Law and Literature

by Mark Toffoli 

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Henry VI, Part 2, William Shakespeare (1591).  By now most of us, especially those of us in the legal profession, are familiar with this sentiment expressed by the Bard.  It is probably one of the most-often quoted observations regarding the legal profession.  Throughout history lawyers and the legal profession have been the beneficiaries of such commentary.  “If the law supposes that, the law is an ass – a idiot.”  Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens (1837).  As the foregoing quotations demonstrate, such sentiments are not a recent development.  Modern authors have treated lawyers only marginally more kindly:  “We are all honorable men here, we do not have to give each other assurances as if we were lawyers.”  The Godfather, Mario Puzo (1969).

A more favorable view however of the law and those associated with it was evidenced in A Man For All Seasons, Robert Bolt (1960), a play which dealt with the story of Sir Thomas More and his relationship with Henry VIII of England during the period when Henry was seeking a divorce from his first wife, with Henry ultimately breaking from the Catholic Church and becoming the head of the Church of England as a result of the English Parliament’s enactment of the Act of Supremacy.  Henry had sought More’s public acknowledgment that as king, Henry possessed the right to take such actions.  More however believed these acts to be illegal and was beheaded for his failure to swear to Henry’s oath of supremacy.   

More’s belief in the sanctity of the law is best evidenced in the following exchange between More and William Roper, his son-in-law.

              Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of the law!

              More:  Yes!  What would you do?  Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

              Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

              More:  Oh?  And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?  This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s!  And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?  Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

So when next you hear of examples of what appear to be unjust or inappropriate application of laws rather than disparaging lawyers and the legal profession, it is perhaps worthy of remaining mindful of giving the benefit of the law to those who are seemingly undeserving of such benefit, for all our sakes.


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