The Cade Rebellion and the Republican Party

Jack Cade, the leader of the Cade Rebellion, is an entertaining Shakespearean character (Henry VI, Part 2), well equipped by the Bard with many memorable lines. So are his followers, one of whom utters the oft-quoted, ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.’ As Stephen Greenblatt noted in Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (W. W. Norton, New York, 2004, pp. 167-171):

In a sequence of wild scenes [in King Henry VI, Part II], poised between grotesque comedy and nightmare, the young Shakespeare imagined–and invited his audience to imagine–what it would be like to have London controlled by a half-mad, belligerently illiterate rabble from the country….Shakespeare was fascinated by the crazed ranting of those who hate modernity, despise learning, and celebrate the virtue of ignorance.

These ‘wild scenes’ include the following, where the Baron Saye and Sele is brought before Cade:

MESSENGER: My lord, a prize, a prize! here’s the Lord Say, which sold the towns in France; he that made us pay one and twenty fifteens, and one shilling to the pound, the last subsidy.

CADE: Well, he shall be beheaded for it ten times. Ah, thou say, thou serge, nay, thou buckram lord! now art thou within point-blank of our jurisdiction regal. What canst thou answer to my majesty for giving up of Normandy unto Mounsieur Basimecu, the dauphin of France? Be it known unto thee by these presence, even the presence of Lord Mortimer, that I am the besom that must sweep the court clean of such filth as thou art. Thou hast 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 hast 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 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. Thou hast appointed justices of peace, to call poor men before them about matters they were not able to answer. Moreover, thou hast put them in prison; and because they could not read, thou hast hanged them; when, indeed, only for that cause they have been most worthy to live. Thou dost ride in a foot-cloth, dost thou not?

SAY: What of that?

CADE: Marry, thou oughtest not to let thy horse wear a cloak, when honester men than thou go in their hose and doublets.

DICK: And work in their shirt too; as myself, for example, that am a butcher.

SAY: You men of Kent,–

DICK: What say you of Kent?

SAY: Nothing but this; ’tis ‘bona terra, mala gens.’

CADE: Away with him, away with him! he speaks Latin.

As Greenblatt notes, Cade is too,

[P]rotesting an actual feature of the law…if an accused felon could demonstrate that he was literate–usually by reading a verse from the Psalms–he could claim ‘benefit of clergy’; that is, for legal purposes, be classified by virtue of literacy as a clergyman and therefore be officially subject to the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts, which did not have the death penalty.

The Cade Rebellion’s modern counterpart–in one dimension–certainly seems to be the Republican Party: a ‘half-mad, belligerently illiterate rabble’ that ‘hate modernity, despise learning, and celebrate the virtue of ignorance.’ Pity they don’t have Cade’s wit or his principled critique of the law. All their imagining themselves as rebels and radicals won’t fix that.

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