Abstract law or the worship of a document is not sufficient for guidance of a people, nor are the paltry checks of public shame and dread enough to deter criminality. We stand a far greater chance of learning wisdom from William Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” than we do from listening to the countless talking heads and screaming rabble-rousers of today.

Without a doubt, the United States in 2020 is showing to the world what a “republic” looks like when it degenerates into democracy—understood in Plato’s derogatory sense of the term. I have found my thoughts wandering to one of Western civilization’s most brilliant European white males, William Shakespeare, who has a lot to tell us about how “government of the people, by the people, for the people” actually tends to operate. It’s not a pretty picture.

In the second part of his historical trilogy Henry VI, Shakespeare anatomizes insubordination, placing before us every kind of rebellion and political vice: domestic betrayal, military wrangling, clerical maneuvering, dynastic ambition, aristocratic sedition, and plebeian insurrection. King Henry’s wheedling wife Margaret seconds her paramour Suffolk in his hankering for power; the Dukes of York and Somerset quarrel over who shall put down the uprising in Ireland; Cardinal Beaufort, Archbishop of Canterbury, tramples upon faith and honor as he vies for the Protector’s coveted authority; York privately seduces noblemen to uphold his fabricated right and plans the undermining of King Henry’s government by Jack Cade; Bedminster, Suffolk, and other peers of the realm tensely await the opportunity to gain from the misfortune of their fellows; unreasoning laborers and farmers, led by an angry bricklayer, slay the innocent, burn down houses and bridges, and acclaim Cade their king.

The chaos of passions described above succeeds in disrupting the state only when the ponderous mass of peasants is set in motion by its ambitious superiors. The regnant party and the traitors must create directed forces from the unformed raw energy of the people—they have no other choice; the people are one with the soil they farm and the land they live on: If fallow fields be not purchased and gained, the seeds of rebellion cannot be sown. The commoners are the instrument of the nobles, the toys of their dangerous play. A healthy people have healthy instincts, yet seldom have pointed and definite aims.

To the tumultuous crowd outside of Henry’s palace, the Earl of Salisbury attributes “mere instinct of love and loyalty” (2 Henry VI, III.ii.250), which may be bent by ruse or rhetoric. Novelty attracts their attention, plangent tales draw their sympathy, liberal promises win their labor: Whatever blazes brightest captivates their wills. In a different part of the trilogy, Clifford cynically reflects:

The common people swarm like summer flies;
And whither fly the gnats but to the sun?
And who shines now but Henry’s enemies?
(3 Henry VI, II.vi.8-10)

But a short while after Clifford’s death, the repentant loyalist Warwick brings news of Fortune’s favor to Henry’s men-at-arms.

Trust me, my lord, all hitherto goes well;
The common people by numbers swarm to us.
(3 Henry VI, IV.ii.1-2)

Beleaguered Warwick is made to swallow his words, however, when Edward returns from Belgium with “hasty Germans and blunt Hollanders,” for “many giddy people flock to him” (3 Henry VI, IV.viii.5).

The centermost revelation of the people’s wavering faith undeniably takes place in an incident mentioned above: the Duke of York’s raising up Jack Cade as demagogue to muster the commoners on Richard’s behalf. “Away with scrupulous wit! now arms must rule,” says Lord Hastings (3 Henry VI, IV.vii.61), one of York’s men. The chaotic scenes whirling around Cade, the Kentish firebrand who calls himself “Lord Mortimer”—often regarded simply as a blackly comic interlude—display in full colors a mode of governing starkly opposed to the King’s, or that of any respectable aristocrat. Cade, whose name deliberately carries a pun on cado, is imperious in his demands and brutal in his acts, vowing the downfall of all “exploiters.” His reign will be noted for its abolition of private property and the establishment of a national commune, suppression of money, conflating of classes (all men must be laborers), unrestrained indulgence of pleasure, uprooting of education and literacy (students, lawyers, priests are called enemies of the people), and absolute liberty (criminals are to be released indiscriminately).

In Aristotle’s Politics we read: “Democracy… arises out of the notion that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects; because men are equally free, they claim to be absolutely equal” (V.1, 1301a28-30). Aristotle also notes, “The measures which are taken by tyrants appear all of them to be democratic; such, for instance, as the license permitted to slaves… and also to women and children, and the allowing everybody to live as he likes. Such a government will have many supporters, for most persons would rather live in a disorderly than in a sober manner” (1319b 25-33).

Cade begins his mission by announcing to the gathered crowd:

Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows reformation. There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny; the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops; and I will make it felony to drink small beer. All the realm shall be in common, and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass. And when I am king—as king I will be… there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord. (2 Henry VI, IV.ii.72-85)

A butcher yells his justly famous words: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” to which Cade responds, “Nay, that I mean to do” (ll. 86-88). He interrogates a humble clerk who chances to approach the mob: “Dost thou use to write thy name, or hast thou a mark to thyself, like a honest plain-dealing mark?” When the poor boy answers, “Sir, I thank God, I have been so well brought up, that I can write my name,” the mob thunders, “He hath confessed: away with him! he’s a villain and a traitor” (ll. 113-119).

When Sir Stafford and his brother endeavor to lead the crowd out of its ignorance, Cade yells, “Fellow kings, I tell you that that Lord Say hath gelded the commonwealth, and made it an eunuch; and more than that, he can speak French; and therefore he is a traitor” (ll. 175-181).

And you, that love the commons, follow me.
Now show yourselves men; ‘tis for liberty.
We will not leave one lord, one gentleman…
(ll. 196-198)

The butcher warns Cade of the king’s approaching troops and receives a pregnant reply: “But then are we in order when we are most out of order. Come, march! forward!” (ll. 203-204). In the ensuing skirmish, “Lord Mortimer’s” motley band kills both of the Staffords and routs the remaining forces. Dick, the butcher of Ashford, speaks up once more, “If we mean to thrive and do good, break open the gaols and let out the prisoners.” Cade will do it.

A messenger to Henry’s court brings the alarming news:

The rebels are in Southwark; fly, my lord!
Jack Cade proclaims himself Lord Mortimer,
Descended from the Duke of Clarence’ house,
And calls your Grace usurper openly,
And vows to crown himself in Westminster.
His army is a ragged multitude
Of hinds and peasants, rude and merciless:
Sir Humphrey Stafford and his brother’s death
Hath given them heart and courage to proceed.
All scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentlemen,
They call false caterpillars, and intend their death.
(2 Henry VI, IV.iv.27-37)

The King says with mildness and irritation mixed, “O graceless men! they know not what they do” (l. 38). After the mob has gotten hold of London Bridge, and before they decide to burn both it and the Tower, a disturbing display of sheer cruelty takes place (Act IV, scene vi):

Cade. Now is Mortimer lord of this city. And here, sitting upon London-stone, I charge and command that, of the city’s cost, the pissing-conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign. And now, henceforward, it shall be treason for any that calls me other than Lord Mortimer.

Enter a Soldier, running.

Soldier. Jack Cade! Jack Cade!
Cade. Knock him down there.

They kill him.

Human life itself is at the mercy of the demagogue’s whim. Mindlessly but not unexpectedly, the people most obey the one who promises them the most freedom from obedience; the liberty offered by Cade is nothing but slavery under a different, more specious name. Aristotle insightfully observes that “democracy is antagonistic to tyranny, on the principle of Hesiod, ‘Potter hates potter,’ because they are nearly akin, for the extreme form of democracy is tyranny; and royalty and aristocracy are both alike opposed to tyranny” (V.10, 1312b3-8). Cade’s utopia is a thinly disguised tyranny.

The next peremptory command epitomizes the nature of all rebellion against tradition: “So, sirs:—Now go some and pull down the Savoy; others to the inns of court: down with them all.” The anti-traditionalist has no arguments, no prerogatives, no real vision: He merely cries “down with them all,” and his henchmen obey. At the height of his brief and insolent reign as “rightful claimant to the throne,” the arbitrary Cade grants a “subject’s suit,” to wit, “that the laws of England may come out” of his mouth (scene vii).

I have thought upon it; it shall be so. Away! burn all the records of the realm: my mouth shall be the parliament of England… and henceforward all things shall be in common. (ll. 15-21)

In his interview with Lord Say, whom he later beheads along with Sir John Cromer despite a tender plea for mercy (including the sentiment “ignorance is the curse of God, Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven,” ll. 78-79), Cade’s gut hatred of a class that did him no wrong, as well as his profoundly idiotic vanity, becomes equally evident. At first, Cade capitalized on the latent anti-intellectualism endemic to plebeians, promising to kill the lawyers and make the fountains run wine. It is only a matter of time before he shifts his policies to more immediately ‘domestic’ issues.

The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders, unless he pay me tribute; there shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhood, ere they have it; men shall hold of me in capite; and we charge and command that their wives be as free as heart can wish or tongue can tell. (ll. 125-132)

Cade, entering Southwark with “all his rabblement,” shouts “Kill and knock down!,” epitomizing a short-lived reign devoted to pillage, murder, and destruction. Cade’s politics appeal to natural appetites gone wildly astray. Without a firm just rule, the desire for property becomes perverted into a desire for loot; the social instinct falls prey to a heated passion for gain and revenge; the artistic inclination degenerates into blind lust for tearing down what others have built, including tradition. King Henry VI, bewailing the perfidy of his people, the treachery of his nobles, and the blindness of his elders, utters the cry: “O! where is faith? O, where is loyalty? If it be banish’d from the frosty head, Where shall it find a harbour in the earth?” (2 Henry VI, V.i.166-8). When even the ‘wise,’ those who bear tradition, depart from the path of trust and devotion, all hope for domestic peace dissolves. The lower ranks depend upon the higher: When “our people and our peers are both misled” (3 Henry VI, III.iii.35), the edifice of rank crumbles, the structure of society collapses.

Immediately after Jack yells, “Kill and knock down!,” Buckingham and old Clifford bear down upon the misled commoners with heavy forces and offer terms of reconciliation.

What say ye, countrymen? will ye relent,
And yield to mercy, whilst ‘tis offer’d you,
Or let a rebel lead you to your deaths?
Who loves the king, and will embrace his pardon,
Fling up his cap, and say ‘God save his majesty!’
(2 Henry VI, IV.viii.12-16)

The changeful mob, altogether forgetful of its former zeal, roars in one voice, “God save the king! God save the king!” (l. 20), demonstrating once more their readiness to be led by the most authoritative word. Incredulous Cade exclaims,

And you, base peasants, do ye believe him? will you needs be hanged with your pardons about your necks? Hath my sword therefore broke through London Gates, that you should leave me at the White Hart in Southwark? I thought ye would never have given out these arms till you had recovered your ancient freedom; but you are all recreants and dastards, and delight to live in slavery to the nobility. Let them break your backs with burthens, take your houses over your heads, ravish your wives and daughters before your faces: for me, I will make shift for one, and so, God’s curse light upon you all! (ll. 22-35)

Contradicting his own legislation of an hour before, Cade accuses the nobles of the selfsame license that he preached, appeals to an “ancient freedom” (meaning, we are led to believe, no hierarchy in society), and mocks the people for delighting in a life of “slavery,” the life of laboring, soldiering, and merry-making in which the commoners have lived, more or less contentedly, for centuries. In a moment of exquisite satire verging on outright farce, Shakespeare has the embarrassed people give answer: “We’ll follow Cade, we’ll follow Cade!” When Clifford essays yet again to win them over, he needs merely to abuse Cade’s fictitious prerogative and meanness of character, to warn the crowd that France may attack when England is weakest, and to wind up by stirring the people to fight in a new French campaign: Caught now in their fourth self-contradiction, the bewildered peasants cry out, “A Clifford! a Clifford! we’ll follow the king and Clifford.”

All at once the wicked Cade realizes that his whole scheme was nothing but a vulgar comedy of errors built upon the whimsical appetites of the herd. Dumbfounded by the mob’s fluctuating allegiance, the rebel leader can only whisper to himself in absolute candor: “Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude?”

I see them lay their heads together to surprise me. My sword make way for me, for here there is no staying. (ll. 61-64)

It is valuable to trace Shakespeare’s repeated use of certain images. Ordinary people repeat themselves out of vanity, forgetfulness, or obstinacy; poets repeat for quite different reasons. In 3 Henry VI, the dethroned King, apprehended in the woods of Scotland by two dull-witted game-keepers, uses the same metaphor that Cade does, comparing the commoners to a feather. A man called Humphrey, one of the pair, laughs at Henry: “Ay, but thou talk’st as if thou wert a king.” The king sadly smiles: “Why, so I am, in mind; and that’s enough.”

My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
Not deck’d with diamonds and Indian stones,
Nor to be seen: my crown is call’d content;
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.
(3 Henry VI, III.i.62-65)

When the game-keepers try to threaten him, again the King reminds them of his identity:

I was anointed king at nine months old;
My father and my grandfather were kings,
And you were sworn true subjects unto me:
And tell me, then, have you not broke your oath?
(Ibid., ll. 76-79)

Sinklo (a very telling name) responds with perfect complacency: “No; For we were subjects but while you were king.” Roused from his state of peripatetic abstraction, the good-natured King can brook no more stupidity.

Why, am I dead? do I not breathe a man?
Ah! simple men, you know not what you swear.
Look, as I blow this feather from my face,
And as the air blows it to me again,
Obeying with my wind when I do blow,
And yielding to another when it blows,
Commanded always by the greater gust;
Such is the lightness of you common men.
(Ibid., ll. 82-89)

The fleeing “Lord Mortimer,” whom we left a moment ago, wanders through the wild forests like the solitary King. For sustenance he tries to steal “forbidden fruit” from one Lord Iden’s orchard. The worthy squire catches Cade in the “Garden of Iden,” forthwith dispatches him according to the published decree of the realm, and hastens to the court with Cade’s head—a head without a body. In a stroke of consummate poetic justice, the man who usurped the headship of a body not his loses the one body which did belong to him.

Meanwhile, Buckingham and old Clifford “devise a mean to reconcile” the people unto the King. The mob enters the King’s presence at Kenilworth Castle “with halters about their necks” as a sign of unconditional submission, as well as an indication of their genuine place. (Recall Aristotle: “Every man should be responsible to others, nor should anyone be allowed to do just as he pleases; for where absolute freedom is allowed there is nothing to restrain the evil which is inherent in every man,” Politics VI.4, 1318b40ff.). Drawing on his wonted clemency, Henry VI, though perfectly authorized to command the wholesale execution of the traitorous subjects, generously forgives them.

Heaven, set ope thy everlasting gates,
To entertain my vows of thanks and praise!
Soldiers, this day have you redeem’d your lives,
And show’d how well you love your prince and country:
Continue still in this so good a mind,
And Henry, though he be unfortunate,
Assure yourselves, will never be unkind:
And so, with thanks and pardon to you all,
I do dismiss you to your several countries.
(2 Henry VI, IV.ix.13-21)

The commonfolk, acquitted of guilt but not a whit less herd-like, bellow in unison, “God save the king! God save the king!”

“Who cannot steal a shape that means deceit?” the Queen rhetorically asks (2 Henry VI, III.i.79), pointing to the ease with which gullible peasants may be manipulated. Shakespeare represents the commonfolk as rooted in the land but shallow in thought, tenacious in satisfying their appetites but volatile in allegiance, the lowest, broadest, least stable echelon of society, and therefore the one most in need of rule as well as the one most harmed by misrule.

The commons, like an angry hive of bees
That want their leader, scatter up and down,
And care not who they sting in his revenge.
(2 Henry VI, III.ii.125-127)

The people cannot direct themselves; they cannot walk without a hand to guide them. Abstract law or the worship of a document is not sufficient for guidance, nor are the paltry checks of public shame and dread enough to deter criminality. Only strong centralized rule founded on natural and Christian virtue can accomplish the task of training the masses in moral virtue and placid obedience. The peasantry needs a governing head: without hierarchy, submission, and clear lines of duty, the huge realm of animal instinct remains unconquered, anarchical, and destructive.

We stand a far greater chance of learning wisdom from Shakespeare than we do from listening to the countless talking heads and screaming rabble-rousers of today.

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The featured image is a detail from King Henry VI, part III, act II, scene III, Warwick, Edward, and Richard at the Battle of Towton by John Augustus Atkinson (1775–1833). It is in the public domain and appears here, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.

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