With Suffolk dispatched in Act Four, Scene One of The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, the remainder of the fourth act is devoted to (as the original title’s subtitle puts it) “the Notable Rebellion of Jack Cade.”
Scene Two begins with a pair of rebels arming themselves for battle. The rebels are poor and their weapons poorer: their swords are “made of a lath” (IV.ii.2), a piece of wood. We learn that Cade is a “clothier” (IV.ii.5), and we hear them disparage the nobility for looking down upon “handicraftsmen,” “workmen,” and those who work “in leather aprons” (IV.ii.12, 16, and 13-14, respectively). Before long, the two rebels see their leaders coming: Cade, Best’s son the tanner, a sawyer, Smith the Weaver, and Dick the Butcher. Cade is leading “infinite numbers” (IV.ii.32 s.d.), whom he addresses; and in this address–or, in its truest sense, rabble-rousing–he seems like a rough draft for John Falstaff, a blustery, sometimes self-deprecating, leader of lowlifes.
The opening of his oratory is full of wordplay and puns (and I hope to get to a closer examination of it later in the month) … he’s immediately likeable… we see why so many would follow him. But as his speech turns more toward his political platform, we see him like any other politician, making promises no one can hope to keep:
seven halfpenny loves sold for a penny, the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops... All the realm shall be in common... there shall be no money. All shall eat and drink on my score...
But worse is the promise he makes that we see CAN come true: “I will apparel them all in one livery that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord” (IV.ii.78-80). He presents himself a populist, but at his core, he’s the worst kind of leader, promising equality but only equality in worship of him. It’s best to be with him than against him, however; Dick the Butcher offers a suggestion–readily accepted by his leader: “The first thing we do let’s kill all the lawyers” (IV.ii.81). The threat isn’t just some post-modern anti-ambulance-chaser joke; it’s a raison d’être for their entire rebellion–kill all those with an education.
Cade presents himself not only as judge and jury, but also as a kind of God (“Unless I find him guilty, he shall not die” [IV.ii.99])… a malevolent one, too, one who sends the Clerk of Chatham off to hanging because he can write his name, and who convicts Lord Saye for “speak(ing) French” (IV.ii.168). And knowledge isn’t the only quality held in such low esteem; so is nobility, as he mockingly “knights himself” (IV.ii.122 s.d.). Of course, it’s not difficult to see the justification of such mockery when, mere lines later, the Staffords enter to disparage Cade and his followers simply because they are of the working class.
and this feels VERY Falstaff-ian… it’s been a long time since I’ve read either part of Henry IV, so I can’t remember if Falstaff did anything like this… but we’ll know within a year… sooner, if any of you, Gentle Readers, elucidate on the matter!
After a battlefield interlude in Scene Three–in which the Staffords are killed, and Cade dresses in the dead noble’s armor–we switch scenes back to the palace. Here, we find Margaret musing on mental instability: “Oft have I heard that grief softens the mind, // And makes it fearful and degenerate” (IV.iv.1-2), and for a moment–knowing the future of King Henry’s mental and emotional stability–I think she’s talking about him. Then I re-read the opening stage direction, and I realize she’s speaking of herself (the scene opens with her “carrying Suffolk’s head” [IV.iv opening s.d.]… though this could be foreshadowing as well…). While Henry, meager as his skills are, attempts to make sense of the situation, Margaret focuses on Suffolk’s decapitated head (“this lovely face” [IV.iv.14]), fixating to the point where even Henry cannot ignore it:
How now, madam!
Still lamenting and mourning for Suffolk’s death?
I fear me, love, if that I had been dead,
Thou wouldest not have mourned so much for me.
No, my love; I should not mourn, but die for thee.
Margaret answers properly and romantically (if one reads it in that manner); but remember, too, that “die” had a meaning during Shakespeare’s time of to “experience a sexual orgasm” (Partridge, Eric. Shakespeare’s Bawdy. New York: Routledge, 2008; page 118). Had Suffolk survived and Henry been killed, we can most certainly see Margaret dying in that manner.
When word comes that the rebels have reached a suburb of London, and have killed the Staffords, Henry can only respond, “O, graceless men; they know not what they do” (IV.iv.37). This echoing of Christ’s words on the Cross is interesting for a couple of reasons:
- Henry’s powerless to do anything about this (he can neither take action to punish the sinning–“graceless”–men nor absolve them of their guilt)
- this also echoes (or foreshadows) another ineffectual Shakespearean bystander (sorry, but in no way, shape, or form does Henry drive the action of this play): Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet (who enters that play attempting to break up a fight: “Put up your swords. You know not what you do” [Romeo and Juliet: I.i.63])
In Scene Five, we hear that Cade and his men have “won the (London) Bridge, killing all those that did withstand them” (IV.v.3-4). Now, in reality, Cade and his rebellion entered London on July 3, 1450, without a fight (and thus without bloodshed). I’m not sure if Shakespeare’s audience knew this (and thus becomes an example of how panic can exaggerate a story), or if they bought this story as history (horribly inaccurate and propagandistic Shakespearean history)… I’m betting on the latter.
In Scenes Six and Seven, we return to Cade and his capture of Lord Saye. Cade personally tries Saye for treason (because of the selling of Maine, the loss of Normandy, and the “corrupt(ion of) the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school” [IV.vii.30-31]). While Saye’s self-defense causes “remorse” (IV.vii.102) in Cade (revealed on in an aside), Cade still orders his execution. Once Saye is taken offstage, Cade goes even further:
The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders, unless he pay me tribute; there shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead, ere they have it; men shall hold of me in capite; and we charge and command that their wives be as free as heart can wish or tongue can tell.
Cade has gone from rabble-rouser to dictator to thug with a mandate. So, it’s not exactly surprising then when Cade has to deal with another judicial matter (a Sergeant has accused Dick the Butcher of raping his wife), and Cade sides with his fellow thug over one of his “subjects.” This is a perk of power. What happens to those not in the inner circle? Meet Lord Saye and Sir James Cromer… whose heads reenter the scene on poles… if their death isn’t enough, then more mocking is: “The two heads are made to kiss” (IV.vii.148 s.d.).
Buckingham and Clifford arrive and are able to turn the rebels against Cade with one simple name-check:
Who hateth him, and honors not his father,
Henry the Fifth, that made all France to quake,
Shake he his weapon at us, and pass by.
Is Cade the son of Henry the Fifth,
That thus you do exclaim you’ll go with him?
— IV.vii.168-170, 188-189
Cade is reduced to a fugitive because the image of Henry the Fifth is enough to return the commons back to young Henry; the young king, however, longs only to be “a subject” (IV.viii.6). The news of Cade’s flight should be a moment of happiness for the king, but before he can begin to even wish to live up to the example of his father, bad news arrives: York has arrived back from Ireland, with an army, demanding the arrest of Somerset. Somerset is willing to yield to the demand “to do (his) country good” (IV.viii.43); and Henry cannot hope to stand up to York even verbally (Henry fears York “cannot brook hard language” [IV.viii.45]). Henry can only hope to “learn to govern better; // For yet may England curse (his) wretched reign” (IV.viii.48-49).
In the ninth and final scene of the act, Cade is captured then killed, and “the Notable Rebellion of Jack Cade” ends, but “the Duke of York’s First Claim Unto the Crown” awaits in Act Five.