The Many-Headed Monster in Henry VI, Part 2

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Margaret E. Owens, University of Toronto

The spectacle of the severed head is so common a feature of Elizabethan and Jacobean history plays that it invites identification as the emblem (or perhaps fetish) that most prominently characterizes the genre. Visual representations of severed heads occur in a broad range of history plays, including Thomas Lodge's The Wounds of Civil War, George Peele's Edward I, William Shakespeare's Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3, Richard HI, and Macbeth, George Chapman's Caesar and Pompey, Thomas Dekker's Sir Thomas Wyatt, and John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's Sir John van Olden Barnavelt.1 The reasons for the prevalence of the severed head in the history play are not difficult to determine. The display of the head serves as a striking, unmistakable image signifying not only the defeat and demise of the victim, but, more crucially, the loss or transfer of political power which is consolidated through this act of violence.2 The political symbolism of the image is clearly evident in the closing scene of Marlowe's Edward II in which the newly crowned Edward III orders that Mortimer's head be placed on top of the murdered king's hearse. The resulting ceremonial tableau not only symbolizes the avengement of murder but also encapsulates the transit of power through the course of the play, from Edward II to Mortimer and finally back to Edward's dynastic line.

In its use of the severed head as an icon for political power, the Renaissance theatre was undoubtedly mirroring or reproducing the visual rhetoric of contemporary state punishment. To some extent, dramatists of the period seem to have shared the state's assurance that the spectacle of the traitor's severed head figured as a sign of closure and containment. For instance, in Peele's Edward I the king's officers parade "Lluellens head on a speare " as a vivid emblem of the English defeat of the Welsh rebels.3 2 Henry VI, however, appears to question the closure and monologism of the stage image which Peele and other dramatists deployed with such apparent ease. With its conspicuous fixation on the severed head, 2 Henry VI stands out among the Elizabethan history plays. In this play, the horrific yet familiar image is endowed with extraordinary prominence, a pressure so intense as to draw attention not only to its impact as a theatrical spectacle but also its implications as a cultural sign.

Taken beyond its usual status as a fleeting, almost incidental, stage emblem, the severed head emerges as a multiaccentual ideological sign (to adopt the terminology of V. N. Voloshinov), that is, a sign whose meanings are contested "by differently oriented social interests."4 The ideological sign, according to Voloshinov, is characterized by its semiotic instability or polyvalence, which is manifest in a socio-political struggle over the sign's meaning: "The ruling class strives to impart a supraclass, eternal character to the ideological sign, to extinguish or drive inward the struggle between social value judgments which occurs in it, to make the sign uniaccentual."5 Nowhere is the effort of hegemonic authorities to contain polyvalence more evident than in the case of the severed head, an icon which early modern European states sought to limit to a uniaccentual and ostensibly uncontestable signification. The treatment of this spectacle in 2 Henry VI, however, tends to expose the inevitable failure of this effort to contain the semiosis of the fragmented body. In this paper, I will chart the battle over the signification of the severed head which is so visibly played out in 2 Henry VI, a semiotic contest in which the sheer numerical proliferation of the...

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head may be read as an index of its proliferating meaning.

In the course of 2 Henry VI, the severed heads of four different characters are represented onstage. While the image of the severed head is evoked verbally (1.2.29)6 long before it is given a visible presence (4.1.141sd), the context of its introduction, in Gloucester's account of his dream, tends to frame the image as a prophetic verbal emblem:

Methought this staff, mine office-badge in court,
  Was broke in twain; by whom I have forgot,
But, as I think, it was by th' cardinal;
And on the pieces of the broken wand
Were placed the heads of Edmund, Duke of Somerset,
And William de la Pole, first Duke of Suffolk.
This was my dream; what it doth bode, God knows.


Though Gloucester may be loath or unable to interpret the dream, the Elizabethan audience, familiar with proleptic dramatic devices, would likely have recognized the duke's report as supplying a vivid icon of the political chaos to ensue during "The Contention of the two famous Houses of Yorke & Lancaster." Granted, the picture conveyed by the dream is never precisely realized on the stage; it is Lord Say and his son-in-law, not Suffolk and Somerset, who end up mounted on pikes.7 But it is the nature of the prophetic vision to be somewhat skewed or oblique. In any case, the dream is deadly accurate in identifying Gloucester's downfall as the key event that unleashes the violence of civil war.

As Gloucester's dream indicates, the severed head in this play is not simply an element in the verbal and visual rhetoric of Senecan horror; rather this icon is encoded with specifically political meanings, readily identifiable to the Elizabethan audience. From the perspective of the state, the foremost significance is the destruction of the traitor, hence the importance of displaying the severed heads of executed traitors on the gates of London. Such grim displays served as triumphal spectacles celebrating the state's success in defeating a potential threat. This ritual display was as much militaristic as penal, resembling the collection of heads by warring factions on the battlefield, a practice that Elizabethan England typically disavowed and projected onto a host of cultural Others, including Celts, New World Indians, and Turks.8

Although at first glance, and certainly from the vantage point of state authority, the severed head might appear to be the most terminal or fixed of signifiers, decapitation was a malleable and definitely overcoded sign, which operated in a variety of registers or discursive contexts. For instance, within the discursive tradition of the Body Politic topos, decapitation was often refigured as a somewhat different form of dismemberment, a surgical amputation carried out on the diseased body of the commonwealth. In "The Trew Law of Free Monarchies" James I admits that "it may very well fall out that the head will be forced to garre cut off some rotten members .. . to keep the rest of the body in integritie: but what state the body can be in, if the head, for any infirmitie that can fall to it, be cut off, I leaue it to the readers judgement."9 In this tradition, the removal of the traitor's head is metaphorically displaced, refigured as the amputation of an expendable "member" of the Body Politic. The execution of the traitor is thus imagined as a surgical procedure which ultimately benefits, rather than endangers, the health of the nation.

Those who invoke the Body Politic topos often place limits on its interpretation and application, just as James I stipulates that the monarch, as head of state and hence as the most vital of the Body's members, cannot be "cut off without dire consequences ensuing. The insistence with which such limits are asserted bespeaks an anxiety which the vocabulary of medical intervention could not dispel. Such efforts to replace the threat of political crisis with a sense of order and control seem only to invoke the spectre of monstrosity which always lurks within the contours of the Body Politic. The writers of treatises on the Body Politic seem morbidly fascinated with disease and deformity so avidly do they detail the potential for the body to slip from soundness to monstrosity. For instance, Edward Forset, in A Comparative Discourse of the Bodies Natural and Politique (1606), warns that "the parts" of the Body Politic may "be prodigiously dislocated or transferred from their proper to other vnfitting places, whereof oftentimes the whole bodie getteth the name of a monster mishapen and distorted."10

The spectre of monstrosity that is always already inscribed in the Body Politic topos is graphically conjured up on the stage in 2 Henry VI.11 However, the amputations normally advocated as a means of suppressing or pruning monstrous growths prove in this play to be implicated in the very production of monstrosity. Through its iteration of verbal and visual images of decapitation, the play implicitly exposes the tropic equation of beheading and surgical excision as a mask for the dangerous consequences that may ensue from strategic acts of violence. Beheading in this play is a sign not of the orderly extirpation of civil dissension but of its uncontrollable proliferation.

In Gloucester's account of his dream, with its doubled image of beheading, the severed head has already begun to multiply. The intimation that the image will continue to proliferate is affirmed in the Duchess of Gloucester's remark on the extent of her own ambition, less than 40 lines after her husband's revelation of his dream:

Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,
I would remove these tedious stumbling-blocks
  And smooth my way upon their headless necks.


Also underlined in this remark is the implication that decapitation in this play will signify something other than the state's vigilance in upholding civil order. Indeed Gloucester's vision eventually acquires a visible reality in a succession of beheadings inflicted on members of the ruling elite, as well as on a pretender who claims noble descent. The cumulative effect is to summon up a picture of disembodied heads jostling for power, a situation ultimately arising from the failure of the king to establish with any conviction his authority as the legitimate head of state.

In the proliferation of severed heads on the stage, we witness a version of that much feared Elizabethan bogeyman, the "many-headed monster," an image depicting the violent deformation of hierarchical order. As Christopher Hill observes in "The Many-Headed Monster in Late Tudor and Early Stuart Political Thinking": "The idea that to be many-headed is the same as to be headless is easier to conceive metaphorically than literally."12 In 2 Henry IV, this equation is expressed in a pattern of visual effects. Typically, the topos of the many-headed monster (variants include "beast" and "multitude") was applied to popular uprisings. As Hill emphasizes, the formula almost invariably reflects "Dread and hatred of the masses."13 Yet in 2 Henry VI, the topos carries a significantly different import to the extent that the nobility, more so than the masses, are presented as the creators, as well as the victims, of the many-headed monster. As Michael Hattaway emphasizes in his analysis of the Jack Cade uprising: "This is no mere riot, but an occasion when aristocratic rebellion is the catalyst for popular revolt."14

The visual images of decapitation, which are confined to the second half of the play, implicitly realize a discourse that prevails in the first half. By the time we begin to witness bodies being mutilated before our eyes, we have already become accustomed to the rhetoric of dismemberment. One of the most egregious elements in this rhetoric is anatomization, which turns up repeatedly in this play as a type of set speech. For instance, Gloucester shrewdly anatomizes the conspirators ranged against him, as if they comprised a single diseased body:

Beaufort's red sparkling eyes blab his heart's malice,
  And Suffolk's cloudy brow his stormy hate;
Sharp Buckingham unburdens with his tongue
The envious load that lies upon his heart.


In the following scene, Gloucester is himself anatomized when Warwick examines the duke's lifeless body for evidence of homicide:

But see, his face is black and full of blood,
His eye-balls further out than when he lived,
  Staring full ghastly like a strangled man.


The murder of Gloucester is the turning-point in the pattern of verbal and visual imagery; from this point on, the gap between rhetoric and (corpo)reality narrows. Characters are no longer simply threatened with violence, as when Margaret warms to the prospect of seeing Gloucester "quickly hop without thy head" (1.3.132); bodies are now literally chopped and lopped, and heads are handled, mishandled, and exchanged for monetary reward. With Gloucester's downfall, language undergoes a metamorphosis, acquiring a nightmarish literality.

The first character to lose his head following Gloucester's murder is Suffolk. Captured by some mariners after a fight at sea and subjected to a summary trial for a long list of crimes against the state, Suffolk is led offstage to execution. In the Folio, one of the killers reenters "with the body"15 A gentleman who has been treated more mercifully by the mariners is onstage at this point to register shock at the "barbarous and bloody spectacle" (4.1.144) and to voice his determination to bring the body to the king.

While the display of the mutilated corpse is relatively brief at the site of execution, a more sustained and extraordinary exhibition of Suffolk's remains occurs several scenes later, when Margaret is shown cradling the head through an entire scene.16 Implicit in this spectacle is a bizarre analogy that equates the severed head with a suckling infant, a parallel underlined by Margaret's remark, "Here may his head lie on my throbbing breast" (4.4.5).l7 This stage picture ironically fulfils the death fantasy that Suffolk had evoked at his parting from the queen:

If I depart from thee I cannot live;
And in thy sight to die, what were it else
But like a pleasant slumber in thy lap?
Here could I breathe my soul into the air,
As mild and gentle as the cradle-babe
Dying with mother's dug between its lips.


Presumably, the horrific realization of Suffolk's fantasy is intended to underline the perverse nature of his liaison with the queen, a relationship so unhealthy (to the extent that it threatens the unity and stability of the nation) as to engender a death's head instead of a child. An ironic backdrop to Henry's attempts in this scene to deal with the Cade rebellion, the presence of the severed head proves particularly portentous when Henry warns Lord Say, "Jack Cade hath sworn to have thy head" (4.4.19).

Symptomatic of Henry's ineffectuality is the speedy fulfilment of Cade's threat against the head of Lord Say. As with Suffolk, the decapitation follows an ad hoc trial, in which Say attempts to defend himself against the rebels' charges that he "sold the towns in France" (4.7.17) and "most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school" (4.7.26-27). According to the topsy-turvy logic of this popular uprising, Say's "pleading so well for his life" (4.7.91) strengthens Cade's resolve to kill him. And, with an almost Tamburlainean flourish, Cade extends the punishment to Say's son-in-law, commanding his followers to "break into his son-in-law's house, Sir James Cromer, and strike off his head, and bring them both upon two poles hither" (4.7.94-96).

The brief interval during which the beheadings are assumed to be taking place is filled by Cade's punning reflections on the subject of heads, in which a plan to impose a head tax on peers transmutes into a claim on the maidenheads of brides: "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 maiden-head ere they have it" (4.7.103-6). Cade's musings are broken off by the entrance of an unspecified character "with the heads" (111sd),18 and Cade proceeds to direct the deployment of these gruesome properties as if they were puppets or effigies being displayed in a street pageant: "Let them kiss one another, for they loved well when they were alive. Now part them again, lest they consult about the giving up of some more towns in France. Soldiers, defer the spoil of the city until night; for with these borne before us, instead of maces, will we ride through the streets, and at every corner have them kiss. Away!" (112-17). Cade's treatment of the heads bears a striking resemblance to carnivalesque rituals of humiliation, such as the skimmington riding or charivari, which, in the most typical scenario, involved the parading of a cuckolded or browbeaten husband (either in person or in effigy) by a crowd of neighbours making rough music. In his study of "ridings," Martin Ingram points out that "the practice of charivaris seems to have rested on a folkloric tradition that the populace had the right to supplement the legal system."19 To the extent that the parade of severed heads draws on festive traditions, it is symptomatic of Cade's association with, if not his deliberate manipulation of, carnivalesque rhetoric and practices.20 However, in this instance, as Alexander Leggati puts it, "what we see is mostly the anarchy that is the dark side of carnival."21 According to François Laroque, this is the risk accompanying "the liberating dynamic of festivity";22 under certain conditions, "festivity . . . become[s] an instrument of torment, an occasion of sacrifice, even an abettor of the forces of evil. In these circumstances, the delirium of festivity goes beyond the mere destruction of objects, in the form of property and wealth, and the frenzied consumption of food, and leads on to the unleashing of violence and massacre."23 The parading of the heads, including the mimed kissing, is no invention on the playwright's part but a faithful dramatization of Hall's account: "with these two heddes, this blody butcher entered into the citie agayn, and in despyte caused them in euery strete, kysse together, to the great detestacion of all the beholders."24

Implicit in the play's reenactment of Cade's triumphal pageant seems to be a shrewd understanding of the political/sexual semiotics of this type of violent streettheatre.25 Cade's reference to "maces" (4.7.116), specifically identifying the heads on poles as symbols of the rebels' claim to authority, is crucial, as it draws a direct connection between this spectacle of mutilation and Gloucester's dream of the severed heads mounted on the broken ends of his staff of office. Linking these two moments is the symbolic mutilation, or castration, of Gloucester, when Margaret forces him to give up his staff of office, and gloats at seeing "a limb lopped off (2.3.42) the Lord Protector. An equation is thus implicitly drawn between losing the staff of office and suffering dismemberment. The decapitations inflicted on Say and Cromer serve as a visible sign of their loss of status, and concomitantly of the rebels' claim to power. In other words, the mutilated and humiliated bodies of aristocrats are flaunted by Cade's crew as the very sign of their own newly won power. Using a central carnivalesque strategy of reducing abstraction to corporeality,26 of uncovering the dirty secrets hidden by the mask of euphemism and idealism, the rebels demystify the ceremonial mace, exposing its true nature as nothing more than a sign whereby the ruling elite asserts its power over the bodies of the lower orders. In early modern England, to hold office was essentially to hold the right to decapitate and to castrate, in both the figurative and literal senses. The phallic mace is thus raised as a sign not only of the holder's power but also of his ability to disempower.

The pattern of imagery linking the staff of office with decapitation and dismemberment appears to be consistent with the equation advanced by Freud in his essay "Medusa's Head": "To decapitate = to castrate."27 Cade's punning on heads/maidenheads while the beheadings are taking place demonstrates the tendency for a discourse of sexual competition to refigure political struggle within the context of popular rebellion.28 The intersection of sexual competition and violence provides a highly charged semiotic code through which political issues are embodied and contested. Supporting the notion that the decapitation of Say is a displaced, or transcoded, form of castration is Cade's allegation against the Lord Treasurer, voiced several scenes earlier: "I tell you that that Lord Say hath gelded the commonwealth and made it an eunuch" (4.2.140-42). Say's punishment, then, mirrors (at one remove) his crime against the commonwealth. The motif of sexual competition is reinforced in the quarto version, where Cade's speech about heads and maidenheads is immediately followed by the entrance of a sergeant, who accuses one of the rebels of having ravished his wife. Cade responds to the complaint by ordering the accused, Dick the Butcher, to punish the plaintiff:

Go Dicke take him hence, cut out his toong for cogging,
  Hough him for running, and to conclude,
Braue him with his owne mace.


Yet another reference to the capture of a mace, combined with a threat to excise a tongue (an homology for the phallus), underlines the castrative nature of punishment in this play.

The seizure by the lower orders of the apparatus of punishment typically plays a central role in popular risings. (Perhaps the mock punishments that figure so prominently in festive traditions can be seen as contained, non-threatening rehearsals of the more serious attempts to appropriate judicial authority.) As Regina Janes emphasizes in her article on the semiotics of beheading in Revolutionary Paris, an atmosphere of exuberance accompanied the violent punishments inflicted by the masses against the ancien régime:

When the rabble cut off the heads of the king's officers, they have redefined themselves as the sovereign people. Literally and physically, they have seized the ultimate power of the sovereign. Instead of learning, they teach. It is a disturbing lesson to those identified with the old order; it is an invigorating lesson to those who identify with the new. . . . The lesson of the heads is that there has been a fundamental change in social hierarchies and the distribution of power. . . . Taking a head transforms the menu peuple from the passive "source of sovereignty" to the active executor of sovereign power.29

Cade and his crew imitate but also alter, and hence travesty, the modes of punishment inflicted by the crown. Instead of mounting the heads on poles at the Tower or on London Bridge, as static symbols signalling the stability and permanence of the monarchy, the rebels animate the heads, treating them as dynamic symbols of a nascent regime engaged in the process of creating and establishing itself.

Cade's triumphal pageant, however, rapidly disintegrates, along with his leadership. The illegitimate beheader is himself beheaded in a peculiarly private act of punishment inflicted by a loyal citizen, Alexander Iden. Again we witness an ad hoc trial in which a selfappointed judge sentences a traitor to decapitation. When Alexander Iden learns that the intruder he has mortally wounded is "that monstrous traitor" Cade (4.10.59), he resolves to dispose of the corpse in an appropriately degrading fashion:

Hence will I drag thee headlong by the heels
  Unto a dunghill, which shall be thy grave,
And there cut off thy most ungracious head
Which I will bear in triumph to the king,
Leaving thy trunk for crows to feed upon


The meeting of Iden and Henry is largely an elaboration on the chronicle sources. Hall records that Iden "brought his [Cade's] ded body to London, whose hed was set on Londo[n] bridge."30 According to Holinshed, Cade's body was "brought to London in a cart, where he was quartered; his head set on London bridge, and his quarters sent to diuerse places to be set vp in the shire of Kent."31 Whereas in the sources the disposal of the traitor's body follows conventional judicial practice, the dramatization offers a military ritual in which Cade's severed head figures as a spoil of war. The difference in emphasis is in keeping with the focus of the play in the closing scenes as the escalating factionalism breaks out into civil war.

To Henry, the severed head of the traitor testifies to the intervention of divine justice:

The head of Cade! Great God, how just art Thou!
O let me view his visage, being dead,
That living wrought me such exceeding trouble.


But at another level, Henry is shockingly blind to the symbolism of the spectacle that he is participating in, even creating, as he requests a closer look at Cade's visage, perhaps even reaching out to hold the head. Henry seems oblivious to a policy practised by more canny monarchs, that of maintaining a rigid segregation between the sacred body of the sovereign and the polluted body of the traitor. Though mangled and lifeless, the corpse of the traitor remains a source of magical contagion, a ritual object too abominable to be brought into close proximity to the monarch. Presumably, this is the reason English monarchs did not attend state executions (other than their own, of course). Henry, however, stares into the lifeless face of the would-be usurper, creating a scandalous tableau which evokes a sense not so much of balance restored as of the precariousness of his own power. In showing this interest in the rebel's head, Henry inadvertently bestows on Cade an unwarranted honour. And what does he hope to learn by gazing into the face of his enemy? In the Quarto, Henry goes so far as to conduct a physiognomic analysis of the head, in which he details the features that betray Cade's combative nature:

A visage sterne, cole blacke his curled locks,
  Deepe trenched furrowes in his frowning brow,
  Presageth warlike humors in his life.


While this post mortem does not clear up any mysteries, it does reinforce Henry's confidence that the world follows predictable patterns. But he would be better off applying his analytical skills to the physiognomy of the living, namely York.

Admittedly, Henry's encounter with the head of the traitor, especially in the shorter, Folio version, may be relatively brief. After all, the king also shows some interest in the bearer of the trophy, though it takes a bit of prompting on Buckingham's part before Henry gets around to bestowing the rewards of a knighthood and a thousand marks. In the Quarto, Henry follows his analysis of Cade's visage with an order for the removal of the head, "Here take it hence" (2025), which suggests that the king has been holding the head himself, and now hands it over to an attendant or back to Iden. The Quarto also includes an exit for Iden immediately following his expression of gratitude to the king for the rewards bestowed (2037). In the Folio, the order for the removal of the head and the exit for Iden are both absent. If Iden does not leave the stage with Cade's head, that gruesome property may remain visible—possibly mounted on a pike behind the king—through the remainder of the scene, thereby serving as an ironic backdrop during the ensuing challenges to Henry's authority.

If the head of Cade is visible in the background, the recurrent references to heads in this scene (5.1) acquire a bizarre resonance. One such reference occurs immediately following the knighting of Iden, when Henry attempts to prevent Somerset, accompanied by Margaret, from entering York's field of vision. (York has agreed to dismiss his troops on the condition that the king imprison Somerset in the Tower.) Margaret scoffs at her husband's efforts to conceal Somerset: "For thousand Yorks he shall not hide his head, / But boldly stand and front him to his face" (5.1.85-86). If we recall that Somerset, according to Gloucester's dream, is destined to lose his head, the queen's choice of synecdoche seems unfortunately apt.

An even more scandalous appeal to this type of synecdoche occurs in York's outburst over Henry's breach of faith:

King did I call thee? No, thou art not king,
Not fit to govern and rule multitudes,
Which dar'st not, no, canst not rule a traitor.
That head of thine doth not become a crown;
Thy hand is made to grasp a palmer's staff
And not to grace an awful princely sceptre.
That gold must round engirt these brows of mine,
Whose smile and frown, like to Achilles' spear,
Is able with the change to kill and cure.
Here is a hand to hold a sceptre up
And with the same to act controlling laws.


York deploys the rhetorical strategy so characteristic of this play, the anatomy, to pose Henry's deficiencies against his own fitness for rule. According to this rhetorical scheme, the man best equipped to rule is the one who possesses a head and hand capable of wielding the symbols of sovereignty. At a figurative level, York's speech decapitates Henry as a usurper; the king's head implicitly joins Cade's. What emerges, especially as a consequence of the sight of Cade's head onstage, is a vision of jostling heads, all competing to wear the crown. How quickly Henry's spectacle of triumph, signalled by the display of the traitor's head, has been eclipsed by York. Clifford insists that York himself should lose his head for openly challenging Henry's rule: "He is a traitor: let him to the Tower / And chop away that factious pate of his" (5.1.134-5). Although York is invulnerable at this point, in the sequel his head will suffer the same fate as Cade's. In a sense, York has unwittingly anticipated that outcome by figuratively anatomizing himself, along with Henry.

So insistent is the verbal and visual imagery of decapitation in 2 Henry VI that one might be tempted to speculate that the dramatist(s) took a deliberate risk, indulging in an exercise in theatrical audacity of a kind we more typically associate with Marlowe. Only one of the three displays of severed heads in 2 Henry VI is based directly on chronicle material; the other instances, involving the heads of Suffolk and Cade, are pure inventions. Perhaps the incident from the chronicle involving Say and Cromer suggested the notion of using the severed head, especially in its monstrous proliferation, as a powerful icon for the "disintegrative energies"32 afflicting the world of the play.

If we were to invoke an interpretive grid along the lines of Stephen Greenblatt's subversion-containment model,33 we might conclude that in 2 Henry VI, as in the contemporary treatises on the Body Politic, monstrosity is conjured up chiefly in order to legitimate the hierarchical organization of the state. I do not wish, in the confines of this paper at least, to ruminate on whether any subversive agenda lies behind the 2 Henry VI, and, if so, whether it is ultimately contained or neutralized.34 What is clear is that the play, especially in its dramatization of the Cade episode, reveals that the state has no monopoly on the semiosis of violent spectacle. The representation of monstrosity in this play carries a potentially radical edge in so far as it dramatizes a struggle for ownership of the symbolic apparatus of the state, most conspicuously, the mace and the severed head. The treatment of the symbolism of beheading in 2 Henry VI participates in a pervasive effect of this tetralogy, a tendency which Donald G. Watson identifies as "the exposure of [the] iconicity of kingship."35 More so than in any other history play of the period, the severed head in 2 Henry VI functions as a site of contestation rather than as a sign of order restored. As this play seems to insist, the removal of heads does less to contain disruptive energies than it does to unleash them. And what does this imply about the surgical procedures advocated in political treatises: the lopping of infected limbs, the pruning of monstrous growths? Given the grotesque fecundity of the severed head in this play, we might conclude that the efforts of would-be surgeons of the Body Politic are liable to promote rather than to prevent the body's relentless slide into monstrosity.


1 This list is by no means exhaustive. I am using a broad definition of the history play, encompassing not only chronicle history but also classical history, foreign history, and topical plays.

2 For discussions of the semiotics of decapitation in the Renaissance history play, see Martha Hester Fleischer, The Iconography of the English History Play (Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 1974), Frank Ardolino, "Severed Heads and Brazen Heads: Headhunting in Elizabethan Drama," Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 4 (1983): 169-81, David H. Thurn, "Sovereignty, Disorder, and Fetishism in Marlowe's Edward II," Renaissance Drama 21 (1990): 115-41, and Karin S. Coddon, "'Unreal Mockery': Unreason and the Problem of Spectacle in Macbeth," English Literary History 56 (1989): 485-501.

3 George Peele, Edward I, ed. W. W. Greg (Oxford: Malone Society Reprints, 1911), 2632.

4 V. N. Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), 23.

5 Voloshinov, 23.

6 William Shakespeare, The Second Part of King Henry VI, ed. Michael Hattaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). Subsequent references are to this edition, unless otherwise stated.

7 The Quarto of 1594 has "The heads of the Cardinall of Winchester, / And William de la Poule first Duke of Suffolke" (223-4) mounted on the ends of the staff. All quotations from the first Quarto are taken from The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (1594), ed. William Montgomery (Oxford: Malone Society Reprints, 1985). In "The Original Staging of The First Part of the Contention (1594)," Shakespeare Survey 41 (1989): 13-22, William Montgomery argues that text of The Contention likely derives from a London production.

8 On the tendency for Elizabethans to demonize these groups as mutilators, headhunters, and cannibals, see Christopher Highley, "Wales, Ireland and 1 Henry IV, Renaissance Drama 21 (1990): 91-114, and Stephen Orgel, "Shakespeare and the Cannibals," Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce, ed. Marjorie Garber (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 40-66.

9 James I, The Political Works of James I, ed. Charles Howard McIlwain (New York: Russell and Russell, 1965), 65.

10 Edward Forset, A Comparative Discourse of the Bodies Natural and Politique (Farnborough, UK: Gregg, 1969), 50.

11 A number of recent studies have examined the Body Politic trope in Shakespearean drama; see, especially, Zvi Jagendorf, "Coriolanus: Body Politic and Private Parts," Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 455-69; Gillian Murray Kendall, "Overkill in Shakespeare," Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992): 33-50, and Claire McEachern, "Henry V and the Paradox of the Body Politic," Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 33-56. For the history of the Body Politic topos, see David George Hale, The Body Politic: A Political Metaphor in Renaissance English Literature (The Hague: Mouton, 1971).

12 Christopher Hill, "The Many-Headed Monster in Late Tudor and Early Stuart Political Thinking," From the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation, ed. Charles H. Carter (New York, Random House, 1965), 298. Freud, in his essay "Medusa's Head," in volume 18 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al. (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), 273, makes a similar claim from a psychoanalytic perspective: "a multiplication of penis symbols signifies castration."

13 Hill, 298.

14 Michael Hattaway, "Rebellion, Class Consciousness, and Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI," Cahiers Elisabéthains 83 (1988): 17.

15The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare, ed. Charlton Hinman (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968), 2312. All quotations from the Folio are taken from this edition. In the Quarto, there is no direction calling for the display of Suffolk's body.

16 This scene represents a departure from the chronicle sources. According to Edward Hall, The Union of the . . . Families of Lancastre and Yorke (1548), Suffolk's captors "left his body with the head vpon the sandes of Douer, which corse was there founde by a chapelayne of his, and conueyed to Wyngfelde college in Suffolke, and there buried"; quoted from Hall's Chronicle (London: J. Johnson, 1809), 219. All subsequent references to Hall are to this reprint.

17 For some intriguing commentary on this speech, including its peculiar anticipation of Cleopatra's death scene, see Ann Pasternak Slater, Shakespeare the Director (Brighton: Harvester, 1982), 92-93.

18 The Quarto has "Enter two with the Lord Sayes head, and sir lames Cromers, vpon two poles" (1854-55).

19 Martin Ingram, "Ridings, Rough Music and the 'Reform of Popular Culture' in Early Modern England," Past and Present 105 (1984): 93.

20 C. L. Barber, in his seminal study, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), laid the groundwork for viewing Cade as a Lord of Misrule. The connection between seasonal festivity and political uprisings has been the subject of a number of recent studies. For a brief survey of "English materials" relating to this issue, see Thomas Pettitt, "Here Comes I, Jack Straw:' English Folk Drama and Social Revolt," Folklore 95 (1984): 3-20.

21 Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Political Drama (London: Routledge, 1988), 17.

22 François Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage, trans. Janet Lloyd (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 303.

23 Ibid., 270.

24 Hall, 221. In a recent article, "Jack Cade and Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2," Studies in Philology 92 (1995): 18-79, Ellen C. Caldwell provides a detailed account of the documentary record concerning Cade's uprising and offers an assessment of the relevance of this material to the social conditions of the 1590s.

25 Regina Janes, in her article "Beheadings," Representations 35 (1991): 25, recounts an almost identical incident which occurred during the French Revolution: "Among the more popular subjects of revolutionary prints was the double decapitation of Bertier de Sauvigny and his father-in-law Foulon. Thrusting the head of Foulon on its pike into Bertier's face, the crowd had chanted, "Baise papa, baise papa" (Kiss papa, kiss papa). . . . " Janes labels the incident an "oddly oedipal drama"; undoubtedly the spectacle was aimed at mocking the basic principles of the aristocratic, patriarchal order, specifically the succession of wealth, power, and status along familial lines.

26 For the seminal account of this carnivalesque dynamic, see Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

27 Freud, 273.

28 For an important study of the symbolism of castration and decapitation in Revolutionary France, see Neil Hertz, The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 161-93.

29 Janes, 24.

30 Hall, 222.

31 Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587); quoted from volume 3 of Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (London: J. Johnson, 1807-8), 227.

32 John W. Blanpied, Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983), 55.

33 Stephen Greenblatt, "Invisible Bullets," in Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), 21-65.

34 In "The Powerless Theater," English Literary Renaissance 21 (1991): 49-74, Paul Yachnin argues that this type of critical debate is misconceived given that "the production of generalized and two-faced political meaning" was "a central feature of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama." For a summary of recent contributions to the debate concerning the handling of the Cade material in 2 Henry, VI, see Caldwell, 67-70.

35 Donald G. Watson, Shakespeare's Early History Plays: Politics at Play on the Elizabethan Stage (London: Macmillan, 1990), 99.

Source: "The Many-Headed Monster in Henry VI, Part 2," in Criticism, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3, Summer, 1996, pp. 367-82.


Shakespeare at Work: The Two Talbots