff. Did Hal have to be so cruel? Personally, I think that he did. He had to do it to become King Henry V of fame and glory. As King Henry V, on the fielf of battle at Agincourt, he roused his men with the famous band of brothers speech which begins when Lord Westmoreland wishes that the English had more men. The King responds:

What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow

To do our country loss; and if to live,

The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,

I am the most offending soul alive.

Thus, Prince Hal and Falstaff are a study in contrasts; a study from which we may learn much.

So I submit to you that good ol’ Will Shakespeare has much to teach us even now 400 years after he wrote his last play. That is why the plays are still read and performed today. Certainly he has enriched my life, particularly in the last few years. I hope that this presentation has been of some value to you and not much ado about nothing.

And I hope that you are not recalling what Macbeth says as his faces his ultimate calamity:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Rather, I hope that you are thinking of Hamlet:

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!

Thank you.

This entry was posted in Shakespeare (William) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!