HENRY VI part II: Act IV
‘death, a necessary end, will come when it will come’ (JULIUS CAESAR: Act II, sc ii)
subtitled: ‘The not very tragic or lamentable death of the serial rotter, Suffolk, and the deservedly doomed distraction caused by Cade.’
It’s not quite acts three or four of Antony and Cleopatra, but this act does get into double-figures in terms of scenes – something I find irritating as a reader, in a way that I don’t find when listening to or watching the plays. Still, basically, Act IV boils down into two episodes, as the subtitle suggests.
Francis Feeble is one of many Shakespearean characters that reminds us that:
‘a man can die but once; we owe a death’ (FRANCIS FEEBLE, Henry IV II: Act III, sc ii)
What kind of death does Suffolk owe us? I’m getting increasingly fascinated by the way Shakespeare’s characters face that:
‘undiscover’d country from whose bourn,
no traveller returns’ HAMLET (Act III, sc i)
and I’ll definitely be returning to that at some stage. But, involved in the narrative as I’ve become, Suffolk owes us a ‘bad’ death. Which I think we’re a little cheated of – compare it to the Bad Death of Edward Delacroix, as written by Stephen King, and you’ll see what I mean: I still remember where I was when I read the novella on it’s first publication in 1996! I hope that doesn’t place me as Percy Whitmore in The Green Mile, but never mind, let’s move swiftly onwards.
Suffolk is a shark who’s been thrown out of the tank, only to fall in with a shoal of piranhas …
The death itself happens offstage. I wanted to see it happen. In the run up Suffolk is at turns fearful and excessively proud, but overall horribly disdainful of the idea of being killed – a man of his quality and status – by mere commoners. In fact, he tells the Lieutenant:
‘It is impossible that I should die
By such a lowly vassal as thyself.
Thy words move rage and not remorse in me.’ (SUFFOLK: IV.i.110-112)
So, no remorse, but plenty of fear when the superstitious Suffolk remembers the prophecy about him and ‘water’ (the contemporary pronunciation of Whitmore’s first name) we saw in Act 1 scene iv.
‘Pene gelidus timor occupat artus‘ (cold fear almost completely seizes my limbs) (SUFFOLK: IV.i.118)
I quite enjoyed Whitmore. An implacable man who can’t be bought off or easily cowed – he’s lost an eye in taking Suffolk, and his vision for revenge is clear and unclouded. Another man who we ought to at least partly transfuse into Henry.
In this section there’s a bit that Arden’s editor can’t account for: the apparent sudden recognition of the Lieutenant as a former servant. Personally, I’m happy to read the speech instead as an extended and generalised ‘do you know who I am?’ Perhaps most obnoxious of all, and with a double entendre not lost on us or the Lieutenant, was the claim to have:
‘feasted with Queen Margaret’ (SUFFOLK: IV.i.58)
Yup. In fact, Margaret becomes the main complaint of the Lieutenant’s wonderfully angry but controlled condemnation of Suffolk’s action. It needed saying. I wish I’d said it!
And so we lose a character that I’ve hated for some pages now. Nor can I lament his passing, as he had none of the redeeming qualities of, say a Richard III or an Iago. He was just a bad, bad man. Goodbye and good-riddance …
And so to Cade. I love a dad-joke or a pun as much as anyone, more than most – perhaps this is why I wallow in the word-play in Shakespeare so much. In Act IV, I love the way that a man who killed people for knowing their ‘letters’ ends up having to graze on ‘lettuce’ to survive. Geddit? I’m here all week …
He’s an interesting man: he can overplay the commoner and the Philistine, but he can also adopt Blank Verse as it suits his purpose (scene ii). He derides the power of a name to influence others, but kicks off by assuming his authority on the back of the Mortimers and Plantagents. As a teacher, I love the lines:
‘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 hear.’ (CADE: IV.vii.35-36)
Even as a confirmed Agnostic, I have to side with Lord Saye’s sentiments as he pleads for his life:
‘ignorance is the curse of God,
Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven,’ (SAYE: IV.vii.68-69)
and you can expect to see that up on the “Shakespeare Says” noticeboard in my classroom when I return from our Easter break! Saye is another one, like Gloucester, to assume that innocence will act as a shield. Erm, no – it won’t.
What else to say of Cade? A man with pronounced socialist views, yet pronouncing this utopian vision from the hypocritical pedestal of his own pre-eminence. In this he reminds me a little of Gonzalo in The Tempest, but he’s a far more cunning and vicious iteration of Prospero’s old friend. He’s too much a creature of extremes to succeed in any real measure, and as he grazed in Iden’s garden I wondered if it was Macbeth‘s ‘insane root’ that caused him to rise in this way: a project doomed to failure and death. Perhaps he was just one of those people we read about who would rather go out in a blaze of notoriety rather than live a mundane, pedestrian life. To return to our Stephen King analogy, he was walking The Green Mile as soon as he raised his head above the parapet.
If there’s one other thing about Cade’s failed rebellion that interested me, it was the saucy humour, power and malleability of the mob. (I’ve almost gone past the stage of caring about Henry’s decision to speak to Cade rather than crush him) Their flip-flopping between Cade and Clifford is an early foreshadowing of similar behaviour at Julius Caesar‘s funeral (and indeed the beginning of JC) that I’ll definitely touch on at length when the opportunity arrives.
‘Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude?’ (CADE: IV.viii.55-56)
Eventually, inevitably, Cade dies the death that he owes, onstage. He’s less fearful but perhaps equally proud as Suffolk:
‘I, that never feared any, am vanquished by famine, not by valour.’ (CADE: IV.x.73-74)
and Iden promises to make his grave an ignominious ‘dunghill’. Although I suspect it will be too inviting an opportunity for personal advancement to make good on that idea.
Let’s not forget York in all this fun. Cade’s mischievous distraction has worked, and in Act 5, he’ll be back with the army so obligingly provided him by his enemies in their desperation to get rid of him …
All line references given are to the Arden Third Editions. More general references in here are given to the plays on www.opensourceshakespeare.org