David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HENRY V: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Prologue and Scene 1



The Chorus walked on stage and said, “Now all the youth of England are on fire to go to war in France, and the silken clothing needed to court the ladies is laid away in the wardrobe to be replaced by metal armor. Now thrive the armorers, and only thoughts of gaining honor reign in the breast of every man:They sell land now to buy a horse to ride to war. They wish to follow Henry V, the exemplar of all Christian Kings, into battle. They are as eager to quickly follow the King as they would be if they were as fast as Mercury, the messenger of the gods — a messenger whose winged heels and winged helmet flew him quickly through the air.

“Now the expectation of winning glory in war is everywhere, and men think of a sword that is hidden from the hilt to the point with the crowns of Emperors who rule more than one country, the crowns of Kings who rule a single country, and the coronets worn by nobles. These emblems of rule have been promised to Harry and his followers.

“The French, advised by good intelligence of this most serious preparation for dreadful war that causes them to shake with fear, attempt to foil the English invasion with a treacherous plot.

“Oh, England! You are a small country, but you have greatness within you. You are like a great heart enclosed in a small body. What great things you would accomplish, what honor you would earn, if all your citizens were kind and obeyed natural law and respected your King!

“But see your fault! France has found in you a nest of hollow bosoms. Three Englishmen lack patriotism and loyalty to their King, and France fills the pockets of these three treacherous men with coins.

“These three corrupted men — Richard, Earl of Cambridge; Henry, Lord Scroop of Masham; and Sir Thomas Grey, Knight, of Northumberland — accepted the gilt of France and so bear the guilt of treason. They have formed a conspiracy with France, which fears the English King and army, and have agreed to kill this model of Kingship: King Henry V.

“If Hell and treason keep their promises, they will kill Henry V in Southampton before he sets sail for France.

“Be patient, audience, and we will help you to cope with the great distances that must be traveled on our stage.

“Now the traitors have received the bribe that France promised them, now the King is traveling from London to Southampton, and soon he will set sail to France.

“Audience, sit in your seats in the theater, and we will safely convey you soon to France, and safely bring you back, too. We will charm the English Channel so that you can gently travel both ways. If we are able to, we will not make even one audience member seasick or disgusted with our play.

“But before we join the King in Southampton, let us enjoy a scene set in London.”

— 2.1 —

On a street in London, Corporal Nym and Lieutenant Bardolph were speaking together. Soon to join them was Pistol, who was an Ensign, aka sub-Lieutenant. Bardolph was the highest ranking of the three, and Nym was the lowest ranking. All three were low-lifes living in Eastside. Nym’s name came from “nim,” which means “a thief” or “to steal.” Pistol’s name was pronounced “pizzle,” which also meant “penis.” The Chorus had said that every Englishman is thinking about gaining honor on the battlefield, but Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol were exceptions. The Chorus had also said that the men of England are as eager to quickly follow the King as they would be if they were as fast as winged Mercury, but perhaps we ought to remember that Mercury is, among other things, the god of thieves.

“Good to see you, Corporal Nym,” Bardolph said.

“Good morning, Lieutenant Bardolph,” Nym replied.

“Are Ensign Pistol and you friends yet?”

“For my part, I do not care whether we are friends. I say little, but when the time comes for me to smile, I will smile, perhaps to pretend that I am friends with him or perhaps because I have gotten my revenge on him, but that shall be as it may. I dare not fight, but I will bluster. I will close my eyes and hold out my iron sword. It is a simple sword, but so what? I can use it to toast cheese on its point, and I can draw it and let it grow cold while another man’s sword does the same, and there’s an end to another man and an end to my discourse.”

Nym liked to think that he said little, spoke mysteriously, and kept his thoughts to himself. Much of what he said and thought made little sense.

Bardolph replied, “I will buy you two breakfast if that will make you friends again. Let all of us be three sworn brothers as we go to France. Be friendly again with Pistol, good Corporal Nym.”

“Truly, I will live as long as I may, that’s certainly the truth, and when I cannot live any longer, I will do as I may; that is my final bid, and that is the last resort of it.”

“It is certain, Corporal, that Pistol is married to Nell Quickly,” Bardolph said, “and certainly she did you wrong. She was legally bound to marry you.”

“I cannot tell where the truth lies,” Nym said. “Things must be as they may: Men must sleep, and they must have their throats about them at that time, and some people say that knives have sharp edges. It must be as it may: Though patience be a tired mare, yet she will plod — patience will reach success in the end. There must be conclusions. Well, I cannot tell.”

Pistol and Nell Quickly, the hostess of the Boar’s Head Inn in Eastcheap, walked up to Bardolph and Nym.

Bardolph said, “Here comes Ensign Pistol and his wife. Good Corporal Nym, control yourself here. We are on a public street.”

Nym said, “How are you, host Pistol!”

Pistol, who liked to use extravagant language, was outraged. He was a superior officer to Nym, who should have referred to him by his military title: Ensign. Of course, by marrying Nell Quickly, the hostess of an inn, Pistol had become the host of that inn.

Pistol said, “Base mongrel, are you calling me your host? Now, by my hand, I swear that I scorn the term. I also swear that my Nell shall not keep lodgers in her inn.”

Nell Quickly said, “Truly, I shall keep no lodgers. It is impossible for us to give room and board to a dozen or fourteen gentlewomen who live honestly by the prick of their needles. Why? Because everyone will think that they make their living by a different sort of prick, and everyone will think that we are keeping a bawdy house.”

Thinking that it was time for him to bluster, Nym drew his sword. Pistol did the same.

Nell Quickly said, “Heavens! Look! He has drawn his sword! We shall see willful adultery and murder committed.”

As usual, Nell Quickly had mixed up her words. Adultery is always willfully committed; she had probably meant to say that murder would be willfully committed. And why bring up adultery? Did she believe that Pistol would be the murder victim and she would go back to Nym?

Bardolph said, “Good Lieutenant! Good Corporal! Do not fight in a public street!”

Nym said scornfully to Pistol, “Pish!”

Pistol scornfully replied, “Pish for you, Iceland dog! You are a shaggy-haired dog and a prick-eared cur of Iceland!”

Nell Quickly said, “Good Corporal Nym, show your valor, and put up your sword.”

She had spoken more wisely than she knew. Usually, to show one’s valor, a man would draw his sword and fight, but Nym had no valor, so to show his (lack of) valor, he should sheathe his sword.

Both Nym and Pistol sheathed their swords, but they would soon draw them again. No matter. The only way either of them would die in this fight would be for one of them to trip and accidentally fall on his own sword.

The shaggy-haired Nym said to Pistol, “Will you amscray and shove off with me to a place where we can fight without interruption? I would have you solus.”

Not knowing that soluswas Latin for “alone,” Pistol thought that he had been insulted: “Solus, outrageous dog? Oh, vile viper! I will shove that solusin your most marvelous face. I will shove that solusin your teeth, and in your throat, and in your hateful lungs, and yes, in your stomach, by God, and, which is worse, within your nasty mouth! I will shove that solusall the way to your bowels. For I can take fire and grow angry, and Pistol’s cock is up, and flashing fire will follow.”

Later, people would listen to accounts of the “fight,” and they would laugh when they heard “Pistol’s cock is up.”

“You sound as if you were a conjuror performing an incantation for an exorcism,” Nym said, “but it won’t work on me. I am not the son of Barba, a fiend who fought fiercely after assuming the shape of a lion. I have the humor — am in the mood — to beat you rather well. Once fired, pistols are foul and dirty, and they need to be cleaned and scoured with a ramrod. If you use foul language against me, Pistol, I will scour you with myrapier, to put it as decently as I can. If you would walk with me to a place out of sight of the public, I would prick your guts a little, to put it as decently as I can, and that’s how I feel about it.”

“You are a vile braggart and a damned furious creature!” Pistol shouted. “Your grave gapes, and doting death is near and desirous of taking you, and therefore prepare to exhale your final breath.”

Some of Pistol’s extravagant language came from the action-filled, bombastic plays he enjoyed watching and listening to.

Bardolph drew his sword and said to Nym and Pistol, “Hear me, listen to what I say: He who strikes the first stroke, I’ll run him through with my sword up to the hilt, I swear on my profession as a soldier.”

Pistol replied, “This is an oath of mickle — much — might; and so my fury shall abate.”

He sheathed his sword, then Nym sheathed his sword, and finally Bardolph sheathed his sword.

Pistol said to Nym, “Give me your fist; give me your fore-paw. I have to admit that your spirit is very brave.”

Nym replied, “I will cut your throat at one time or another, to put it as decently as I can, and that’s how I feel about it.”

Pistol replied in bad French and a lack of knowledge about how many words make up a word, “‘Couple a gorge!’ That is the word.”

He had meant to say, “Coupez la gorge,” which means “Cut his throat.”

He added, “I defy you, Nym, again. Oh, hairy hound of Crete, did you think that you could get my spouse? That is not going to happen. No, instead, make your way to the hospital and find yourself a woman. Look in the powdering tub of infamy — the heated tub in which ill people sit in order to sweat out venereal disease, and find Doll Tearsheet — who is just like Cressida, a loose woman who suffers from the pox — and promise to marry her. I have ….”

Pistol stopped and thought and then said, “I have, and I will hold, the quondamQuickly. Once she was Miss Quickly and now she is Mrs. Pistol, and she is the only woman for me — pauca, there’s enough. Go to.”

Pistol knew a few words of Latin, although people who really knew Latin knew that Pistol knew fewer Latin words than he thought he did. Quondammeant “former,” and “Quickly” was his wife’s maiden name. Paucawas short for pauca verbaand meant “few words.”

A boy — Sir John Falstaff’s page, aka young servant — arrived and said, “My host Pistol, you must come to my master, Falstaff, and you, hostess, must come, too. Falstaff is very sick, and he wants to go to bed.”

The boy looked at Bardolph, whose face was fiery-red from his alcoholism, and joked, “Good Bardolph, put your fiery-red face between his sheets so that you can warm them up like a warming-pan.”

He added, “Truly, Falstaff is very ill.”

“Go away, you rogue!” Bardolph, who could be sensitive about his face, yelled at the boy.

Nell Quickly said about the precocious boy, “Indeed, one of these days he will be hung and his hanging carcass will provide a feast for crows.”

She then said about Falstaff, “The King has killed his heart.”

She was referring to when Prince Hal had been crowned as King Henry V. Falstaff had not treated him like a King, calling him by the familiar name “Hal.” Falstaff should have bowed before his sovereign. Instead, he had challenged Henry V to reject him. If Henry V had not rejected him, Falstaff would have looted the treasury. Fortunately for England, King Henry V had rejected Falstaff and never again saw him. Nell Quickly thought that Falstaff’s heart had broken because the King had rejected him, but Falstaff’s heart had broken because he could not loot the treasury. He had hoped to run wild in England when Prince Hal was crowned King Henry V.

Nell Quickly said to Pistol, “Good husband, go home as soon as you can.”

Nell Quickly and the boy left to go to Sir John Falstaff.

Bardolph said to Nym and Pistol, “Come, shall I make you two friends? We must go to France together, so why the Devil should we keep knives to cut one another’s throats?”

Pistol said, “Let our friendship last until the rivers overflow their banks and flood the land and until the Devils in Hell howl in fury because they do not have enough evil souls to torment!”

Nym was willing to be friends again — provided a proviso was met: “You’ll pay me the eight shillings I won from you at betting?”

Pistol, who was uneager to fulfill this request, replied, “Base is the slave who pays.”

Nym said, “That money I must have now, and that’s the long and the short of it.”

Pistol said, “Let courage decide. Let’s fight over that money.”

Both Pistol and Nym drew their swords.

Bardolph drew his sword and said, “By this sword, I will kill the first man who makes the first thrust. I swear by this sword that I will kill him.”

Pistol said, “He swore by his sword, and that is an oath, and a soldier’s oath is an oath that must be kept.”

Pistol sheathed his sword.

Bardolph said, “Corporal Nym, if you will be friends with Pistol, then be friends, but if you will not be friends with Pistol, why, then, be enemies with me, too. Please, sheathe your sword.”

Nym asked Pistol, “Shall I have the eight shillings I won from you at betting?”

Pistol said, “Yes,” and Nym sheathed his sword, and then Bardolph sheathed his sword.

Pistol said to Nym, “I shall give you a noble, a coin that is worth a little less than eight shillings. I will pay you the rest with liquor. That way, we will be friends, and brothers, too. I’ll live by Nym, and Nym shall live by me. Is not this just? I can make back the money I pay to you. I will be a sutler to the camp of soldiers — I will supply the soldiers with provisions — and that will give me ample opportunity to make some profits, some of them by honest means — profits will accrue. Give me your hand and let’s shake on it.”

Nym asked again, “I shall have my noble?”

Pistol replied, “Yes — in cash most justly and honestly paid.”

Nym replied, “Well, then, that’s the long and the short of it.”

Nell Quickly returned and said to them, “If you were born of woman, come quickly and see Sir John. Poor man! He is so shaken from a burning quotidian tertian fever. He has one fever that visits him every day, and another fever that visits him every other day. He is in a piteous predicament, and seeing him will rouse your pity. Sweet men, go and see him.”

Nym said, “The King has caused Sir John’s melancholy — that’s the plain truth of it.”

Pistol said, “Nym, you have spoken the truth; Sir John’s heart has been fracted and corroborated — broken and confirmed to be broken.”

Nym replied, “The King is a good King, but we must say it because it is true — he has some strange moods and does some strange things. As King, he can indulge his thoughts and do whatever he wishes.”

Pistol said, “Let us go and condole Sir John Falstaff. The Knight will die, but we, lambkins, will continue to live.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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