The Peasants' Revolt and the Writing of History in 2 Henry VI
Geraldo U. de Sousa, Xavier University
"Away, burn all the records of the realm: my mouth shall be the parliament of England"
—Jack Cade, 2 Henry VI.
Jean de Léry, a Frenchman who lived in Brazil for several months starting in 1555, offers an account of the Tupinamba Indians' reaction when they first encountered reading and writing. The Tupinamba, if we are to judge from Léry's narrative, thought the Europeans possessed magical powers:
They know nothing of writing, either sacred or secular; indeed; they have no kind of characters that signify anything at all. When I was first in their country, in order to learn their language I wrote a number of sentences which I then read aloud to them. Thinking that this was some kind of witchcraft, they said to each other, "Is it not a marvel that this fellow, who yesterday could not have said a single word in our language, can now be understood by us, by virtue of that paper that he is holding and which makes him speak thus?"1
Léry's appropriation of Tupinamba language through writing and his performance by putting his culture on display underscore a relationship that denies the Tupinamba the power of representation. As Michel de Certeau argues, the passage presents a difference between the dominant culture and the Other: "between 'them' and 'Us' there exists the difference of possessing 'either sacred or profane' writing, which immediately raises the question of a relation of power."2 The power that Certeau has in mind is that between the ephemeral nature of "voice," which is "limited to the vanishing circle of its auditors," and the permanence of writing. "Writing," he adds, "produces history, "3 hence efforts to control the production, preservation, and dissemination of records. One society has the power to produce history; the other does not. Questions of literacy are thus inextricably bound up with questions of power. Shakespeare, I submit, explores these questions in 2 Henry VI.
Early modern England, however, unlike the totally oral society of the Tupinamba, was neither an oral nor a fully literate society.4 Also, earlier assumptions about illiteracy, such as those of Walter Ong, have come under a barrage of challenge. Keith Thomas, for example, disputes Ong's hypothesis that "writing structures thought" and the assumption that "the transition from 'orality' to 'literacy' is represented as a crucial stage in human development, leading to abstract thought, rationality, and 'modernity.'"5 As Thomas aptly explains, "it would be utterly wrong, therefore, to think that illiterates lived in some sort of mental darkness, debarred from effective participation in the great events of their time."6
Literacy, in the late medieval and the renaissance periods, signified different things to various classes and social groups. Many historians define literacy rather narrowly, as Harvey J. Graff indicates, "illiteracy in early modern England, as measured by the individual ability to sign one's name, was widespread but distributed unevenly."7 In early modern Europe, reading and writing were seen as separate skills: "Some people, we have no way to discover how many, could have been able to read without knowing how to write or even sign their names."8 "The ability to read," according to Thomas, "was much more widely diffused than the ability to write."9 Furthermore, those who lacked the skills to read or write "could draw on the services of others for access to the written word."10 Most important, Thomas observes:
The spread of literacy in early modern England, therefore, did not noticeably alter the direction in which society was moving anyway. Neither did it have more than a gradual effect upon people's mental habits. What it did do was to consolidate the authority of the educated classes over their inferiors and to impoverish and disparage other forms of expression.11
As Thomas concludes, "the uneven social distribution of literacy skills greatly widened the gulf between the classes."12 Shakespeare addresses this latter point in the Jack Cade episodes in 2 Henry VI. Ironically, Jack Cade seems aware that the authority of the educated classes rests upon their writing skills.
In that play Shakespeare foregrounds writing as a culturally contested representational code.13 Unlike Annabel Patterson, I am not concerned with questions of intentionality, in part because of the absence of substantive evidence, although I find her overall conclusion compelling: "Shakespeare's career can, therefore, be seen as a life-long meditation on the structure of English society, during which, not surprisingly, his social attitudes altered."14 Shakespeare's exploration of literacy in 2 Henry VI, however, constitutes something deeper than a meditation on English society; he closely studies the connection between writing, history, and power. The play specifically examines such a connection at various moments, but most prominently in Act IV. Jack Cade identifies writing as the power that authorizes and perpetuates social injustices. He sees all writing as oppressive for it confirms traditions and confers privileges from which the illiterate are by definition excluded. He mounts a program to destroy rather than decipher or rewrite the code, thus attempting to restructure English society into a preliterate, ahistorical stage. Literacy, in this context, becomes a metaphor for the power of the dominant culture, the power to make history. Rather astutely, Cade's revolution recognizes the absence of a center in the body politic as warring factions vie for supremacy.
In deciding to foreground literacy, Shakespeare arrived at the inextricable connection between history and writing. The sources that he used offer an important clue to that connection. As Geoffrey Bullough, who has studied Shakespeare's sources in depth, suggests, "2 Henry VI is a well-ordered play which departs from history much less than 1 Henry VI and interweaves the several motifs which it takes over in brilliant fashion." Bullough adds that Shakespeare "is interested both in events and in the people who made history: and he sees the course of the story here as a succession of waves as the tide of evil rises."15 On the one hand, Shakespeare is trying to follow his sources accurately and thoroughly; on the other, I submit, he departs from those sources in order to explore the questions of literacy. In the process, he seems uncannily aware that writing produces history.