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Vail Daily column: Did Shakespeare have a thing for lawyers?

All the world’s a stage. Or so I’ve heard. And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances … and so on. Sound familiar? Yep — it’s the Bard. Stratford Upon Avon’s very own, Billy Shakespeare.

Now, before we get on a roll here, it might be good to remember that Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616. If you didn’t know it, he was born and died on the same day of the year. His wife was Anne Hathaway but, no, not that Anne Hathaway; the other one with whom you are, presumably, less familiar.

Judging solely upon what Shakespeare wrote, there were, apparently, lawyers aplenty back in the day, more than 500 years ago. Imagine.

Of course this begs the question, “When did lawyers first arise?”

Well, of course, no one knows for sure — I presume Darwin must have thought that they evolved at about the same time we hied out on our own branch from the chimps — but it seems most credible that lawyering as a recognizable profession arose in ancient Greece. The practice there was that when one was called before a tribunal to account for some wrongdoing, instead of presenting one’s own defense, an eloquent friend was often called upon to do the speaking.

It was in Rome, however, where the profession of “advocacy” was first formally permitted. Emperor Claudius (10 BCE-54 ACE), was the first to allow “advocates” to charge for services although their fees were limited to no more than 10,000 sesterces (I’ll let you do your own currency conversion, of course factoring in inflation. Let’s see, divide by two, carry the one … ).

Anyway, by the time Shakespeare popped onto the scene, Jolly Olde was thick was barristers, solicitors and sarjeants-at-law.

Of course there was Portia assuming the role of the lawyer’s apprentice in “The Merchant of Venice,” but most famously, perhaps was the line the Bard placed in the mouth of Dick the Butcher in the play “Henry VI,” “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Yikes.

But, alas, it is one of Shakespeare’s most enduring lines. And so, a little vivisection is in order.

While often taken otherwise, the line is really more about rebellion than about lawyers themselves. You see, Dick the Butcher was a follower of the rebel Jack Cade, who thought that if he unsettled law and order vis-a-vis the legal system, he could become king. Thus, if one killed all the lawyers, the firmament of a lawful and orderly society would be undermined and rebellion could more easily be fomented.

Shakespeare meant the line as a compliment to attorneys and judges who instill and maintain justice in society. Really; you can look it up.

Anyway, what has been less enduring than the Bard’s often misunderstood line is that Shakespeare himself was quite the legal dandy. I think, the Bard had closet dreams of putting down the quill and joining the be-wigged ranks of Elizabethan legal muckity-mucks.

Much of what we know of the historical Shakespeare is made up of the legal bread crumbs he left behind. Legal documents make up the most of the records that survived him. Trials, lawsuits and legal terms are often marbled in flesh and sinew of his plays. In the Bard’s day, as now, the law held a central place in society and in daily life and its tendrils reached both far and wide. It was natural that he wrote about it.

Shakespeare’s thinking about legal concepts and legal practice points to a deep and at times conflicted relationship with the law, its machinery, its essence, the social consequences the laws and the legal system spawn.

Shakespeare’s fixation on the common law and legal practice itself may be found, among other places, threaded into “Measure for Measure” and “Othello.” “Measure for Measure” is a particularly rich play dealing with the law, exploring fundamental questions about law and morality. It is worth noting that in his prodigious writings, Shakespeare mentions law more than any other profession.

I like this quote particularly: “I have neither the scholar’s melancholy, which is emulation, nor the musician’s, which is fantastical, nor the courtier’s, which is proud, nor the soldier’s, which is ambitious, nor the lawyer’s, which is politic.” (“As You Like It,” Jaques to Rosalind.)

And of course: “Why, may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures and his tricks? Why does he suffer this mad knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel and will not tell him of his action of battery? Hum! This fellow might be in’s time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries: is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt? Will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The very conveyances of his lands will scarcely lie in this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?” (“Hamlet”; Hamlet to Horatio)

Did Shakespeare have a thing for lawyers?

Ah … yeah. Of course, he did.

Doesn’t everyone?

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California, who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his email addresses, robbins@slblaw.com or robbins@colorado.net.


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