David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HENRY V: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 1

— 1.1 —

In an antechamber in King Henry V’s palace — the Palace of Westminster in London — the Archbishop of Canterbury said to the Bishop of Ely, “My lord, I’ll tell you something important: that same bill is now being proposed that in 1410 — the eleventh year of the reign of our last King, Henry IV, was likely to have been passed, and indeed it would have been passed except that the violent and unruly times turned people’s attention to other, more urgent matters.”

“But how, my lord, shall we resist it now?” the Bishop of Ely asked.

“We must think about how to resist this bill,” the Archbishop of Canterbury replied. “If it passes against our wishes, we — the Church — lose more than half of our possessions. This bill, if passed into law, would strip away all the temporal and secular lands that devout men in their wills have given to the Church. These lands are valuable. The people who would strip these lands away from us believe that the lands’ value would pay for, to the King’s honor, fifteen Earls and fifteen hundred Knights, and also six thousand and two hundred good esquires; in addition, their value would maintain a hundred well-supplied almshouses to support lazars — the word comes from Lazarus the beggar and refers to chronically ill people who cannot work — and weak old people who cannot work with their bodies. Also, these lands’ value would add a thousand pounds annually to the treasury of the King. All of that wealth would be taken from the Church, which is exempt from paying taxes on its lands and wealth.”

“If our lands and wealth were a cup filled with wine, this bill would drink deep,” the Bishop of Ely said.

“This bill would drink all the wine from the cup,” the Archbishop of Canterbury exaggerated.

“How can we prevent this bill from passing and becoming law?”

“The King is full of grace and fair regard,” the Archbishop of Canterbury said. “He has Christian goodness, and he is respected.”

“He is a true lover of the Holy Church.”

“He is a good man, but his behavior when he was youthful was undisciplined and reckless and showed no promise of future excellence,” the Archbishop of Canterbury said. “At that time, he was commonly known by common men as Prince Hal. However, when the breath left the body of his father, King Henry IV, immediately Prince Hal’s wildness, subdued by him, seemed to die and leave his body. As soon as Prince Hal’s father the King died, spiritual contemplation and careful thought and awareness of his position came to the Prince. This spiritual contemplation, like an angel, came to the Prince and whipped the offending Adam out of him. Adam committed the first sin, and sin now departed from Prince Hal’s body. With sin gone, his body was like a paradise, one that could envelop and contain celestial spirits. It was like an angel took possession of the body of the person who then became King Henry V.

“Never has such a scholar so suddenly been made; Prince Hal immediately changed from a dissolute youth to a sober and serious King — one with a knowledge of theology. Never has reformation come in such a flood; the rush of flowing water scrubbed away Prince Hal’s faults. The thoroughness of the cleaning process was like that of Hercules cleaning the Augean stables. King Augeas had over a thousand cattle, and his stables had not been cleaned for over 30 years. Hercules cleaned the stables in a single day by diverting the course of a river so that it flowed through the stables and washed away the manure.

“Prince Hal had been filled with willfulness and with unworthy desires that he repeatedly satisfied. Never so quickly has Hydra-headed willfulness departed as it departed from the body of this King Henry V. The Hydra was a nine-headed serpent-like sea monster. Each time one head was cut off, two more heads sprung up in its place. Hercules was able to kill the Hydra with the help of his nephew Iolaus, who used a fire-torch to cauterize the stump left behind each time a head was cut off. Unworthy desires are like the heads of the Hydra. Each time a person gives in to one unworthy desire, two more unworthy desires spring up. King Henry V was able to kill each unworthy desire the way that Hercules killed the heads of the Hydra.”

“We are blessed in the change,” the Bishop of Ely said.

“Listen to King Henry V discuss matters of divinity, and you will admire his thoughts,” the Archbishop of Canterbury said. “You will even have an inward wish that the King would be made a prelate — a bishop or holder of some other high ecclesiastical office. Listen to him discuss the affairs of state, and you would say that he has long been making a deep study of government. Listen to him discuss warfare, and you shall hear a discourse that is so well spoken that it is like music. Ask him about any judicial argument involving politics, and he will know the pros and the cons and the intricacies. Even if the argument is like the Gordian knot — a knot so intricate that people thought that it was impossible to untie — King Henry V will untie that knot as easily as he unties the knot of his garter that keeps his stocking up. Alexander the Great ‘untied’ the Gordian knot by cutting it in two with his sword, but King Henry V is the superior of Alexander the Great. When King Henry V unties the Gordian knot of a political controversy, the air, which is free to go wherever it pleases, is still. The ears of men are filled with quiet wonder as they closely listen to his sweet and honeyed sentences.

“Practical life experience is more important than theory — he could not speak so wisely about these matters unless he applied such wisdom to his own life. We must wonder where King Henry V acquired such wisdom. After all, he filled his youth with inclinations toward foolish behavior. As a youth, he enjoyed companions who were uneducated and ignorant, without manners, and frivolous. He filled his hours with riotous revels, banquets, and entertainments. No one ever saw him engage in study, retire from company, and enjoy privacy so that he could reflect upon important matters. No, Prince Hal was always in public and in crowds of the common people.”

“Perhaps he is like the fruit of strawberry plants,” the Bishop of Ely said. “Our culture believes that most plants are affected by the plants of other species that grow near them. Therefore, we do not allow onions and garlic to grow near most fruit bushes. However, such plants as onions and garlic do not negatively affect strawberry bushes. Strawberry bushes grow underneath the nettle, and their wholesome strawberries thrive and ripen best when the bushes’ neighbors are vegetables of baser quality. Like the strawberry bushes, Prince Hal hid the seriousness of his thoughts; he kept them secret. In his case, the veil was one of wildness. But like summer grass, which grows fastest by night, Prince Hal’s seriousness and wisdom, although unseen by others, yet grew because it is their nature to grow.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury said, “What you say must be correct because otherwise we would have to say that the change of Prince Hal’s character to the character of King Henry V is the result of a miracle, and the only true miracles are those that are recorded in the Bible. Therefore, we have to find a natural cause for the change in his character and how he has been brought to perfection.”

“My good lord, what can we do now to stop or mitigate the effects of the bill that has been put forward to the House of Commons? We do not want to have more than half of the Church’s wealth seized by the government. Does his majesty favor this bill, or not?”

“He seems impartial,” the Archbishop of Canterbury said. “Or, rather, I should say that he leans more toward us than toward the people who support this bill. He leans more toward us because I have made an offer to his majesty, following my meeting with other clergy. This offer relates to important matters concerning France that are of concern now. To his grace the King, I have offered to give a greater sum than ever at one time the clergy has given to any of his predecessors.”

“What does King Henry V think about this offer?”

“He regards it favorably,” the Archbishop of Canterbury said. “However, there was not time enough then for him to hear, as I perceived his grace would have liked to have heard, the particular facts and the indisputable arguments that prove that he has true claims to particular Dukedoms in France and indeed to the crown and throne of France. Henry V, King of England, ought to also be the King of France; Henry V is directly descended from his great-grandfather, King Edward III of England, and this gives him a claim to be King of France. The mother of Edward III is the daughter of King Philip IV of France, and so Henry V of England is directly descended from King Philip III through the female line.”

“What happened to interrupt your conversation with King Henry V?” the Bishop of Ely asked.

“The French ambassador arrived and asked for an audience with the King to be scheduled. The hour, I think, has come for us to go and listen to the King. Is it four o’clock?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Then let us go into the King’s presence so that we can hear the French ambassador’s message. I can guess the content of that message even before the Frenchman speaks a word of it.”

“I will go with you,” the Bishop of Ely said. “I long to hear the French ambassador’s message.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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