examination, including pieties about the coincidence of virtue and high
birth, and puts in motion a debate about the nature of right rule and the
136 jean e. howard
role of the commons in the commonweal. Does such an ironizing
dramaturgy make Shakespeare an anti-monarchical writer? No; its effects
are much subtler than that. The resources of the dramaturgical and
rhetorical tradition Shakespeare inherited allowed him to use the stage to
create dialectical structures in which political positions and assumptions
were implicitly allowed to critique or comment on one another, where the
actions of one set of political actors had to be judged in their relationship
to and effects upon another set of actors.16 That this was done on a
commercial stage in front of an audience mixed in its social composition,
is not a fact that can be too often recalled, since the scene of
representation made more likely the appreciative uptake of the playâ€™s
ironic juxtapositions. Such a stage, in Shakespeareâ€™s hands, was less a
space to espouse certain political ideas than to test them, to make them
the subjects of an implicit public debate which the stage was uniquely
situated to promote.17 It was a stage that in its openendedness could lead
to various appropriations of the ideas it put in motion.
This is certainly true of what is probably the playâ€™s most memorable
part, the eruption of the popular rebellion led by Jack Cade in Act IV.
The Cade episodes, so often debated as to their political import,18 again
owe much to the dramatic traditions upon which Shakespeare was
drawing, particularly his use of Vice and clown as stage types through
which to give shape to the character of Cade. To the extent that he is a
Vice, Cade both articulates disorder and simultaneously establishes
affinities with the audience through laughter and through the intimacy of
speech acts situated in the liminal space of the plateau where clowning,
direct address to the audience and the irreverent travesty of high
behaviour regularly occurred.19 Though Cade does to some extent
represent the allegorical concept of Disorder writ large, he has also been
transformed and humanized into a foul-talking, funny and violent
Altman 1978 skillfully explores the effect on sixteenth-century drama of the rhetorical tradition
of arguing in utramque partem, that is, on each side of a question. Influenced by this tradition,
Shakespeare frequently allows dramatic structure to set up an implicit debate among different
points of view rather than having two characters engage in face-to-face disputation.
For my fuller discussion of the social role of the public stage in Elizabethan and Jacobean
England, see Howard 1994.
Good discussions of the Cade rebellion and Shakespeareâ€™s representation of it include
Greenblatt 1983, pp. 1Ã€29; Patterson 1989, pp. 32Ã€51; Helgerson 1992, pp. 195Ã€245; and Cartelli
1994, pp. 48Ã€67.
For the locus classicus of the by now familiar distinction between plateau and locus as
symbolically and sometimes physically distinct playing areas on the Elizabethan stage, see
Weimann 1978, pp. 73Ã€85.
Dramatic Traditions and Shakespeareâ€™s Political Thought 137
clothier who aspires to be a king. By modelling the rebel on the pattern
of a comic Vice, Shakespeare places him, morally speaking; Cade is bad,
someone who sacks London, is the tool of the Duke of York and would
dethrone a king. Yet by drawing on this prototype, Shakespeare also
draws on the performative power of the role to produce effects quite in
excess of any homiletic function.
For example, Cade engages in a running imitation of kingly behaviour
at once funny, horrifying, and deeply demystifying of what it evokes.
In 4.2, comically assuming the powers of a king, Cade knights himself
(l. 106), proclaims his Plantagenet lineage while his followers, in asides,
speak of his actual descent from a bricklayer and a midwife (ii. 33Ã€43),
and condemns a man to death because he can write his name instead of
making a mark â€˜like an honest plain-dealing manâ€™ (4.2.90Ã€91).20 Cade
continues to send to their deaths those who show signs of privilege and
proclaims â€˜My mouth shall be the Parliament of Englandâ€™ (4.7.12Ã€13).
When he dubs himself a knight, Cade is ridiculous but also appealing in
his wild energy. By submitting the prerogatives of kingship to rough and
energetic appropriation, Cade desacralizes those actions, makes them
imitable in the low theatre of his public acts and invites critical reflection
both on the role of king and on kingly prerogatives.21 Who should have
the right to condemn men to death and to elevate others to privilege on
the field of battle? In this play the man who is supposed to play the king,
Henry VI, though less brutal, is no less an imperfect actor of the role than
Cade. The disproportion between ideal and embodiment is forced into
view by Cadeâ€™s burlesque as is the reality of the awesome power over life
and death that is part of the daily operation of high office.
Cadeâ€™s devastating performance of kingship is, moreover, not without
its own informing ideology. Even while wishing to be king, Cade
articulates the watchwords of a popular radicalism with roots in the late
medieval period.22 He praises the inherent nobility of working men,
stressing that those who labour in their vocations should be magistrates;
and he orders that when he is king, â€˜all things shall be in commonâ€™
(4.7.16). His position is incoherent, and the violence he spawns repre-
hensible, but he speaks throughout to the material needs Ã€ for bread and
All quotations are from The First Part of the Contention in Shakespeare 1997.
This is David Scott Kastanâ€™s central observation about how the stage removes the sacred aura
of kingship by making it an act a man might play. See Kastan 1986, pp. 459Ã€75.
See, in particular, Hobday 1979, pp. 63Ã€78; Manning 1988, pp. 187Ã€219; and Patterson 1989,
138 jean e. howard
beer Ã€ of those whom the nobility in this play have been all too fre-
quently ready to ignore or to scorn. The insolence of Suffolk in ripping
up a commonerâ€™s petition and his class-based contempt for the seamen
who eventually capture and behead him suggest just how far short of
Gloucesterâ€™s benevolent paternalism members of the ruling class have
In fact, the placement of Cadeâ€™s rebellion in the fourth act of the play
after the murder of Gloucester casts it in a very different light than if it
had erupted earlier. In the dramatic logic of the play, the rebellion seems
to follow on from that death and from the corruption of the particular set
of commitments and political beliefs that adhere to the Lord Protector in
the play. Without Gloucester to hold together a popular-aristocratic axis
in support of the traditional hierarchical conception of the commonweal,
something much more radical is spawned in Cadeâ€™s wholesale attack on
privilege: the privilege of those who can read, wear silks and write on
parchment.23 It is the wrong question to ask if Shakespeare â€˜believedâ€™ in
or advocated for or against this strain of egalitarian political thought.
That is ultimately unknowable, though unlikely. However, through the
figure of Cade, the Vice-like clown, he can conjure this body of thought
in order to set it, critically, in view of the positions marked by
the paternalistic Gloucester and the Machiavellian Duke of York. The
before and after two-part structure of the play, stemming from Henryâ€™s
failure to heed good counsel, produces a dramatic logic in which popular
rule seems to emanate from an abrogation of the responsibilities of
the monarch and his peers and to bear a direct relationship to the
machinations of York, Cadeâ€™s sponsor. At the same time, the events
in which Cade is involved mirror features of the dominant order, but
in such a way as to subject them to parodic imitation that empties them
of their aura. These features include, for example, aristocratic investment
in lineage and ritual to legitimate privilege, their use of â€˜parchmentâ€™
to control resources and their use of force to effect their wills.
The presence of low scenes throughout the play forces the question of
the role of the commons in the political nation; the Cade scenes intimate
both the power of the commons to challenge the traditional order when
their privileges within it are ignored and also the power of common men
to submit the privileged to their withering critique.
For an acute discussion of the strategic intelligence informing peasant attacks on documentary
records, see Justice 1994, esp. pp. 13Ã€66.
Dramatic Traditions and Shakespeareâ€™s Political Thought 139
The effect is very different from a play such as the anonymous Jack
Straw, printed in 1594 and thus nearly contemporaneous with The
Contention and dealing with some of the same matter. While historically
Jack Cadeâ€™s rebellion occurred in 1450, in staging it Shakespeare drew on
popular accounts of other peasant rebellions including that of 1381 when
Wat Tyler invaded London, burned London Bridge and sacked the Savoy,
John of Gauntâ€™s palace. Jack Straw stages this rebellion directly, but uses
quite differently the resources of the popular dramatic tradition of which
it is also a part. The anonymous play begins when a group of commoners,
upset by the rude treatment of the Kingâ€™s tax collector, kill him; then,
urged on by the preaching of Parson Ball, who argues against â€˜this
difference in degreesâ€™ and laments that â€˜The Rich have all, the poore live
in miserieâ€™ (1.1.85, 103),24 they gather 20,000 men and march on London.
The play pivots around a simple opposition between King and rebels.
Many of the rebels are comically portrayed and speak with great
colloquial vigour about the economic grievances that spur them to take
up arms, but the King is never anything but solicitous of their
complaints. When he hears their demands for â€˜Wealth and libertieâ€™
(3.1.707), he promises to grant them all they ask and pardons to boot.
When Cade and a few followers persist in their desire for â€˜spoileâ€™
(3.1.757), Cade is killed by the loyal Mayor of London, and the rest are
condemned to death. While sympathetic to the humanity of the rebels,
the play starkly separates the incorrigible rebels from those who respond
to the attentions of the king and moves swiftly to depict the restoration
The play is not only different in length and complexity from The
Contention, but also different in the degree of dialectical pressure its
dramatic structure exerts on the opposing terms of the political debate it
implicitly stages. Jack Strawâ€™s rebellion tests the mercy and goodness of
the King, but it does not critically refract the principles upon which
kingship rests. It draws on the energies of clowning to make rebellion
funny and to make it theatrically exciting, but not to make it subversively
mirror what it opposes. Nor does it use the overarching structure of the
play to relate rebellion to the abrogation of an implicit social agreement
in which all parties had a stake, an abrogation coincident with the Kingâ€™s
separation from Good Counsel. In Jack Straw, there is little to contradict
the Bishopâ€™s initial assertion that â€˜The Multitude [is] a Beast of many
The Life and Death of Jack Straw 1957.
140 jean e. howard
headsâ€™ (I.2.188), a grotesque and unnatural anomaly, at least insofar as the
chief rebels are concerned.
In closing, I want to explore one final way Shakespeare uses the
performative resources of the stage to embody political thought in
compelling and disturbing ways. Unlike the anonymous author of Jack
Straw, Shakespeare eschews the overt use of metaphors that define the
rebels as a many-headed beast or that even present the commonweal as
a body composed of many interconnected but hierarchically organized
parts. Instead, he foregrounds actual bodies in ways that use performance
indirectly to evoke and to pressure the meanings traditionally encoded in
such overworn political metaphors. Heads and hands are of particular
importance in the Cade scenes. In Act I, commoners had come to Suffolk
with petitions in their hands, deferentially asking for redress. In Act IV,
the commoners who surround Cade have weapons in their hands, and
they are no longer deferential. As artisans, these men have time out of
mind used their hands to make what the kingdom needs: cloth, shoes,
food. But in an uncanny transformation, these artisans now turn the tools
of their trade to the tasks of murder and mayhem.25 The axe with which
a butcher slaughtered a calf now beheads a nobleman or cuts out his
tongue. Jesting among themselves, the rebels talk about the noblesâ€™ scorn
for honest labour and about how as workmen they can turn the skills
of their trades from production to violence.
second rebel: The nobility think scorn to go in leather aprons.
Nay more, the Kingâ€™s Council are no good workmen.
True; and yet it is said â€˜Labour in thy vocationâ€™; which is
as much as to say as â€˜Let the magistrates be labouring menâ€™; and
therefore should we be magistrates.
Thou hast hit it; for thereâ€™s no better sign of a brave mind than
a hard hand.
I see them! I see them! Thereâ€™s Bestâ€™s son, the tanner of
He shall have the skins of our enemies to make dogâ€™s leather of.
And Dick the butcher Ã€
Then is sin struck down like an ox, and iniquityâ€™s throat cut like
I owe this insight to my former student, Ronda Arab, whose dissertation on the bodies of
working men dealt not only with Jack Cade but with Bottom and other dramatic characters
whose physical strength and artisanal skills define a masculinity in competition with aristocratic
bodies: see Arab 2002. The next several pages of this chapter draw on ideas I develop in Howard
Dramatic Traditions and Shakespeareâ€™s Political Thought 141
And Smith the weaver Ã€
Argo, their thread of life is spun. (4.2.10Ã€26)
Just as Cade knights himself, usurping the Kingâ€™s prerogative, so his
followers imagine themselves in the roles of magistrates and executioners,
tanning noble hides and slitting noble throats, rather than labouring to
produce the food and the clothing that will feed and adorn noble bodies.
The hands of labourers have suddenly become frightening and the heads
of the nobility vulnerable. In one of the most memorable moments in
Act IV, Cade orders Lord Saye beheaded because of his dedication to
grammar schools, printing presses and papermills, and then orders his
son-in-law, James Cromer, killed as well. The heads of Saye and Cromer
are put on poles, and Cade orders these heads be borne through the
streets, kissing one another as they go.
In a disorienting reversal of traditional status hierarchies and political
assumptions, the â€˜handsâ€™ of the Commonwealth have become the â€˜headâ€™,
forcing their way to rule; and the mighty have been subordinated,
the â€˜headworkâ€™ associated with the printing press and the grammar
school devalued, their bodies desecrated and torn apart, echoing a prior
scene in which the seamen who capture Suffolk cut off his head and
send it back to Henryâ€™s adulterous Queen. Something other than a simple
reversal, or world-upside-down, is occurring here, however. This is not
just about the mighty being brought low and the lowly exalted; rather,
the insistent theatrical focus on body parts invites a critical rethinking
of the terms of authority and privilege encoded in metaphors of the body
politic and in hierarchical social structures in which hand is subordinated
to head, clouted shoon to silken coat, handwork to headwork.
The performance traditions of popular theatre would have reinforced
the political handy-dandy enacted in the represented action in yet a
further way. Popular acting troupes depended, especially in the 1580s and
1590s, on the particular skills of their clowns. Cadeâ€™s part, for example,
would have been performed by such a company clown, and his physical
skills would have been one of the chief sources of theatrical pleasure
offered to spectators. We are not sure which company first performed
The Contention, but the play was probably in the possession of
Pembrokeâ€™s Men before 1594, after which it passed into the hands
of the Chamberlainâ€™s Men.26 After 1594, the part of Cade might have
For a discussion of the theatrical provenance of the plays before 1594 see Shakespeare 1990,
pp. 36Ã€8 and Gurr 1996, pp. 261Ã€2.
142 jean e. howard