"Your Captain Is Brave and Vows Reformation": Jack Cade, the Hacket Rising, and Shakespeare's Vision of Popular Rebellion in 2 Henry VI

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"And do not stand on quillets how to slay him ..."

(3.1.261)

   Thus died the most dangerous firebrand of sedition, most detestable
   traitor, most hypocriticall seducer, and most execrable blasphemous
   helhound, that many ages ever sawe, or heard of, in this lande. (1)

THESE WELL-TURNED THUNDERCLAPS roll to a formulaic horror. This is the familiar rhetoric for impeachment of a rebel against the state, its piously nauseated hyperbole fusing arraignments of religious offense, moral sophistry, and treason. Found commonly where Tudor governments seek to anathematize declared opponents, the discourse in this instance takes on particular suggestiveness for scholars of Shakespeare, given the dates concerned. These superlatives of Richard Cosin's Conspiracie for Pretended Reformation, vilifying the leader of the Hacket rising of July 1591, and emerging from the presses in late 1592, may bring to mind another hyperbolized "helhound" of treachery, Jack Cade, "dangerous firebrand of sedition" of 2 Henry VI--for it appears that Shakespeare wrote that play, and fashioned his highly peculiar Cade, somewhere between just those two points in time. (2) Indeed, the two "helhounds," William Hacket, the "detestable traitor" of the 1591 rebellion, and the notorious Jack Cade, here become kindred figures, as the inflationary generic categories of official propaganda elevate Hacket (risibly) into a kind of towering demonic equivalence with the worst rebels of English history. Tudor accounts of riot and rebellion characteristically conflated rebels past and present, so that, in the official imagination at least, in a kind of ghastly inversion of eucharistic divine co-presence, archdemons of 1381 and 1450 merged with contemporary firebrands of sedition. Summing up at Hacket's trial, in July 1591, the Solicitor-General himself explicitly compared Hacket with, inter alia, Jack Cade. (3)

But just as the figure of Cade, for the public prosecutor, loomed darkly into the essential significance of Hacket, so the "meaning" of Shakespeare's Jack Cade, as construed by commons audiences of 1591-92, must have come redolent of the recent and sensational experience of William Hacket. For the Hacket insurgency remained lurid in memory and controversial in interpretation for both Londoners and authorities for years afterward: hundreds had witnessed the bizarre Cheapside rising and thousands the freakishly horrible circumstances of Hacket's execution. Given immediate government attempts to associate the rising with a Puritan leadership it was seeking to destroy, the rebellion was kept alive and topical in a stream of publications indicting and defending prominent Puritan divines that continued into 1596. (4) Catholic pamphleteers, such as Verstegan, Parsons, and Southwell, likewise took up the event, in attacks on religion in England in general. (5) References to the Hacket affair also recurred in the writings of Francis Bacon, and in Nashe's assays against Gabriel Harvey, in pamphlets published in 1592 and 1596. (6) Hacket's fanatical followers were remembered well into the seventeenth century, when they were compared with Antinomian sectarians. (7)

Remarkably, however, criticism of 2 Henry VI has never connected the two risings. In consequence, if popular memory of Hacket's recent rebellion figured, inescapably, among primary reception conditions disposing Shakespeare's audience, then proper historical reconstruction of just what Shakespeare was doing with and through the figure of his Jack Cade requires that we exhume, from long oblivion, the grotesque and haunting tragicomedy of William Hacket and his followers. This essay, following a preliminary outline of the critical debate over the politics of the Shakespearean Cade, will accordingly sketch the Hacket revolt and its popular reception, and demonstrate the playwright's suggestive remodelings of Cade as Hacket. Paradoxically, the major effects of superimposing the Elizabethan charlatan upon the Lancastrian rebel turn out to project a surprisingly substantial sympathy for underclass sufferings and popular rebellion. …