I ran a search on my daughter’s Kindle in the Complete Works of Shakespeare to reassure myself of the numerous references to “lawyers” to be found there. But considering how often Shakespeare liked to make metaphors and jokes based on lawyers’ practices, and considering how much energy he devoted to the concept of justice, it is odd that the most famous “lawyer” in his canon is an impostor. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia dresses up like a lawyer, goes to court, and wows everyone with a dazzling closing argument that leaves the plaintiff (Shylock) stammering with rage and looking guilty of barratry (the crime of drumming up gratuitous disputes just to work a person’s nerves). In short, Shakespeare’s only substantial portrait of a “lawyer” is a person engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.
The only example I can cite of a Shakespeare character who is supposed to be a real lawyer is rather pathetic. The character, identified simply as “Lawyer,” plays a bit part in Henry VI, Pt 1. In Act 2, scene 4, Richard Plantagenet (whose faction, the York family, is symbolized by the white rose) is fighting with Somerset (whose faction, the Lancasters, is represented by the red rose). These two branches of one large royal clan are fighting over the proper way to interpret the law of succession. Each branch wants a ruling that will permit its patriarch to seize the English throne from the infant monarch, Henry VI, who impresses no one. A lawyer tagging along with the group of dukes and lords is eventually asked for his opinion. He says to Somerset:
Unless my study and my books be false,
The argument you held was wrong in you:
In sign whereof I pluck a white rose too.
And thus “Lawyer” sides with the white-rose faction against Somerset’s red-rose faction. In voicing his opinion, the Lawyer doesn’t bother to disclose the authority that supposedly supports his view—as any decent lawyer would do. Moreover, his professional opinion doesn’t exactly end the debate. Plantagenet and Somerset keep bickering for the rest of the scene. Then a bloody, protracted war ensues. But you can say this for Lawyer: he sides with the winner. At least in the short term. Richard Plantagenet—aka Richard, Duke of York—is the first to get close to the throne. He becomes Protector of England (and then gets killed before he can claim the throne outright). Several of Richard’s kids, however, get a chance to wear the crown—until lots of other internecine fights undo their dad’s handiwork.
But what was Shakespeare trying to say with this “Lawyer” cameo?
In real life—then and now—lawyers were/are no bit players. Their influence was/is huge, their fingers in everything! Then again, lawyers—then, now—were/are generally not the ones taking the big risks. Lawyers are not the feuding royals. And back in the day, few would have seen “Lawyer” as worthy of a drama’s focus. Even today, plays, TV shows, movies generally feature lawyers only if they behave really badly—or at least behave in some fashion that bears little resemblance to how lawyers, in their professional capacity, are permitted to behave in real life. Yes, lawyers who are exceptionally wonderful occasionally garner the spotlight (see To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus). But those lawyers too are not acting so much like lawyers as like heroes—bucking societal trends, blazing new social contracts, challenging entrenched biases. Quite simply, there is a good reason why most good lawyers are risk-adverse (and why lawyers can get very lonely at non-lawyer cocktail parties.)
The Lawyer in Henry VI suggests that Shakespeare thinks that lawyers are those who look to their books, see which way the wind is blowing, and then pick a side. They are pragmatists and equivocators, not heroes or crusaders. Perhaps this is why lawyers are often greeted dismissively—or with a yawn. Lawyers hedge. Lawyers proceed with caution. Lawyers are naysayers. And only the unusual lawyers who take big risks (especially for potential personal gain) are the ones who become targets of scorn, who ignite red-hot passion, who stir others’ prurient interest. Indeed, those lawyers are often the ones that other lawyers in particular disdain. At least until they know someone who needs someone willing to take a case on contingency.
But maybe the lawyers who decide to strap on the hero’s shoes should be prepared to take the good (fame, fortune) with the bad (infamy, bankruptcy). Otherwise, lawyers should be prepared to be perceived as bit players. And maybe that is all Shakespeare is trying to show us with his little “Lawyer” character: “If you behave prototypically and keep your head down, Mr. Lawyer, you will do fine, but you won’t be worthy of much attention; if you try to transcend the Lawyer role and garner a spotlight for yourself, you risk big wins and losses. Live with it.”