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Jack Cade in Shakespeare's Plays

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

Jack Cade is featured in Shakespeare's 'Henry VI Part 2' as a rebel whom York hires to test the waters for his claim to the throne. Cade relies on popular support and anti-elite sentiment to fuel his rebellion. This lesson looks at Cade's role in the power struggle between Henry VI and Richard of York.

Historical Background on Jack Cade

Jack Cade led a popular rebellion against Henry VI in England in 1450. We don't know much about the man himself, although the rebellion was the largest of this period and is well documented in various sources. Ultimately it failed, and Cade died, but this rebellion is seen as part of the general chaos and political unrest leading up to the War of the Roses.

Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 2, Relevant Plot Summary

Henry VI Part 2 is where we meet Jack Cade in Shakespeare. Cade is essentially used as a pawn in an attempt by Richard, Duke of York, to seize the throne from Henry VI. (Henry VI is a weak king, although not a bad person - still, because he is generally unpopular, it is reasonable for York to believe he has a chance at taking the throne.) York hires Cade to lead a popular uprising against Henry VI in an effort to test the waters and see how much support York might find should he attempt to seize power.

York and What Army

York has an army with him in Ireland, where he is quashing a revolt. He eventually brings this army to England, ostensibly to protect Henry VI, but actually to use in his coup attempt. Meanwhile, Cade is unsuccessful in his rebellion when his men are persuaded to abandon him, and he eventually dies, leaving the elites, divided between Henry VI and Richard of York, to fight it out at the battle of St. Albans.

Populism in the Revolt

Cade's speeches tend to appeal to the concerns of the working man. Just as today, it is possible to see some resentment against elitism and snobbery, this was also the case in other periods of history, and it was what fueled Cade's revolt. One of his speeches includes:

'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 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.'

Words and Anti-Elitism

He goes on in this vein for awhile; Cade does not object to words and grammar as such, but rather because of the power that they give to the elite class. That is, the people in society who 'usually talk of a noun and a verb' are highly educated and are of a different social class than those whose grammar is not as polished.

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