The recent flash riots which broke out in London and various cities across the UK last week immediately reminded me of the Jack Cade scenes in 2 Henry VI. Cade, a mercenary in the pay of the Duke of York, whips up a rebellion in Kent, and leads a motely crew of artisans into Southwark, creating mayhem all the way along. Just as in the recent riots, the violence seems to be without purpose.
Shakespeare wrote these scenes near the start of his career, and evidently enjoyed creating the characters of Cade and his followers, as he gives over nearly a whole act to their riot. The play’s most famous lines rhyme disconcertingly with the disorder we’ve seen on the streets of contemporary England. ‘First thing we do,’ cries Dick the Butcher, ‘let’s kill all the lawyers.’ In Scene VIII, Cade ‘and all his Rabblement’ rush onto the stage, with Cade shouting orders: ‘Up Fish Street! Down St. Magnus’ corner! Kill and knock down! Throw them into the Thames.’ Their seemingly spontaneous violence is designed to subvert authority through creating as much disorder as possible. ‘We are in order when we are most out of order,’ Cade boasts. As well as murdering authority figures and pulling down buildings, the mob attacks writing. ‘Is this not a lamentable thing,’ says Cade, ‘that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment! That parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man?’ The poor Clerk of Chatham is hung ‘with a pen and ink-horn about his neck’ because he can speak Latin. Later, Cade orders his men to ‘Burn all the records of the realm’ so that ‘my mouth shall be the parliament of England.’
Recent debates in the media about our own Cades and Dick the Butchers have seen different explanations for the riots advanced: some say they are a product of a collapse of authority, others that they are an inevitable consequence of deprivation. Although he was writing four hundred years ago, Shakespeare, who may well have witnessed similar riots in Southwark, anticipates this debate in his own depiction of civil disorder. Both arguments appear and, as is often the case with Shakespeare, neither is resolved, so contemporary commentators can take what they will from the play. Sir Humphrey Stafford, who leads the first attempt to suppress the rebellion, calls the rioters ‘Rebellious hinds, the filth and scum of Kent’ and, in an echo of what some would like to see happen to today’s rioters, threatens to hang them from their own doors as an example to others. King Henry, on the other hand, thinks that the rioters are misguided and pities them: ‘For God forbid so many simple souls / Should perish by the sword’ and, in a deliberate echo of Christ on the cross, he says: ‘O graceless men, they know not what they do!’
Although the riots themselves are full of senseless violence and cartoon characters, Shakespeare is careful to build up a sense of grievance from the start of the play, when petitioners creep into a garden to protest against the land enclosures which were impoverishing them. Later, following the exposure of the fraud Saunders Simpcox, comedy is tinged with grim reality when Simpcox’s wife protests, as she is being dragged away, that they were forced into crime ‘for pure need.’ All the way through the play, commoners are treated with contempt by the aristocracy, and the Cade scenes are at least in part presented as an extreme reaction against this abuse. As one rioter laments, ‘O miserable age! Virtue is not regarded in handicrafts-men!’
Writing in the early 1590s, Shakespeare was able to anticipate modern reactions to civil disorder with uncanny prescience. His later depictions of mob violence (in Coriolanus for example) are notably briefer and less nuanced than this early attempt to stage mob rule. With Cade, Shakespeare created one of his most memorable characters, and leaves open to the audience to decide whether he and his men are the tools of political activists, or criminal gangs intent on senseless violence, or the product of a society which has impoverished and excluded them.