During the early afternoon of January 6th, I was reading 2 Henry VI when we started to hear the helicopters. Since moving home to Maryland after my college campus closed in March, I had reacclimated to the daily helicopters and jets patrolling DC’s border. By 3pm, it was clear that something was different. I put the play down and spent most of the afternoon listening to coverage of the attack on the White House on NPR. When I finally returned to my reading, I was shocked by how familiar the play suddenly felt.
The second part of Henry VI is towered over by the tremendous figure of Jack Cade, a Kentish populist and political prop who leads a mob into London city. The scheming York introduces the ultra-English Cade to the audience, recalling that in battle, he shook the dozens of arrows embedded in his legs as if they were bells worn by traditional folk dancers. Funded by York, Cade leads a rebellion of ordinary “handicraftmen” who tout him as “Sir John Mortimer,” a false lineage Cade embraces to give him a semblance of legitimacy as he attempts to grab the throne.
This double identity (both man-of-the-people and political insider) is uncannily mirrored in another populist leader–Donald Trump. While Trump inherited much of his wealth and business from his father, like Cade he claims to be a self-made man. Cade is proud to be laborer, but his claim to the throne comes only from coincidence of his Kentish birth and resemblance to Mortimer. As president, Trump claimed to fight for the ordinary individual, all while soothing and exploiting corporate interests.
Throughout 2 Henry VI, Cade vilifies the written word, accusing people who can write of witchcraft. Writing is a technology incomprehensible to his followers, and therefore necessarily hostile. Trump throughout his campaign has railed against the “fake news media,” creating a monopoly on truth which he used to spread false statistics and hate speech. Cade, dismissing all written laws, doctrine, and history, commands his followers to “Burn all the records of the realm. My mouth shall be the Parliament of England.”
Trump voiced his claims about “fake news” most recently in his speech on January 6th, which inspired a strikingly and scarily Cade-esque act of violence. In his “Stop the Steal” speech, he also vilified education by suggesting that the liberals wished “to indoctrinate your children in school by teaching them things that aren’t so.” He went further, claiming that educating children on the darkest moments of American history (such as slavery) was a traitorous act, a “comprehensive assault on our democracy.” When confronting the Lord Saye, Cade reacts similarly: “Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school.” Predicting Trump’s misplaced patriotism, Cade argues that this education is “contrary to the King, crown, and dignity.”
Cade makes explicit what Trump leaves implicit, commanding his followers to “kill and knock down” their enemies and to “throw them into the Thames.” They obey, burning down the Inns of Court, London’s law school–making good on their famous promise to “kill all the lawyers.” Trump’s mob also fulfilled his suggestions, not only storming the Capitol building, but brutalizing the media crews sent to cover the violence.
Unlike Trump, Cade joins in the fighting himself. He commands his followers not down Pennsylvania Avenue but down “Fish Street” to the London Stone where he proclaims himself Lord Mayor of London. The mob that follows him tears through London, doing more damage to the streets and shops of ordinary city folk than to the institutions which they set out to punish. Similarly, Trump’s supporters attacked and killed the very police they claimed to support.
Trump’s similarity to the populist Cade has been discussed in recent books and articles which detail how Trump can be imagined as a Shakespearea villain. I’m looking forward to reading James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America and Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant, both of which are on my nightstand. The connection between Trump and Cade has only been made more obvious and more relevant in the last two weeks.
Jack Cade finally falls when his mob abandons him. Called to remember their love of Henry V and their former patriotism, the laborers reject him. As Cade runs away, he says, “Only my followers’ base and ignominious treasons, makes me betake me to my heels.” After fleeing to the countryside, Cade hides in a hedge. Trump instead has hidden on his golf course.