“Was never subject long’d to be a king/As I do long and wish to be a subject.”

Henry VI, Part Two

Acts Four and Five

by Dennis Abrams


One take on Cade’s rebellion:

From the prevalent Elizabethan point of view, which Shakespeare shared, Cade and other like him were traitors pure and simple propagators of vicious and immoral doctrines that could only undermine society.  Thus the playwright felt perfectly justified in depicting Cade’s undertaking as a more brutal and violent event than it in fact was for an important point addressed by the history plays is the value of political stability.  The distinction between Cade’s revolt and the real-life 1381 uprising was unimportant to Shakespeare; each constituted an unacceptable subversion of a properly ordered society.

The episode of Cade, as it is presented, serves three purposes.  First, it provides comic relief after the sustained political battle, ending in the murder of Gloucester, of Acts 1-3.  The buffoonery of Cade and his followers is in an old traditional of comic rusticity that Shakespeare always favored.  However the humor quickly turns vicious, and the evil of anarchy is abundantly demonstrated, which is the second function of the action.  The uncontrolled common people mirror the dissensions of the nobles and demonstrate conversely Shakespeare’s most important political point – that all social good derives from a stable monarchy.  Third, the episode is associated with the rise of York and thus serves to introduce the final sequence of the drama:  the ambitious advance to open rebellion by that lord.  Thus aristocratic ambition is demonstrated to have directly produced tragic disorder among the common people.


Or this from Charney:

“Cade and his mob are violent and murderous, but also capricious and grotesque.  The Cade scenes are full of clownlike routines that end both in laughter and in arbitrary death.  They are Shakespeare’s contribution to black comedy.

Cade is full of utopian propositions that will aid the commoners.  He ‘strikes his sword on London Stone’ and decrees ‘the pissing-conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign.’  The pissing-conduit, so called, was a place near the Stokes Market where the lower classes in London fetched drinking water.  Cade’s next decree is that ‘it shall be treason for any that calls me other than Lord Mortimer.’  A soldier who comes running in calling him Jack Cade is immediately killed, and Smith the Weaver says judiciously:  ‘If this fellow be wise, he’ll never call ye Jack Cade more:  I think he hath a very fair warning.’  Jack Cade’s mob is conceived as a bunch of witty clowns, farcically remote from any sense of authentic history.”

Or this:

And we are at once led by this incident to one of the great preliminary movements and active agents in promoting the strife of Lancaster and York, in the person of Jack Cade, and the socialism of the fifteenth century.

Jack Cade is one of the strange figures of romantic history, whose cause after this lapse of time cannot be accurately judged. By some he was looked upon as a patriot; by others as a rebel; by many as a hero; by many as a rogue. The movement which he headed had for its object political reform. The closest investigation leads us to the conclusion that the religious ferment of Lollardry at the same time had nothing to do with Cade’s rebellion. It was a rising of the peasants, under the leadership of a shrewd soldier, who called himself Mortimer, for the purpose of exciting feeling against the House of Lancaster, and perhaps at the instigation of the Yorkist faction, to prepare the way for the Duke of York’s claim upon the throne, as heir of the Mortimers. The Kentishmen were dwellers in the manufacturing district, and the sudden cessation of the French wars had wrought them harm. The complaint of the commons of Kent, according to the chronicles, called for “administrative and economical reforms; a change of ministry, a more careful expenditure of the royal revenue, and the restoration of the freedom of election.”

These were not excessive claims surely. A victory over the royal troops, a quick march upon London, and the execution of Lord Say, gave Cade and his insurgents prestige. The Royal Council yielded in form to their demands, and against Cade’s advice the malcontents disbanded. He still carried on the war, and opened jails for his soldiers, but the undisciplined host quarreled among themselves, and deserted in numbers. Cade was finally killed by a civil officer, and the revolt came to an end with no advantage to the commons of Kent or of England.

Shakespeare touches upon but one side of this rebellion, its absurd and illogical side. He was sorely in need of comedy for the tragic drama of Henry VI and pitched upon the social and political heresies of fifteenth century socialism to provide it.

Flippantly as he thus seems to treat a movement of respectable proportions and for desirable ends, we cannot fail to read in the speeches of these lath-carrying heroes, a good deal of the bathos and lurid rhetoric with which our own times are more or less familiar. We need not find in this use of the Cade revolt an argument, as many do, to buttress the position that Shakespeare was an aristocrat, despising the people. It is too large a subject to more than advert to here. But while in this instance he does not even state Cade’s side fairly, he does, what he doubtless intended as an artist, relieve the gloom of his drama; and as an historian, presents one true, if absurd, side of the movement.

Jack Cade’s preposterous claim to a royal pedigree, descendant of the Plantagenets and Mortimers, did not deceive his allies; the very making of it was a stultification of the words of his followers that “there never was merry world in England since gentlemen came up.” (Part II. 4.2)

We notice that as soon as the rebel leader comes to power he is as arrogant as the bluest-blooded noble, and will strike a man dead for not addressing him as Lord Mortimer. This savors of modern times. Position and money make even anarchists conservative of their own — which is anarchistic heresy. As always, the unthinking people believe all things of all men if only they can have a try at upsetting the standing order of things. “Be brave, then,” cries Cade, “for your captain is brave and vows reformation. There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny, the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops, and I will make it felony to drink small beer.” (Part II. 2.4)

A bright thought occurs to Dick the butcher. “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” And Cade’s answer, extravagantly expressed as it is, does most curiously indicate the mental attitude of the peasantry of that day, and of all people who think little and read not at all, toward instruments and institutions of whose origin or raison d’etre they are in total ignorance. “Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, scribbled over, should undo a man?” (Ibid.)

The demagogue has the ignorance of his audience on his side. He has in behalf of his appeals that sullen jealousy of the masses who are conscious of classes, that is, of a caste above them and more accomplished. That a man can write and read and cast accounts is monstrous to the peasants who never hold a book save in awe, or a pen without fear of sorcery. So Cade’s main charge against Lord Say, who was the chief noble sacrificed in this uprising, is hardly exaggerated: “Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our fathers had no other book but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used; and contrary to the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast erected 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.” (Part II. 4.7)

There was no escape from death when such charges were treason, and Lord Say died. But such revolts also die of their own fevers and wounds. Cade moralizes over the fickleness of his followers in a strain with which again we are made familiar throughout these chronicle plays: “Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude? The name of Henry V hales them to a hundred mischiefs, and leaves me desolate.” (Part II. 4.8)

[Note, A century later, in 1671, Sir William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia, wrote home to England, “I thank God there are no free schools or printing, and I hope we shall not have them these hundred years. For learning has brought heresy and disobedience and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them and libels against the best government. God keep us from both.” — Douglas Campbell’s “Puritan in Holland, England and America,” vol. i., p. 32.]

Meanwhile the Yorkist cause begins to lift its head above the troubled surface of the nation’s life. The York faction was accused of using Jack Cade to foment discontent and make people familiar with the name of Mortimer, through whom the Duke of York claimed inheritance. Shakespeare notices this in Scene 2 of Act IV, when Stafford says: “Jack Cade, the Duke of York hath taught you this,” and although Cade answers in an aside, “He lies, for I invented it myself,” it is not conclusive. It is altogether probable that as York used the death of Gloucester, the attainder of Suffolk, and the quarrels of the Churchmen of the period, so he used these discontents of the people to foment dissention and further his own schemes.

Poor Henry VI is in a constant state of lamentation. He is no sooner well rid of Cade than the dire news comes of York’s march with the Irish troops, to ostensibly remove the Duke of Somerset from power, but really to assert his own claims to the throne.

But now is Cade drawn back, his men dispersed,
And now is York in arms to second him.
* * * * * * * *

Was never subject long’d to be a king
As I do long and wish to be a subject.

This was literally true. Henry has more fire and force in the play than he had in history. But he was not fit to govern the England of the fifteenth century. He would have found his place in the nineteenth rather. Royalty for its pomp and show and power was never dear to him. His books and his beads were more precious than sceptre and crown. He realizes this, and dimly, too, as Shakespeare hints, he feels that his feebleness is hurtful to the realm:

Come, wife, let’s in and learn to govern better,
For yet may England curse my wretched reign.


And finally, to elaborate on Monday night’s post regarding the amount of physical violence inflicted on human bodies, from Marjorie Garber:

“Decapitated heads were not uncommon stage props in the period, and the actual heads of traitors were displayed at the city gates of London as warnings to potential malefactors.  Beheading (literal ‘capital punishment’) was the ordained method for noblemen; persons of lesser rank were hanged, witches and heretics burned to death.  (This very rank-conscious play will include a scene [4.8] in which ‘multitudes’ of former rebels appear before the King ‘with halters about their necks’ asking for his pardon.)  Other Shakespeare plays have their share of onstage severed heads – notably Macbeth, which ends with the display of the ‘usurper’s cursed head,’ and Measure for Measure, in which the head of one deceased prisoner, Ragusine, is substituted for that of the doomed Claudio.  But in 2 Henry VI the severed heads are not only produced as props, they are made to ‘perform.’

Suffolk, whose family name is de la Pole, is twitted by his pirate captors with puns on ‘pool’ and ‘pole,’ as they predict his decapitation:  ‘Thy lips that kissed the Queen shall sweep the ground,/And thou that smiledst at good Duke Humphrey’s death/Against the senseless winds shall grin in vain.’  A third pun, on ‘pool’ – the words would have been pronounced alike – provides a further irony, as his death by ‘water’ is assured:  ‘Ay, kennel, puddle, sink, whose filth and dirt/Troubles the silver spring where England drinks.’  Suffolk’s defiance likewise invokes his probable fate:  ‘rather let my head/Stoop to the block…/And sooner dance upon a bloody pole.’  His death, marked by the stage direction ‘Enter Whitmore with [Suffolk’s head and] body’ leads only a few scenes later to another stage direction, ‘Enter King [Henry] reading a supplication, Queen [Margaret] with Suffok’s head,’ and thence to a kind of bizarre return to the rhetoric of love:  ‘Here may his head lie on my throbbing breast,/But where’s the body that I should embrace?’  Queen Margaret’s lamentation on the dead head of her lover is punctuated by an all-too-apt exchange between the King and his Lord Chamberlain and treasurer, Lord Saye:

Queen [to Suffolk’s head]         Hath this lovely face

                                                Ruled like a wandering planet over me,

                                                And could it not enforce them to relent,

                                                That were unworthy to behold the same?

King                                         Lord Saye, Jack Cade hath sworn to have thy head.

Saye                                         Ay, but I hope your highness will have his.

Ultimately all these heads will be cut off and displayed.  The humiliating punishment ordained for Lord Saye by Jack Cade, who boasts that he will rule in capite or in chief, is that his head, placed on a pole, shall be made to ‘kiss’ the decapitated head of his son-in-law, Sir Jams Cromer:  ‘with these borne before us instead of maces will we ride through the streets, and at every corner have them kiss.’  The stage direction ‘Enter two with the Lord Saye’s head and Sir James Cromer’s upon two poles’ makes this image graphically clear.  The ‘kissing’ of Saye and his kinsman thus visually mocks the Queen’s desperate cradling of her lover’s head.  Cade’s own head will be struck off after he is slain trying to make his escape through the walled garden of ‘Alexander Iden, an esquire of Kent.’  Iden’s name and his garden are mentioned in Hall’s chronicle, but the Iden/Eden connection underscores the emblematic theme of England as a walled garden paradise, an association bolstered by Iden’s own patriotic rhetoric in the scene.  Iden’s heroic action, undertaken from his country retreat, is then, again, deftly juxtaposed by the playwright to the martial return of York from Ireland, as the crossover between these two scenes will make clear.  Iden declares at the end of act 4 that he will ‘cut off [Cade’s] most ungracious head’ and bear it ‘in triumph to the King.’  York enters two lines later announcing, ‘From Ireland thus comes York to claim his right,/And pluck the crown from feeble Henry’s head.’

The Cade rebellion that breaks out in the fourth act, significantly after the murder of ‘the good Duke Humphrey,’ thus speaks directly to numerous themes established in the play.  Cade’s derogation of ‘silken-coated slaves’ in favor of the leather aprons of craftsmen and laborers echoes the issues of dress and luxury (in defiance of history, he himself is made a ‘clothier,’ perhaps to reinforce this point).  Through the medieval period and Queen Elizabeth’s day, social legibility was ensured by ‘sumptuary laws’ that prescribed, and proscribed, certain kinds of cloth and ornament for various ranks and degrees, largely restricting imported cloth, gold ornament, and other finery to the highest ranks, while the commons were expected to wear cloth of local manufacture.  Cade’s comical ‘knighting’ of Dick the Butcher anticipates King Henry’s knighting of Alexander Iden.  One of Cade’s complaints against Lord Saye is that he has allowed young people to read, and has – anachronistically – permitted books to be printed:

Thou has 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 has 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 has men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear…Moreover, thou has put [poor men] in prison, and, because they could not read, thou has hanged them when indeed only for that cause they have been most worthy to live…

Lord Saye’s response is a spirited defense of humanist education, beginning with a compliment to the County of Kent attributed to ‘the commentaries Caesar writ’:  ‘Large gifts have I bestowed on learned clerks/Because my book preferred me to the King,/And seeing ignorance is the curse of God,/Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.’  But Saye’s conclusion, ‘Unless you be possessed with devilish spirits,/You cannot but forebear to murder me’ contains a fatal ‘unless,’ and his death seems to exemplify the topsy-turvy lawlessness that has broken out in England as if in response to the corruption, ambition, and rivalry in court.  (The mention of ‘devilish spirits’ here recalls Eleanor Cobham and the fall of Gloucester.)

The play closes with York and his sons ascendant, but troubling events in the latter acts and scenes make it clear that the ‘contention’ is far from over.  The death of Old Lord Clifford turns his son, Young Clifford, into a spirit of vengeance vowing, ‘York not our old men spares;/ No more will I their babes’ and pointing ahead directly to his own slaughter of York’s son Rutland in 3 Henry VI.  Warwick’s last words, seeming to signal a close to the wars, are here, as always in these history plays, laden with an irony unintended by the speaker but clearly perceptible to the audience:

   Now by my hand, lords, ‘twas a glorious day!

            Saint Albans battle won by famous York

            Shall be eternized in all age to come.

            Sound drums and trumpets, and to London all,

            And more such days as these to us befall!

Warwick, speaking from within the dramatic frame of the fifteenth century depicted in the play, imagines the ‘eternizing’ of historical memory, borne out in Shakespeare’s day by the various chronicle sources – Hall, Holinshed, and others – that tell the story of these events.  From the perspective of a theatrical audience or reader in the ever-shifting present that is literature’s ‘now,’ the act of ‘eternizing’ will be accomplished by Shakespeare’s play, and the ‘all age’ to whom he refers is the time of reading and of playing, as well as the eternal future.  But Warwick’s resounding words end on the ambivalent word ‘befall,’ which contains within it another ‘fall.’  The ironic tension between Cade’s excoriation of printing and Warwick’s hope for eternizing fame would not have been lost on the audience then – and is not now.”


My next post will be about Sonnet #40 – Friday night/Saturday morning

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