Study Guide

Henry VI Part 2 Society and Class

By William Shakespeare

Society and Class

YORK
In face, in gait, in speech, he doth resemble.
By this I shall perceive the Commons' mind,
How they affect the house and claim of York.
Say he be taken, racked, and torturèd,
I know no pain they can inflict upon him
Will make him say I moved him to those arms. (3.1.378-383)

As York tells us about his plans for Jack Cade, we realize that though Cade may be in power with the rebels, he's actually just a pawn in the nobility game. He might think he's fighting for class issues, but he's actually just pushing the agenda of another would-be king.

SUFFOLK:
'Tis like the commons, rude unpolished hinds,
Could send such message to their sovereign!
To Salisbury But you, my lord, were glad to be
   employed,
To show how quaint an orator you are.
But all the honor Salisbury hath won
Is, that he was the lord ambassador
Sent from a sort of tinkers to the King. (3.2.280-287)

When the commoners are trying to break in to get some answers, Suffolk refers to them as "unpolished" country bumpkins. The nobles are annoyed at the commoners' behavior and wish the commoners would just stay in line. But we can't help but wonder whether the commoners have a point: are they just slaves to the nobility? 

SUFFOLK
With humble suit. No, rather let my head
Stoop to the block than these knees bow to any
Save to the God of heaven and to my king;
And sooner dance upon a bloody pole
Than stand uncovered to the vulgar groom.
True nobility is exempt from fear.—
More can I bear than you dare execute. (4.1.132-138)

Right before he's murdered, Suffolk proclaims his high social class. It doesn't matter much once he's dead, but to Suffolk, it's who he is. He talks about being a noble almost in a religious way, as if it's something he believes in.

HOLLAND
So he had need, for 'tis threadbare. Well, I
say it was never merry world in England since
gentlemen came up. (4.2.7-9)

Cade's crew wants a commonwealth, which means there would be no high-and-mighty gentlemen and nobles looking down their noses at the common folk. Holland is actually slamming the nobles here, saying it's become trendy to be a gentleman. It's not something innate; it's just a pose people put on.

CADE
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. (4.2.66-69, 71-74)

Cade wants to get rid of class system, he wants there to be no money, and he wants to have lots of beer. It all sounds great, except for the fact that according to this plan, Cade will just be replacing the king. When he talks about the commonwealth, he makes it clear that he'll be the one ruling; it won't be the people controlling what happens. Hmm… is that because the idea of a monarchy is just totally ingrained in his mind, or is it because he, too, wants the people to serve him?

DICK
The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers. (4.2.75)

Burn. This smack talk about lawyers certainly is a crowd pleaser. But this suggestion to Cade about the new government isn't just about lawyers: it's about getting rid of all educated, upper class men. A lawyer is representative of learned people, and of the opportunities that the commoners don't have. A lawyer is also a representative of the system as it is, and these guys know that this system does them no favors; in fact, it keeps them oppressed.

CADE
And you that love the Commons, follow me.
Now show yourselves men. 'Tis for liberty!
We will not leave one lord, one gentleman;
Spare none but such as go in clouted shoon,
For they are thrifty, honest men and such
As would, but that they dare not, take our parts. (4.2.179-184)

Cade encourages his men to follow him and get rid of class hierarchy. He wants to replace all this with a commonwealth, where the commoners would get just as much say as the nobles. Now, Cade is lying about his heritage, and everyone knows it. Plus, his use of "parts" here would have reminded Shakespeare's audience of the fact that these were all actors, performing roles different from who they actually were. When Cade proclaims that all these folks are honest, we kind of understand that they aren't—and that suggests that this rebellion may not be as noble as it seems.

CADE
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. (4.7.31-40)

Lord Saye is arrested and killed because he has—gasp—helped educate people. Who knew reading and writing were such hot-button issues? But the point here is more about the class divide. The upper class peeps get to go to grammar school, while the commoners are never educated, which just gives them more power over the commoners. Cade doesn't think that's fair. Does Saye deserve to die for it?

CLIFFORD
What say you, countrymen? Will ye relent
And yield to mercy whilst 'tis offered 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!'
Who hateth him and honors not his father,
Henry the Fifth, that made all France to quake,
Shake he his weapon at us and pass by. (4.8.11-18)

When Clifford convinces the rebels to stop fighting against Henry, he invokes their patriotism and their pride regarding Henry V, the current king's dad. It's interesting that he gets the commoners back with a story about a king, since they have been fighting the whole time against the idea of a king. What is Shakespeare trying to tell us by including this king business in Clifford's speech? Does the crowd really just fall for whoever tells the best stories?

CADE
I thought you
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. (4.8.25-29)

Trying to convince the rebels to fight on his side after Clifford has made a persuasive speech about re-joining the king, Cade pulls out all the stops. He purposely puts the commoners down by using words like "recreants" (villain) and "dastards" (coward). Then he puts himself in that group, alongside them, saying that they're all fighting together against the fact that the nobles treat them like slaves. Do you think Cade actually cares about the commoners? Or is he just after power and status, too?

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