David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HENRY V: A Retelling in Prose — Act 4: Prologue and Scene 1



The Chorus walked on stage and said, “Now open your minds and imagine a time when creeping murmur and the poring dark fills the wide vessel of the universe. The soldiers talk quietly and strain their eyes trying to see in the dark. The hum of either army quietly sounds, so that the sentinels at their posts almost can hear the secret whispers of each army’s watch. Watchfires rise up on both sides, and through their pale flames the soldiers of each army see the other army’s soldiers’ highlighted yet shadowed faces. Steed threatens steed with high and boastful neighs that pierce the night’s dull ear, and from the tents the armorers, fitting the Knights into their armor, busily use hammers to close up the rivets, fastening the helmet to the cuirass. These sounds give dreadful note of preparation for the upcoming battle. The country cocks crow, the clocks toll, and both announce the third hour of drowsy morning.

“Proud of their numbers and sure of forthcoming victory, the confident and arrogant French gamble with dice, using the despised English soldiers they expect to soon take prisoner as their stakes. The French soldiers chide the crippled slow-gaited night that, like a foul and ugly witch, limps so tediously away.

“The poor condemned English, like animals waiting patiently to be sacrificed, by their watchful fires sit patiently and inwardly ruminate about the danger that will come with the morning. Their melancholy bearing, lean cheeks, and war-worn coats make the gazing Moon regard them as so many horrible ghosts.

“Whoever will now behold the royal Captain of this ruined band of English soldiers walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent, let him cry, ‘Praise and glory on his head!’ For forth King Henry V goes and visits all his soldiers. He bids them good morning with a modest smile and calls them brothers, friends, and countrymen. Upon his royal face there is no sign of how dread an army has surrounded him, nor does he sacrifice even one little bit of color to the weary night throughout which he stays awake. Instead, he looks fresh and suppresses his weariness with a cheerful appearance and sweet majesty.

“Every unhappy soldier, tormented by anxiety and pale in face, who sees him plucks comfort from his looks. His generous eye gives to everyone a universal gift just like the Sun by shining gives a gift to everyone on earth. Harry’s looks thaw cold fear, and men of mean origins and men of noble origins all behold, as my unworthy words declare, a little touch of Harry in the night.

“And so our theatrical scene must to the battle fly, where — it is such a pity! — we shall much disgrace the name of Agincourt by trying to present that battle on stage with four or five most vile and ragged blunted swords, very evilly wielded in a ridiculous brawl more suited for a tavern than a battlefield.

“Yet sit and see, and imagine what the real battle was like as you watch our mere imitation of battle.”

— 4.1 —

King Henry V, Bedford, and Gloucester talked together in the English camp.

“Gloucester, it is true that we are in great danger,” Henry V said. “The greater therefore should our courage be.”

He added, “Good morning, brother Bedford.

“God Almighty! There is some quality of goodness hidden even in evil things, if only men would seek to find it. Here’s an example: Our bad neighbors — the French soldiers — make us early stirrers, which is both healthy and good time management. In addition, they are our outward consciences, and preachers to us all, because they admonish us that we should prepare ourselves fairly for our end and be prepared to die in such a condition that we will go to Paradise. Thus may we gather nectar and honey from the weed, and learn a moral maxim even from the Devil himself.”

Erpingham walked over to the group.

“Good morning, old Sir Thomas Erpingham,” Henry V said. “A good soft pillow for that good white head would be better than a churlish turf of France.”

“Not so, my liege,” Erpingham replied. “I like this lodging better, because now I can say, ‘I live like a King.’”

“It is good for men to have an example of how they can embrace their present pains,” Henry V said. “It eases and lightens a heavy spirit. When the mind is quickened, and released from doubt, the bodily organs, although they were defunct and dead before, end their drowsy sleep and again agilely move. They are like a snake that was sluggish until it sloughed its skin and began to move again with nimbleness and agility.

“Lend me your cloak, Sir Thomas.”

Sir Thomas gave his cloak to the King.

“Brothers both, commend me to the Princes in our camp,” Henry V said. “Give my greetings to them, and tell them to meet me soon at my tent.”

Gloucester replied, “We shall, my liege.”

“Shall I go with and attend your grace?” Erpingham asked.

“No, my good Knight,” Henry V said. “Go with my brothers to my lords of England. I and my heart must commune for a while, and I want no other company.”

Erpingham replied, “The Lord in Heaven bless you, noble Harry!”

Everyone except the King left.

Henry V said to himself, “God bless you, old heart! You speak cheerfully.”

Pistol walked over to Henry V, who was disguised by Erpingham’s cloak and the darkness.

Pistol asked, “Qui vous là?”

This was bad French. Pistol should have asked, “Qui va là?” This means, “Who goes there?”

Henry V replied, “A friend.”

“Discuss unto me —” Pistol began.

His language was too fancy and not accurate. He should have simply said, “Tell me—”

He continued, “Are you an officer? Or are you of low birth, a common soldier, and an ordinary man?”

“I am a gentleman of a company.”

The King’s words meant, “I am a person of good birth serving in the King’s army.”

“Do you trail the puissant pike behind you as you walk?” Pistol asked.

Pikes were wooden spears twelve feet or so in length, and often the soldier would grip a pike behind the spearhead and let the other end of the pike trail — that is, drag — behind him on the ground.

“Yes, I do,” Henry V said. “Who are you?”

Pistol replied, “As good a gentleman as the Holy Roman Emperor.”

“Then you are higher in rank than the King,” Henry V said.

Pistol spoke highly — but overly familiarly — of the King: “The King’s a good lad and a heart of gold. He is a lad of life and a lucky and renowned Devil. He comes from good parents, and his fist is most valiant. I kiss his dirty shoe, and from the bottom of my heart I love the lovely young fellow.”

As usual, Pistol spoke using over-emphatic language. “I kiss his dirty shoe” meant “I respect him.”

Pistol was capable of ordinary, correct language. He asked, “What is your name?”

Henry V replied, “Harry le Roy.”

Le roiis French for “the King,” so Henry V was telling Pistol the truth.

“Leroy!” Pistol said. “That is a Cornish name. Are you one of the soldiers who came from Cornwell?”

“No, I am a Welshman,” Henry V replied.

“Do you know Fluellen?”


“Tell him that I’ll knock his leek against his head on Saint Davy’s Day.”

A leek is an edible vegetable related to the onion. Saint David is the patron saint of Wales, and his annual feast day — Pistol called it “Saint Davy’s Day” — is March 1. The leek is Saint David’s personal emblem, and many Welch wear a leek on their clothing on Saint David’s Day. Fluellen wore a leek in his cap on that day to celebrate his being from Wales.

Henry V replied, “Don’t wear your dagger in your cap on that day, or Fluellen will knock your dagger against your head.”

“Are you his friend?”

“Yes, and his kinsman, too.”

“Here is a middle finger for you, then,” Pistol said, making the (in)appropriate gesture.

“I thank you,” Henry V said politely. “May God be with you!”

Leaving, Pistol called back over his shoulder, “My name is Pistol.”

Alone, King Henry V said to himself, “Your name, Pistol, fits your fierceness.”

Captain Fluellen and Captain Gower now approached separately. Unnoticed, Henry V stood quietly in the shadows.

Captain Gower called, “Captain Fluellen!”

Captain Fluellen replied, “In the name of Jesu Christ, speak lower. It is the greatest admiration of the universal world [Everyone is amazed] when the true and aunchient prerogatifes [ancient perogatives, or rules] and laws of the wars are not kept. If you would take the pains to examine the wars of the ancient Roman general Pompey the Great, you shall find, I promise you, that there is no tiddle toddle [tittle-tattle, aka chattering] nor pibble pabble [bibble-babble, aka babbling] in Pompey’s camp. I promise you that you shall find the ceremonies of the wars, and the cares of it, and the forms of it, and the sobriety [seriousness] of it, and the modesty [decency] of it, to be otherwise.”

“Why, the enemy is loud,” Captain Gower said. “You hear the enemy soldiers all night.”

“If the enemy is an ass and a fool and a prating idiot, is it fitting, think you, that we should also, look you, be an ass and a fool and a prating idiot? Do you really believe that?”

Realizing that Captain Fluellen was right, Captain Gower said, “I will speak lower.”

Captain Fluellen replied, “I hope that you will.”

The two Captains exited, and King Henry V said to himself, “Although it may appear to be a little unconventional and eccentric, there is much care, prudence, and valor in this Welshman.”

Three common soldiers — John Bates, Alexander Court, and John Williams now came near the King. The three common soldiers were worried about the nearing battle.

Alexander Courtasked, “Friend John Bates, isn’t that the morning breaking yonder?”

“I think that it might be,” John Bates replied, “but we have no great cause to desire the approach of day.”

John Williams said, “We see yonder the beginning of the day, but I think that we shall not stay alive long enough to see the end of this day.”

He heard a noise and said, “Who goes there?”

Henry V, still in disguise, said, “A friend.”

John Williams asked, “Under which Captain do you serve?”

“Under Sir Thomas Erpingham.”

“He is a good old commander and a most kind gentleman,” John Williams said. “Please tell us, what does he think of our chances?”

“He thinks that our chances are like those of men shipwrecked on a sandbar who believe that they will be washed off it during the next high tide.”

John Bates asked, “Has he said that to the King?”

“No,” the disguised Henry V said, “nor is it fitting that he should say that to the King. Although I say this to you in confidence, I think the King is only a man, as I am. The violet smells to him the way it does to me. The sky appears to him the way it does to me. All his senses are only human senses. With his symbols of state laid aside, in his nakedness he appears only as a man, and although his emotions are higher mounted than ours, soaring like a hawk, yet, when they swoop downwards, also like a hawk, they swoop downwards swiftly and far. Therefore, when the King sees reason to fear, as we do, his fears, no doubt, are of the same relish as ours are, and so, reason tells us, no man should appear fearful in front of the King, lest the King, by showing fear, would dishearten his army.”

John Bates said, “He may show what outward courage he will, but I believe, even on as cold a night as this is, he would prefer to be in the Thames River in London up to his neck, and I wish that he were there, and me beside him, no matter the consequences, as long as we were finished here. I would rather be in serious trouble in London than be here.”

“I will tell you what I truly think about the King,” Henry V said. “I truly believe that he would not wish himself anywhere but where he is.”

John Bates said, “Then I wish that he were here alone; his life is sure to be ransomed, and many poor men’s lives would be saved.”

“I dare say that you respect him more than to wish that he were here alone,” Henry V said. “I think that you are saying this to find out what other men think. I think that I could not die anywhere so contented as in the King’s company, as long as his cause is just and his war is honorable.”

“Just? Honorable? That’s more than we know,” John Williams said.

“Yes,” John Bates said, “and it is more than we should seek to know. We know enough, if we know that we are the King’s subjects. If his cause is wrong and he is fighting this war for a bad reason, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us.”

“But if the cause is not good, the King himself has a heavy reckoning to make,” John Williams said. “On the Judgment Day, all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join the rest of their body and cry, ‘We died at such a place. Some of us were swearing, some of us were crying for a surgeon, some were crying because their wives were left impoverished behind them, some were crying because of the debts they owe, some were crying because of their children left behind without a father to provide for them.’

“I am afraid that few die well who die in a battle; for how can they dispose of anything — including their souls — with Christian charity when they are busily engaged in killing? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King who led them to it; to disobey the King is contrary to every requirement of being the subject of a King. Subjects must obey their King. Isn’t it true that whatever a man causes to be done, it is as if that man did that thing himself?”

King Henry V replied, “So, if a son who is sent by his father to do business abroad dies in a state of sin upon the sea, the responsibility for wickedness of the son, according to your reasoning, should be upon the father who sent him abroad. Or if a servant, obeying his master’s command to transport a sum of money, is assailed by robbers and dies with many unrepented sins, you would call the business of the master the author of the servant’s damnation, but this is not true.

“The King is not bound to take responsibility for the individual endings of his soldiers. The father is not bound to take responsibility for the individual ending of his son. The master is not bound to take responsibility for the individual ending of his servant. Why not? Because they do not intend these deaths when they send these people to do these undertakings.

“Besides, there is no King, no matter how spotless and without fault his cause is, who can use only spotless soldiers when it comes to war. Some soldiers perhaps are guilty of premeditated murder. Some soldiers perhaps are guilty of seducing virgins with broken promises of marriage. Some soldiers perhaps are guilty of going to war in order to escape being held accountable for goring the gentle bosom of peace with pillage and robbery.

“However, even if these men have defeated the law and outrun punishment at home, even though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God. War is the beadle — the police officer — of God. War is just vengeance — for their previous breach of the King’s laws at home, men are punished in the King’s war abroad. At home, they were afraid of being hung for their crimes; here, where they thought that they would be safe, they are killed. Therefore, if they die without being spiritually prepared, the King is no more guilty of their damnation than he was guilty of those crimes that they committed back home and for which they are punished here.

“Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every subject’s soul is his own. Therefore, every soldier in the wars should do what every sick man should do in his bed. He should wash every stain of sin out of his conscience. If he does that and then dies, death will be to him a benefit. If he does not die, the time that he spent washing every stain of sin out of his conscience was blessedly spent in achieving such good preparation for death. If a man does escape dying, it would not be a sin to think that, by making God so generous a gift of his soul, God let him outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach others how they should prepare for death.”

John Williams said, “It is certain that when a man dies in a state of sin, the sin is upon his own head — the King is not responsible for it.”

John Bates said, “I do not desire that the King should be responsible for me, yet I am determined to fight vigorously for him.”

Henry V said, “I myself heard the King say that he would not allow himself to be ransomed.”

John Williams was cynical: “Yes, he said so, to make us fight cheerfully, but after our throats are cut, he may be ransomed, and we will be never the wiser.”

Henry V said, “If I live to see that happen, I will never trust the King’s word afterward.”

“Will you punish him for breaking his word?” John Williams asked, sarcastically. “All you can do at best is to shoot at the King with a child’s toy gun. The King is the King; a poor person with a private grievance against the King is unable to get any satisfaction or revenge. You may as well use a peacock’s feather to fan the Sun and cool it so much that it turns to ice. You say that you’ll never trust the King’s word afterward! Admit that it is a foolish thing to say.”

“Your reproof of me is definitely too blunt,” Henry V said. “I would fight you, if the time were convenient.”

“Let it be a quarrel between us, if you live,” John Williams said. “We can fight after the battle.”

“I welcome your challenge,” Henry V said.

“It’s dark, so I can’t see you very well,” John Williams said. “How shall I know you again?”

“Give me something of yours such as a glove that I can attach to my helmet or cap,” Henry V said. “After the battle, if you acknowledge that the glove is yours, I will fight you.”

“Here’s my glove,” John Williams said. “Give me one of your gloves.”


“I will also wear your glove on my helmet or cap,” John Williams said. “If you come to me and say, after the battle, ‘This is my glove,’ then I swear that I will hit you on your head.”

“If I live to see your glove, I will challenge you,” the King said.

“You may as well make being hanged your goal.”

“I will fight you, even if I do it in the King’s presence.”

“Keep your word,” John Williams said. “Fare you well.”

“Be friends, you English fools, be friends,” John Bates said. “We have lots of French soldiers to fight. You would know that we are greatly outnumbered if you could count.”

“Indeed, the French may lay twenty French crowns to one that they will beat us; for they bear their crowns on their shoulders,” Henry V said, “but it is no English treason to cut French crowns, and tomorrow the King himself will be a clipper.”

Dishonest people used to cut or clip the edges of the coins called crowns. This was a crime because the value of the coin resided in its metal, but as King Henry V had said, to crush the crown — the top of the head — of an enemy in battle was no crime.

The three common soldiers departed, leaving Henry V alone.

The King said to himself, “Upon the King! ‘Let us lay our lives, our souls, our debts, our worried wives, our children, and our sins on the King!’ We must bear all. Ours is a hard condition; responsibility is born a twin to greatness. Kings must bear much responsibility for the Kingdom. Kings are subject to the critical breath of every fool who is conscious of nothing other than his own problems.

“Kings must do without the infinite heart’s-ease that private men — those who are not rulers — enjoy! What do Kings have that private men do not have other than ceremonial display and status? Of what worth are you, you idle ceremony? What kind of god are you, you who suffer more mortal griefs than do your worshippers? What are your rents? What is your income? Oh, ceremony, show me your wealth! What! Is the essence of ceremony merely adoration? Are you anything other than public position, rank, and ritual, things that create awe and fear in other men?

“A King is less happy in being feared than are his subjects who fear him. What does a King often drink instead of sweet homage? The King drinks poisoned flattery.

“Oh, be sick, you great greatness, you great King, and order your ceremony to cure you! Do you think that the fiery fever will go out because adulation blows honorable titles at you? Will the fiery fever dissipate because courtiers kneel and bow low to you? Can you, when you command the beggar to kneel to you, also command the health of the beggar’s knee to come to your unhealthy knee? No.

“You proud dream called ceremony, you who play so cunningly with a King’s repose, I am a King who exposes and judges you, and I know that the orb, the scepter and the ball, the sword, the mace, the imperial crown, the robe interwoven of gold and pearl, the pompous and long-winded titles that are pronounced before the name of the King, the throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp that beats upon the high shore of this world — no, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony, not all these, laid in a majestic bed — none of these can sleep as soundly as the wretched slave, who with a filled stomach and a vacant mind goes to bed, crammed with food that he has worked hard to get. He never sees the horrible night, the child of Hell, but, like a footman running beside the Sun-chariot, as soon as the day breaks and light appears in the sky before Sunrise, the wretched slave rises and helps Hyperion, the father of the Sun-god, to his horse, and so he does all through the ever-running years, doing profitable labor, until he reaches his grave.

“Except for ceremony, such a wretch, spending his days in toil and nights in sleep, has a better position than and the advantage over a King. The slave, a member of the country’s peace, enjoys that peace, but the unthinking slave little knows what watch the King keeps to maintain the peace — a peace that the peasant is able to enjoy more than the King who works to achieve it for others.”

Erpingham walked over to Henry V and said, “My lord, your nobles, who are worried about your absence, go throughout your camp to find you.”

“Good old Knight,” Henry V said, “bring all of them to my tent. I’ll be there before you.”

“I shall do it, my lord,” Erpingham said and departed.

Alone, King Henry V said, “Oh, God of battles! Steel my soldiers’ hearts; do not let them be afraid. Take from them now the ability to count if the numbers of French soldiers opposing them will pluck their courage from them. Today, Lord, do not think about the sin that my father committed when he got possession of the crown! I have had Richard II’s body brought to Westminster and honorably interred there, and on his tomb I have bestowed contrite tears greater in number than the drops of blood that fell from his body when he was murdered. Five hundred almsmen I pay to pray twice a day with their withered hands held up to Heaven to pardon Richard II’s murder. I have also built two chantries, where the serious and solemn priests sing continually for Richard II’s soul. I will do more, although everything that I can do is not enough. More important than the doing of good works is penitence. I am penitent, and I am implore the pardon of God.”

Still at a distance from the King but coming closer, Gloucester said, “My liege!”

Henry V said, “My brother Gloucester’s voice? Yes. I know your message: You want me to go to my tent. I will go with you. The day, my friends, and all things wait for me.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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