No Such Thing as a Free Salad Chez Shakespeare
Though William Shakespeare may have wished it otherwise, there was no such thing as a free lunch or, in Jack Cade’s terms, a “sallet” in the bard’s garden. Conversations of self-interest and social distribution pervade Henry VI, part II (2H6). Jack Cade, leader of the historically-rooted Cade's Rebellion, offers the play’s fullest rumination on “who gets what” and why. Though Cade may take his quest for a socialist utopia too far, Shakespeare presents Cade and his followers rather sympathetically.
In 2H6, Shakespeare distinguishes between “bad” greed (with corrupt nobles like the Duke of Suffolk being publicly executed) and the legitimate need for redistribution in the case of the commons. The men of Cade’s rebellion are not corrupt rent-seekers, but simple tradesmen wishing to take the “threadbare” commonwealth and “set a new nap upon it” to yield a fuller, richer, less patchy nation (4.2.5). However, this quest for a better society is doomed from the start, as often is the case, by their rent-seeking leader, Cade, who craves power over parity.
As a lowly tradesman unversed in politics, Cade is miserably unaware of the importance of institutions to civil society. In his first speech, Cade immediately rejects all social and economic structures, unaware of the necessity of value as a driving force in social order. The society he outlines is far from a free society, reproducing the tyranny of England’s dated feudal system in a radically reinvisioned way. In Cade’s communist fantasy, rather than freeing its citizens, leveling merely constitutes an alternate form of oppression. Cade “vows reformation” and promises the crowd, “There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny . . . and I will make it felony to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in common” (4.2.59-63). Cade ignores all notions of scarcity and eliminates value, selling seven halfpenny loaves for one penny, while undoing social order by “enforc[ing] the consumption of festive double beer, or strong ale.” This makes drunkenness not only legal but “compulsory” (4.2.62-3). Unconcerned with who pays for or works for what, Cade promises that when he is king, there will “be no money, all shall eat and drink on my score and I will apparel them all in one livery” like servants (4.2.67-9). Cade shifts the economic burden of food and drink to the state without realizing that as dictator, he is the state. His radical proposal for leveling social hierarchy conflates economic need with his own political hunger. In this, Cade presents real issues like the rising cost of wheat, enclosure of the commons, and legal discrimination against the illiterate poor without offering any plausible solutions.
A handful of scenes later, Cade launches into his most glaring dystopian speech of the play as he describes the “ideal” society he will create. Having issued the tyrannical “Away with him! And do as I command ye,” Cade warns his followers that in Cade’s society, “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 maidenhead ere they have it” (4.7.112-17). Though Cade previously eliminated all money, value, and rank, here he describes a society in which money talks and the “lord” tyrant rules. In Cade’s twisted feudal dystopia, nobles will be beheaded if they don’t pay “tribute” to their lord and virgins will “pay” the lord with their virginity. Cade’s society is horrifying: codified rape, extramarital sex, and perverted wealth taxes. While it may render Cade a hypocrite, this terrifying parody of the feudal system reflects Shakespeare’s deep sympathy for the poor. Cade’s political proposals are undoubtedly unrealistic and abusive, but they are a reflection both of the current poverty and past feudal abuse. Cade’s plan is modeled on the feudal system of the lord’s power over his vassals – a power that both protected the vassals and provided them with guaranteed food, shelter, and clothes, but also exposed them to abuses like unfair taxes and forced sexual favors (the likely fictional, but widely rumored to exist droit du seigneur). Reminiscent of an abuse victim’s PTSD, instead of avoiding past abuses, Cade replicates them, repeating the cycle of abuse which yields a darker, more exploitative, and more tyrannical perversion of feudal ranks.
Due to its basis in Cade’s own self-interest and not the collective good, Cade’s movement can only last for so long. At the end of Act 4, even his followers abandon him and opt for the safety of royal pardon over the insecurity of rebellion. In Cade’s final scene, Shakespeare presents a portrait of Cade at his most sympathetic and most flawed. On the run, a desperate and famished Cade laments, “Fie on ambitions! Fie on myself that have a sword and yet am ready to famish! These five days have I hid me in these woods . . . but now am I so hungry . . . I [can] stay no longer.” Spying a garden, Cade climbs over the fence to pick its greens and make a meager “sallet.” Alexander Iden, a modest gentleman farmer and the owner of the garden, enters immediately after and contrasts Cade’s rhetoric of survival with a rhetoric of bounty and gratitude, extolling the quiet country life away from the turmoil of court, where he “may enjoy such quiet walks as these” and share his bounty, “send[ing] the poor well pleased from [his] gate” (4.10.16-23). Despite having overheard Iden’s commitment of humble comfort and charity, Cade immediately imagines Iden will sell him out and assumes the offensive. Viewing Iden as the embodiment of noble exploitation, Cade attacks Iden and vows to “make [him] eat iron like an ostrich” (Cartelli 49; 4.28-9). Shocked by Cade’s unprovoked aggression, Iden replies
Why, rude companion, whatsoe'er thou be,
I know thee not; why, then, should I betray thee?
Is't not enough to break into my garden,
And, like a thief, to come to rob my grounds,
Climbing my walls in spite of me the owner,
But thou wilt brave me with these saucy terms? (4.10.30-5)
Cade responds with pure need, telling Iden to “Look on me well: I have eat no meat these five days,” immediately challenging the “lord of the soil” to a duel or, more accurately, a promise to kill him. Iden refuses Cade’s challenge, uncomfortable with the physical disparity between the starved Cade and his own well-nourished frame: “Nay, it shall ne'er be said, while England stands,” that Iden “took odds to combat a poor famished man . . . Thy hand is but a finger to my fist” (4.10.41-7). Unable to digest Iden’s charity, Cade attacks Iden and is swiftly slain, crying “O, I am slain! Famine and no other hath slain me” (4.10.59).
However, Cade’s claim is patently not true. Cade “and no other” hath slain himself. Cade’s blood is on his own hands, not Iden’s, for there would have been no standoff had Cade simply accepted Iden’s kindness. To accept charity, however, one must accept hierarchies; one must accept the notion that there are some better off who can aid those worse off by, as Adam Smith wrote, “divid[ing] with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life which would have been made had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants.” Iden has already mastered this (re)distribution, as he makes clear in his opening speech, devaluing wealth accumulation and praising charity. Cade, on the other hand, has consistently shown himself unable to accept Smith’s “different ranks of life” unless they are of his own design (TMS 214-15). Ultimately, it is not his hunger but Cade’s hubristic refusal to acknowledge hierarchies that proves his undoing. Unwilling to buy into anyone else’s system of exchange, Cade rejects Iden’s plenty even to the point of death.
Shakespeare, William. King Henry VI, Part 2. Edited by Ronald Knowles, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2016.
Smith, Adam. Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by Knud Haakonssen, Cambridge University Press, 2002.