David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HENRY V: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scene 6

— 3.6 —

In the English camp at Picardy in northern France, Gower, the English Captain, and Fluellen, the Welsh Captain, met and talked about a battle that had occurred when the English soldiers took possession of a bridge over the Ternoise River. The English soldiers needed to cross this bridge on their march to Calais.

Captain Gower said, “How are you, Captain Fluellen! Have you come from the bridge?”

Captain Fluellen replied, “I assure you, there have been very excellent services committed at the bridge.”

“Is the Duke of Exeter safe?”

“The Duke of Exeter is as magnanimous and great in heart as Agamemnon, Commander-in-Chief of the Greek soldiers allied to fight the Trojans. Exeter is a man whom I love and honor with my soul, and my heart, and my duty, and my life, and my living, and my uttermost power. He is not — God be praised and blessed! — at all hurt in the world; instead, he keeps the pridge [bridge] most valiantly, with excellent discipline.

“There is an Aunchient [Ancient, aka Ensign] Lieutenant there at the pridge [bridge]. I think in my very conscience that he is as valiant a man as Mark Antony, who after the death of his friend Julius Caesar attempted to seize control of Rome, and he is a man of no estimation or reputation in the world, but I did see him do as gallant service as any soldier.”

Captain Gower asked, “What do you call him? What is his name?”

Captain Fluellen replied, “He is called Aunchient Pistol.”

“I don’t know him.”

Pistol now came walking toward the two Captains.

Captain Fluellen said, “Here is the man himself.”

Pistol said to Fluellen, “Captain, I beg you to do me a favor. The Duke of Exeter well respects you.”

Captain Fluellen replied, “That is true, and I praise God because of it. I have merited and earned some respect from Exeter.”

Pistol said, “Bardolph, a soldier, firm and sound of heart, and of vigorous and sturdy valor, has, by cruel fate, and by unstable Fortune’s furious fickle wheel … the wheel of that blind goddess who stands upon the rolling restless stone —”

The goddess Fortune was often shown blindfolded and turning the Wheel of Fortune to determine whether a person’s fortune would be good or bad, and was often depicted as standing on a round and rolling stone. Sometimes the goddess Fortune was depicted doing both at the same time.

Captain Fluellen explicated the two images of the goddess Fortune: “Excuse me, Aunchient Pistol, for interrupting you. Fortune is painted blind, with a bandage before her eyes, to signify to you that Fortune is blind; and she is painted also with a wheel, to signify to you, which is the moral of it, that she is turning, and inconstant, and mutability, and variation: and her foot, look you, is fixed upon a spherical stone, which rolls, and rolls, and rolls. Truly, the poet makes a most excellent description of it — in a letter written while he was in exile, Ovid wrote about ‘the goddess who admits by her unsteady wheel her own fickleness; she always has its apex beneath her swaying foot.’ Fortune is an excellent symbolical figure.”

Pistol replied, “Fortune is Bardolph’s foe, and frowns on him; for he has stolen a pax, and he has been sentenced to be hanged — a damned and shameful death!”

A pax was a religious item: a tablet depicting the Crucifixion. The priest and church members taking communion passed around and kissed the pax. Paxis Latin for “peace,” and King Henry V had turned the paxof England and France into war by invading France.

Pistol continued, “Let gallows gape for dog — dogs are executed for their offences — but let man go free and let not a rope made of hemp suffocate his windpipe. But Exeter has given the doom of death for a pax of little price. Therefore, go and speak to Exeter: The Duke will hear your voice. Do not let Bardolph’s vital thread of life be cut with the edge of a hangman’s cheap rope and with vile reproach. Speak, Captain, to save Bardolph’s life, and I will repay you.”

Captain Fluellen was not the type of man to be bribed. He said, “Aunchient Pistol, I do partly understand your meaning.”

Pistol’s verbose verbiage was difficult to understand — and so was Captain Fluellen’s.

“Why, then, let us rejoice therefore. A man’s life has been saved.”

Captain Fluellen replied, “Not so fast, Aunchient, it is not a thing to rejoice at, because, if, look you, Bardolph were my brother, I would still desire the Duke to use his good pleasure and do what he wants to do, and put him to execution; for discipline ought to be used. I am all for discipline, and King Henry V has made it clear that soldiers are not allowed to loot churches on pain of death.”

Angry, Pistol said, “Die and be damned! — and here is something for your friendship!”

Pistol made an obscene gesture with one middle finger.

Captain Fluellen said, “It is well.”

Pistol said, “Let me double that!”

Pistol made two obscene gestures with both of his middle fingers and then exited.

Captain Fluellen said, “Very good.”

Captain Fluellen believed in discipline, but he was not a hothead and he was not a coward. He had more important things to do than discipline Pistol right now — he had to give Captain Gower and King Henry V news about the bridge. He was also willing to cut Pistol some slack right now because 1) he believed that Pistol had done deeds of courage at the bridge, and 2) Pistol was upset about the soon-to-occur death of a friend. However, at a later time, when the time was right, he would deal with Pistol — no Aunchient should talk that way to a Captain.

Captain Gower recognized Pistol, however, and said, “Why, he is an arrant counterfeit rascal; I remember him now; he is a bawd, aka pimp, and a cutpurse, aka pickpocket.”

Captain Fluellen said, “I’ll assure you that he uttered as brave words at the bridge as you shall see in a summer’s day. But it is very well; what he has spoken to me, that is well, but I tell you, when the time is right —”

Captain Gower interrupted, “Why, he is a stupid oaf, a fool, a rogue, who now and then goes to the wars, to put on airs and magnify himself at his return to London in the guise of a soldier. And such fellows are perfect in memorizing the names of the great commanders. They memorize where battles were fought, at such and such a fortification, at such a breach, with such a military escort; who came off bravely, who was shot, who was disgraced, what terms the enemy accepted; and all this they learn perfectly in military language, which they trick up and embellish with freshly coined oaths. What a beard trimmed like a general’s and what some well-worn military clothing will do among foaming bottles and ale-washed wits is wonderful to be thought on. People such as he tell great lies so they can get treated in bars. Captain Fluellen, you must learn to know such slanderers of this age, or else you may be marvelously mistook and believe that a coward is a hero.”

Captain Fluellen had been listening closely to Captain Gower, and he believed what Captain Gower had told him about Pistol. True, Pistol had spoken well at the bridge, and at first Captain Fluellen had believed what Pistol had said, but impressive words did not necessarily translate into impressive deeds. Also, he now remembered that Pistol was in a group of three men that he had had to force to go and fight at the breach of the wall of Harfleur.

Captain Fluellen said, “I tell you what, Captain Gower; I do perceive that Pistol is not the man whom he would gladly pretend to the world he is. If I find the right opportunity, I will tell him what I think of him.”

They heard the sound of a drum.

Captain Fluellen said, “Listen, the King is coming, and I must speak with him from [about] the pridge [bridge].”

King Henry V, Gloucester, and some soldiers came over to Captain Fluellen and Captain Gower.

Captain Fluellen said, “God pless [bless] your majesty!”

King Henry V said, “How are you, Fluellen! Have you come from the bridge?”

“Ay, so please your majesty. The Duke of Exeter has very gallantly maintained the pridge. The French soldiers have gone off, look you; and there have been gallant and most prave [brave] passages of arms and fighting. By Mother Mary, the athversary [adversaries] had possession of the pridge; but he was forced to retire, and the Duke of Exeter is master of the pridge. I can tell your majesty that the Duke is a prave man.”

“What men have you lost, Fluellen?” King Henry V asked.

“The perdition of the athversary [adversary] has been very great, reasonably great, by Mother Mary, but as far as I know, I think that the Duke has lost not a single man, except for one who is likely to be executed for robbing a church, one Bardolph, if your majesty know the man. You may remember seeing him: His face is all bubukles [abscessed carbuncles; Fluellen had combined words meaning “abscess” and “carbuncle”], and pistules and pimples, and knobs, and flames of fire, and his lips blows at his nose [his lower lip jutted out and his breath was like a bellows inflaming his nose], and it is like a coal of fire, sometimes plue [blue] and sometimes red; but by now his nose is executed and his fire’s out.”

Of course, although Captain Fluellen did not know it, King Henry V knew Bardolph from before he became King; Bardolph had been one of his low-life friends in Eastcheap.

Henry V said, “We would have the breath of all such offenders so cut off. We give express orders that in our marches through the country that there be nothing taken by force from the villages, nothing taken except what is paid for, and none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language because when lenity and cruelty play for a Kingdom, the gentler gambler is the soonest winner.”

A trumpet announced the arrival of Montjoy, the herald sent by the King of France to deliver a message to King Henry V.

A distinctive trumpet call sounded, and Montjoy came over to Henry V. Montjoy was wearing the distinctive clothing — a tabard coat emblazoned with the arms of the King of the France — that identified him as the King of France’s herald. As a herald, Montjoy could not be ethically harmed by his enemy.

Montjoy said, “You know who I am by my tabard coat.”

Henry V replied, “Well, then, I know you. What shall I learn from you?”

Montjoy replied, “My master’s mind.”

“Reveal it.”

“Thus says my King,” Montjoy said. “Say you to Harry of England: Though we seemed dead, we only slept. Advantage is a better soldier than rashness: He was rash to invade France, but now we have the advantage of him. Tell him we could have rebuked him at Harfleur, but that we thought it was not good to squeeze the pus from an abscess before the right time. Now is the right time. We speak now, and our voice is imperial. The King of England shall repent his folly, see his weakness, and wonder at our patience. Bid him therefore consider what ransom he can offer us in payment of the injuries that he has inflicted on France. This ransom must be in proportion to the losses we have borne, the subjects we have lost, and the disgrace we have digested and endured. To make complete compensation for these injuries, the ransom would weigh so much that his weak pettiness would bow under the heavy load. For our losses, his entire wealth is too poor; for the shedding of our blood, the entire roll call of the soldiers of his Kingdom too small a number; and for our disgrace, his own person, kneeling at our feet, would be only a weak and worthless satisfaction. To this, add defiance, and tell him, in conclusion, that he has betrayed his followers, whose condemnation is pronounced. So says my King and master; I have performed my duty in telling you his words.”

King Henry V answered, “What is your name? I know your profession and ability.”


“You do your office fairly and well,” Henry V said. “Go back to your King and tell him that I do not seek him now to fight him. Instead, I prefer to march on to Calais without any opposition. To say the truth, although it is not wise to confess so much to a crafty enemy who has the advantage over us, my soldiers are much enfeebled because of sickness, the numbers of my soldiers are greatly lessened because of battles and disease, and those few soldiers I have are almost no better than so many French. But when my soldiers were healthy, I tell you, herald, I thought one pair of English legs could defeat in battle three pairs of French legs. But, forgive me, God, for bragging like this! Your air of France and your heir of the King of France have blown that vice of bragging into me, as it has into all Frenchmen. I must repent.

“Go, therefore, and tell your master that here I am; my ransom is this frail and worthless trunk that is my body — I do not offer him a trunk that is filled with treasure. My army is only a weak and sickly guard. But tell your King that we will continue on our way with God leading us, even if the King of France himself and another neighbor just like him stand in our way.”

Henry V gave Montjoy some money, as was traditional, and said, “There’s for your labor, Montjoy. Go tell your master to consider matters carefully. If we may continue our journey without opposition, we will; but if your army hinders us, we shall discolor your tawny ground with your red blood.

“Therefore, Montjoy, fare you well. The sum of all our answer is only this: As we are, we will not seek a battle; nor, as we are, we will not shun it. Tell your master this.”

“I will tell him. Thanks to your highness.”

Montjoy exited.

The Duke of Gloucester, Henry V’s brother, said to him, “I hope they will not come after us and battle us now.”

“We are in God’s hand, brother, not in theirs,” Henry V said. “We will march to the bridge; it is nearing night. Tonight beyond the river we and our army will camp, and tomorrow we will march away.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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