David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HENRY V: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scene 4

— 2.4 —

In the French King’s palace, several men were meeting: the French King, the Dauphin, the Dukes of Berri and Bretagne, the Constable, and others. The Constable of France was the commander-in-chief of the army in the absence of the King.

The King of France said, “Now comes the English King and his army upon us with England’s full power, and we must be extra careful to put up a first-class defense. Therefore, the Dukes of Berri and of Bretagne,of Brabant and of Orleans, shall go forth,and you, too, Prince Dauphin, as swiftly as you can, to strengthen and reinforce our fortifications with men of courage and with defensive equipment. The King of England’s hostile approach is as fierce as a whirlpool that violently sucks in waters. We ought, therefore, to be as provident in making preparations for the future as fear has taught us to be as a result of recent battles in which the English soldiers whom we had fatally neglected left many French dead upon our battlefields. We ought to remember the English victories in the Battle of Crécy in 1346 and in the Battle of Poitiers in 1356.”

The Dauphin said, “My most redoubted — formidable and respected — father, it is certainly fitting that we arm ourselves against the foe. Peace should not dull a Kingdom and make it lazy; even when no war has been declared and no reason for war is known to exist, defenses should be maintained, armies should be assembled, and other preparations should be made as if a war were expected. Therefore, I say that it is fitting we all go forth to view the sick and feeble parts of France. Let us do so with no show of fear; let us show no more fear than if we had heard that the English were busying themselves with a traditional Whitsun Morris dance. After all, my good liege, England is badly Kinged; the scepter of England is so fantastically borne by a vain, giddy, shallow, capricious youth that no one needs to fear England.”

The Constable said, “That is not the case, Prince Dauphin! You are too much mistaken about King Henry V. Talk to and question the ambassadors that you sent to his court. They will tell you about the great dignity with which he heard your message to him, how well supplied with noble counselors, how modest in raising objections, and how altogether terrifying he was in staying committed to his resolutions. You will conclude that the King of England’s former frivolities were like the slow-wittedness of the Roman Lucius Junius Brutus, who faked being slow-witted in order to lull the tyrant Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and his son into not fearing him. The ruse worked, and Brutus — the name means ‘Dullard’ — drove them out of Rome. Brutus covered his intelligence with a coat of folly; this is similar to gardeners spreading manure over the ground in which are planted the flowers that bloom earliest and are the most beautiful.”

“I disagree, my lord High Constable,” the Dauphin said, “but although I disagree it does not matter. In cases of defense, it is best to believe that the enemy is mightier and more powerful than he seems. By doing that, we will ensure that forces required for defense are sufficient. If we were to underestimate the enemy, we might not be able to defend ourselves against him; we would be like a miser who ruins his new coat by not giving his tailor enough cloth to make a good coat.”

The King of France said, “We believe that King Harry and his army are strong; therefore, Princes, make sure that you strongly arm to meet him on the battlefield. When training a hawk or hound to kill game animals, it is traditional to flesh the hawk or hound — to give it some of the meat of the game it hunted and killed. Henry V’s relatives have earlier been fleshed upon French soldiers. Henry V has been bred out of that bloody race who persistently pursued us in our native paths. For evidence, remember our too-much-memorable shame when at Créssy, Edward the Black Prince of Wales — a black name! — killed and killed again and took captive all our Princes. The Black Prince’s father, King Edward III, immovable as a mountain, stood on a mountain high in the air, crowned with the golden Sun, and watched the heroic actions of his son and smiled as he watched him mangle and deface and cut to pieces 20-year-old French soldiers — the work of nature and God and French fathers. Henry V is a branch of that victorious family; therefore, let us fear his natural mightiness and destiny.”

A messenger entered the room and said, “Ambassadors from Harry, King of England, request to be admitted into your majesty’s presence.”

“We will see them immediately,” the King of France said. “Go, and bring them here.”

The messenger and some lords exited.

The King of France said, “It is as if we are being hunted by Henry V. He is eagerly chasing us.”

The Dauphin said, “We should not turn tail and run away; instead, let us turn head and face the enemy. Cowardly dogs bark the loudest — they most spend their mouths — when what they seem to threaten is running far ahead of them. My good sovereign, give the English ambassadors short shrift — treat them curtly. Let them know of what kind of a Monarchy you are the head. Self-love, aka pride, my liege, is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting. Have pride, and do not undervalue yourself.”

The French lords reentered the room with the English ambassador — Exeter — and his attendants.

The King of France asked, “Have you come from our brother the King of England?”

Of course, the two Kings were not literally brothers; this was simply a polite way of referring to another King.

“Yes, we have come from him,” Exeter said, “and he greets your majesty by desiring you, in the name of God Almighty, to divest yourself and lay aside the borrowed glories that by gift of Heaven, by law of nature, and by the law of nations — that is, by all laws, whether divine, natural, or human — belong to him and to his heirs. Namely, he desires you to divest yourself of and lay aside the crown of France and all the far-reaching honors and titles that pertain by customs and by laws to the crown of France. That you may know that this is no irregular or illegitimate claim that has been fraudulently picked out of old, worm-eaten books or searched out — as with a rake — from the dust of long-forgotten manuscripts or dredged up with bad faith and technicalities, he sends you this very memorable family tree in which his ancestors are listed.”

He handed the King of France a document, and then he added, “King Henry V’s direct line of descent from King Philip III of France and from King Edward III of England is very clearly shown. When you have looked over this document and seen his ancestry, he directs you then to resign your crown and Kingdom. You hold them fraudulently and are keeping them from him, the natural — by right of birth — and true challenger.”

The King of France asked, “What happens if I do not resign my crown and Kingdom?”

“War and blood will happen,” Exeter said. “Even if you were to hide the crown in your heart, Henry V will search for it there. To gain his rightful crown, he is coming in fierce tempest, in thunder, and in earthquake, like a Jove, the Roman King of the gods. If politely requesting the crown fails to get him the crown, then he will take it by force, and so he asks you, in all compassion, to give him his crown and to take mercy on the poor souls against whom this hungry war will open its vast jaws. On your head will fall the responsibility for the widows’ tears for dead husbands, the orphans’ cries for dead fathers, the pining maidens’ groans for their dead betrothed lovers, and for the dead men’s blood that war shall swallow in this dispute. This is his claim, his threatening, and all of my message to you, but if the Dauphin is in the Presence Chamber here, I also have a message especially for him.”

The King of France said, “As for us, we will consider this matter further. Tomorrow you shall bear our full reply back to our brother the King of England.”

The Dauphin said, “As for the Dauphin, I stand here for him. What is the message you bring for him from the King of England?”

Exeter replied, “The King of England sends the Dauphin scorn and defiance, slight regard, contempt, and anything that is negative yet does not reflect badly on him, the mighty sender; this is how little he values you. Thus says my King, and he adds that if your father the King of France does not grant all his demands in full and thereby sweeten the bitter mock — the joke of tennis balls — you sent his majesty, he will call you to so hot an answer for it that caves and womb-like vaulted passages of France shall chide your trespass and return your mockery by echoing with the sound of his cannon.”

“Tell King Henry V that if my father sends him a fair reply, it is against my will,” the Dauphin said, “for I desire nothing but conflict with England. For that purpose, and because it was an appropriate gift — because it matched his youth and vanity — I presented him with the Parisian tennis balls.”

Exeter replied, “Because of your gift to him, Henry V will make your Parisian royal palace — the Louvre — shake, as he would even if it were the foremost palace — or tennis court — in all of Europe. Be assured that you will find a difference, as we his subjects have in wonder found, between the lack of promise that he showed in his greener, younger, and immature days and the great promise that he has mastered now. Now he uses his time wisely, even to the last second, and you will learn that this is true by studying your own losses, if Henry V stays with his army in France.”

The King of France replied, “Tomorrow you shall know in full what we have decided.”

Exeter said, “Send us back to Henry V quickly lest he come here himself to find out the reason for our delay — he has already landed on French soil.”

“You shall soon be sent back to him with our reply and reasonable terms for peace. A night is only a small pause and a short delay when it comes to forming replies of this importance.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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