Henry VI, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 2 | Act 4, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

On Blackheath a field southeast of London, a Kentish ex-soldier named Jack Cade is amassing rebels against the Crown. Two of his followers, Bevis and John Holland, are the first to enter the stage. They describe the nobles' contemptuous treatment of the working classes and praise Cade's uprising as the cure for all that ails England. Cade himself comes onstage soon afterward, accompanied by Dick the butcher, Smith the weaver, and "infinite numbers" of unnamed followers. He gives a long speech professing his noble birth and his intentions of seizing the crown; meanwhile Dick and Smith exchange jokes at Cade's expense under their breath.

As Cade is waxing poetic about the evils of the English legal system, a clerk is brought in under guard. The only "crime" of which he stands accused is being able to "write and read and cast account [i.e., perform arithmetic]." Cade interviews the clerk briefly, asking him whether he can write his own name or "hast ... a mark to [him]self, like an honest, plain-dealing man." When the clerk answers that he can write his name, the crowd decries him as "a villain and a traitor," and Cade sends him off to be hanged.

Another follower, named Michael, runs in to announce that Sir Humphrey Stafford is bringing the king's army to put down the rebellion. Hearing the "Sir" in Stafford's name, Cade decides to level the playing field by knighting himself. This is no sooner accomplished than Stafford and his brother arrive, leading a troop of soldiers. At first Stafford tries to persuade Cade and his followers to quit their rebellion. The negotiations fail, however, and the Staffords return to their waiting army.

Analysis

Jack Cade's claims of nobility are nonsense, as his friends and followers happily point out among themselves. More to the point, they are a clownish parody of York's own claim to the throne, as developed at length in Act 2, Scene 2. Cade, who is speaking to a group of illiterate malcontents, can wow his audience with the mere mention of such illustrious family names as Mortimer, Lacy, and Plantagenet—none of his listeners, except his lieutenants Dick and Smith, know enough about Cade's origins to contradict him. York, who is presenting his claim before the highest echelons of English nobility, must be more precise in tracing his genealogy.

Cade's anti-intellectualism is alarming—hanging a man for being able to read seems like an indefensibly harsh move. Underneath Cade's irrational hatred of reading and writing, however, lies a quite reasonable resentment of the English legal system. As Cade points out, legal documents can "undo a man" whether or not he understands what he is signing to; a wax seal can "sting" more acutely than the bee that produced the wax. For Cade the implements of the legal profession—parchment, ink, and wax—are "monstrous" weapons, as dangerous in their own way as swords and clubs. They may even be worse because they are used disproportionately against the poor and the working classes. It's worth noting, however, that while Cade and his followers are depicted as illiterate tradesmen, England's growing middle class—including Shakespeare's family—was hardly exempt from the tyranny of the law. Shakespeare's father, a merchant, is known to have suffered a succession of legal troubles in connection with his dealings in the wool trade, a highly regulated industry with a thriving black market.

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