Act 4, scene 1
This scene takes place following a skirmish off the coast of Kent. A Lieutenant, a Shipmaster and his mate, Walter Whitmore, enter. They are pirates, and they have taken Suffolk and other Gentlemen prisoner. Suffolk, who was on his way to France to live out his exile, is in disguise. The Lieutenant orders that two Gentlemen be killed to compensate for the men they lost in the fight. Walter Whitmore wants to kill Suffolk also, but the Lieutenant says they will accept a ransom and spare his life. Suffolk is frightened because of a prophecy he was told earlier that he would die by water, and the name Walter is pronounced Water. Suffolk reveals who he is and is defiant. The Lieutenant changes his mind and says that Suffolk will be beheaded because he is connected to King Henry. The Lieutenant reveals his anger at the state of the nation and how its wealth has been squandered by its rulers. He thinks the King is weak, and he is angry at the loss of the English territories in France. He goes on the describe the current situation in the country: the Duke of York is up in arms, planning to seize the throne, and the common people in Kent are also rebelling. The lieutenant blames Suffolk for his part in this and orders him to be taken away for execution. Suffolk is defiant and demands to be taken safely across the English Channel to France. But Whitmore says he will be taken only to his death. Suffolk keeps his nerve and refuses to plead for his life. He says that many great men have been killed by bandits and pirates, and he will now be one of them. Whitmore escorts him out, then returns with the dead body. He exits, leaving the body behind. One Gentleman, whose life has been spared by the Lieutenant, says he will take the body to the King, and Suffolk’s death will be avenged by his friends.
Suffolk meets the end predicted for him in Act 1 scene 4 by the spirit (that Suffolk will die by water), and it is unlikely that anyone in the audience will have much sympathy for him. Throughout the play he has plotted to advance his own interests rather than work toward the stability of the realm. He ensnared Eleanor and Gloucester, ensuring the death of the latter without ever proving that Gloucester was guilty. In addition to this, Suffolk was responsible for negotiating the poor deal with France that led to so much dissatisfaction; he levied a tax on personal property to cover the cost of bringing Margaret to England, and he carried on an affair with Margaret once she had become queen. Suffolk therefore bears much responsibility for the lawless events that have taken place, and the audience may feel that he gets what he deserves.
This scene also serves as prologue to the main action of this act, which is the rebellion of the men of Kent, led by Jack Cade.
Act 4, scene 2
In Blackheath, Kent, two artisans, George Bevis and John Holland enter. They discuss the rebellion of the working people that is already under way, led by Jack Cade. They decide to join it.
Cade enters at the head of a mob, including Dick the butcher, Smith the weaver, and a Sawyer. He claims to be a member of the Mortimer family (a noble family) and on this basis he seeks the throne. He boasts about his family lineage and his own courage, while Dick and Smith make facetious remarks that undermine his claims and suggest he has been a vagabond and a thief. Cade vows to make fundamental reform in English society; all goods will be cheaper and all property will be held in common.
A clerk enters, the Clerk of Chatham. Because he can read and write, and works in the legal system, Cade and his men are hostile to him. Cade sends him away to be hanged.
A man named Michael enters, and informs Cade that Sir Gloucester Stafford and his brother are close at hand, with an army.
Stafford enters and tells Cade’s men to put their weapons down and go home. If they do so, the King will forgive them.
Addressing Stafford, Cade claims to be the rightful heir to the throne. He says that his father was the son of Edmund Mortimer, Duke of March. He (Cade’s father) was stolen by a beggar woman when he was an infant and was raised in ignorance of his parentage. He became a bricklayer. Stafford’s brother says that the Duke of York has put Cade up to making these claims, but Cade denies it. He says he will allow King Henry to retain his title, but he, Cade, will be Protector, with all the authority of the King.
Cade then claims that the Lord Say is a traitor for ceding Maine to the French, and the men call for his execution.
Stafford and his brother see that Cade and his men will not disperse, and send out heralds to proclaim that all men who follow Cade are traitors. They exit, to prepare for battle. Cade rallies his men and they march forward.
Act 4, scene 3
In the fight, both Staffords have been killed. Cade congratulates Dick. Cade puts on Stafford’s armor, and says that his horse will drag the bodies of Stafford and his men as he marches to London. Dick wants to set all the prisoners in London’s jails free, so they will join the rebellion, and Cade agrees.
For his portrayal of the Cade rebellion, Shakespeare drew on some of the details he found in accounts by English historians of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, but he puts Cade and his followers in a far worse light. They are presented as an unruly, bloodthirsty mob, bent on overturning the basis of society. This is seen in the murder of the clerk, whose only sin is to have an education and be a small cog in the English legal system. Dick the butcher’s cry, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” is not only one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, it expresses the lawlessness of the rebels. Historically, the Cade rebellion was a collection of artisans and gentry who were protesting against high taxation, the loss of England’s French possessions, and the excessive influence of the Duke of Suffolk on the King.
As part of Shakespeare’s negative portrayal of the rebels, Cade’s pretensions to being of noble blood and courageous are undermined by his own followers, who do not believe a word of it. Historically, no details are known of Cade’s ancestry, so his claim to be linked to the Mortimer family and the Duke of York cannot be proven and seem unlikely.
Scene 3 shows that the King’s forces initially underestimated the strength of the rebels. The defeat of an advance portion of the royal forces clears the way for the rebel advance on London.
Act 4, scene 4
In the palace in London, the King and Queen enter. The Queen holds Suffolk’s severed head and vows revenge even in the midst of her grief. The King has received the rebels’ petition of grievances and says he will try to avert a bloody conflict and will meet in person with Cade. Queen Margaret has no interest in reconciliation with the rebels, however. The King tells Lord Say that the rebels want him dead, and he replies that he hopes Cade is killed first.
A messenger enters. He announces that the rebels have reached nearby Southwark (on the south bank of the River Thames) and that the King must flee. Cade is now calling himself Lord Mortimer and plans to crown himself king in Westminster. The mob has been encouraged by their recent success and they want to kill anyone associated with the royal court or the legal system. The King agrees to retreat to Killingworth, a castle in Warwickshire, but Say says he will stay on in London in secret.
Another messenger enters and reports that Cade has taken London Bridge, gathering support as he goes, and is going to sack the city and the court. The King and Margaret hasten away.
Act 4, scene 5
In London, a citizen informs Lord Scales, governor of the Tower, that Cade is sweeping all before him, and the Lord Mayor has requested support to defend the city. Scales promises to do send what help he can although he has his hands full with the rebels himself.
These scenes convey the swiftness of events as Cade and his mob meet with initial success. This forces the King to abandon his stated desire to meet the rebels in person and discuss their grievances with them. All that matters now, with Cade on the rampage, is survival. Margaret’s words and actions show how deeply in love with Suffolk she was. Act 4, scene 4 also shows Margaret’s stern character and the King’s willingness to find a peaceful solution. He is by temperament averse to conflict ands seeks a negotiated solution to the Cade rebellion.