David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s 1 HENRY VI: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scene 5

— 2.5 —

In the Tower of London, Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, sat in a chair. With him were some of his jail keepers. He had a claim to the throne, and so King Henry IV had imprisoned him, and King Henry V had continued to imprison him. Now he was old and dying.

Mortimer said, “Kind keepers of my weak, decaying age, let dying Mortimer here rest himself.”

The keepers were both jail keepers and caregivers.

He continued, “Just like the limbs of a man recently dragged from off the rack, so fare my limbs with long imprisonment. And these grey locks of hair, the pursuivants — the heralds — of death, argue the arrival of the end of Edmund Mortimer, who is Nestor-like aged in an age of care.”

Nestor was the old, wise advisor to the Greek commander Agamemnon and the Greek army during the Trojan War.

Mortimer continued, “My eyes, like lamps whose wasting oil is spent, grow dim, as drawing to their end. My weak shoulders, overborne with burdensome grief, and my pithless, feeble, strengthless arms are like a withered vine that droops its sapless branches to the ground. Yet these feet, whose strengthless support is paralyzed, are unable to support this lump of clay, which is swift-winged with desire to get a grave, as if they know I have no other comfort.

“But tell me, keeper, will my nephew come?”

The first jailer said, “Richard Plantagenet, my lord, will come. We sent to the Temple, to his chamber, and the answer was returned that he will come.”

“Good. That is enough,” Mortimer replied. “My soul shall then be satisfied. Poor gentleman! The wrong done to him equals mine. Since King Henry V, who was born at Monmouth, first began to reign, before whose glory I was great in arms, this loathsome imprisonment I have endured, and ever since then has Richard Plantagenet been living in obscurity, deprived of honor and inheritance. But now the arbitrator of despair — just death, the kind umpire of men’s miseries — with sweet release dismisses me from here. I wish Richard Plantagenet’s troubles likewise were ended so that he might recover what was lost.”

Richard Plantagenet entered the room.

The first jailer said, “My lord, your loving nephew now has come.”

“My friend, has Richard Plantagenet come?” Mortimer asked.

Richard Plantagenet answered, “Yes, noble uncle, thus ignobly used, your nephew, the recently despised and insulted Richard, has come.”

Mortimer said to the jailers, “Guide my arms so that I may embrace his neck and on his bosom expend my last gasp. Oh, tell me when my lips touch his cheeks, so that I may affectionately give one fainting kiss.”

With the help of his jailers, Mortimer was able to hug and kiss his nephew.

To Richard Plantagenet, he said, “Now declare, sweet branch from York’s great tree, why did you say that recently you were despised?”

Richard Plantagenet was a member of the York family while Kings Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI were members of the Lancaster family, being descended from John of Gaunt, first Duke of Lancaster. Richard Plantagenet’s grandfather was Edmund Langley, Duke of York (1341-1402).

Richard Plantagenet replied, “First, lean your aged back against my arm, and with you in that comfortable position, I’ll tell you about my trouble.

“This day, in an argument about a case, some words were exchanged between the Duke of Somerset and me. During the argument he used his lavish tongue to say words that upbraided me with my father’s death. This reproach set bars before my tongue, or else with similar abuse I would have requited him. Therefore, good uncle, for my father’s sake, in honor of a true Plantagenet and for the sake of kinship, tell me the reason my father, the Earl of Cambridge, was beheaded.”

“He was beheaded for the same reason, fair nephew, that imprisoned me and has detained me during all of my flowering youth within a loathsome dungeon, where I pine and grieve. That reason was the cursed instrument of his decease.”

“Tell me in more detail what reason that was,” Richard Plantagenet said, “because I am ignorant of it and cannot guess.”

He knew the reason, but he wanted to hear Mortimer say it.

Mortimer replied, “I will, if my fading breath permits me and if death does not approach me before my tale is done. King Henry IV, grandfather to this King, Henry VI, deposed his cousin Richard II, who was Edward the Black Prince’s son, the first-begotten and lawful heir of King Edward III, the third of that descent as well as the third Edward. During King Henry IV’s reign, the Percy family of the north, finding his usurpation most unjust, endeavored to advance me to the throne, hoping to make me King. These warlike lords were moved to attempt to do that because — young King Richard II thus removed, leaving no heir begotten from his body — by birth and parentage, I was the next in line to be King, for by my grandmother I am descended from Lionel, who was both the Duke of Clarence and the third son of King Edward III, whereas he — King Henry IV —gets his pedigree from John of Gaunt. But John of Gaunt was only the fourth son of that heroic line, and so I ought to have been made King.

“But listen carefully. In this lofty, high-minded attempt, the Percy family labored to plant the rightful heir, but I lost my liberty and they lost their lives.

“Long after this, when King Henry V, succeeding his father Henry Bolingbroke, aka King Henry IV, reigned, your father, the Earl of Cambridge, again because of pity for my hard distress levied an army, hoping to rescue me and install me in the throne and have me wear the crown. Your father, who was descended from famous Edmund Langley, Duke of York, had married my sister, who became your mother. But, like the rest, your noble father, the Earl of Cambridge, fell and was beheaded. Thus the Mortimers, in whom the title rested, were suppressed.”

“Of the Mortimers,” Richard Plantagenet said, “you, your honor, are the last.”

“True,” Mortimer said, “and you see that I have no children and that my fainting words assure you that I am dying. You are my heir; the rest I wish you to gather.”

The word “gather” meant both to “infer” and to “collect.” Richard Plantagenet could infer that he ought to be King of England, and he could decide to gather an army and collect the crown.

Mortimer continued, “But always be wary in your studious care.”

Attempting to become King of England would be dangerous.

Richard Plantagenet said, “Your grave admonishments prevail with me, but still, I think, my father’s execution was nothing less than bloody tyranny.”

“Be shrewd, nephew,” Mortimer said. “Be shrewd with silence. Strongly fixed is the House of Lancaster — Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI were and are Lancastrians — and like a mountain, not to be moved. But now your uncle is dying and thereby removing from here as Princes do their courts, when they are cloyed and satiated with long continuance in a settled place.”

“Oh, uncle, I wish some part of my young years might redeem the passage of your age!” Richard Plantagenet said. “I wish I could use some of my years of life to buy back for you some of your years.”

Mortimer said, “You would then wrong me, as that slaughterer does who gives many wounds when one will kill. Don’t mourn, unless you feel sorrow for my good.”

The last sentence is ambiguous. It can mean 1) Don’t mourn unless you mourn because the good in me is dying, and 2) Don’t mourn unless you use your sorrow to do me good — to get revenge for the wrong done to me.

He continued, “Only give the order and make the arrangements for my funeral, and so farewell, and may all your hopes be fair and may your life be prosperous in peace and war!”

Mortimer died.

Richard Plantagenet said, “And may peace, and no war, befall your parting soul! In prison you spent a pilgrimage and like a hermit passed your days. Well, I will lock his counsel in my breast, and what I am planning — let that rest.

“Keepers, convey him from here, and I myself will see that his burial is better than his life. I will make sure that he receives the honor at his funeral that he was denied during his life.”

The jailers carried away Mortimer’s corpse.

Richard Plantagenet said, “Here dies the dusky, extinguished torch of Mortimer, choked by the ambition of those who are inferior to him. As for those wrongs and those bitter injuries that the Duke of Somerset has offered to my family, I don’t doubt that I will with honor redress them.

“Therefore I now hasten to the Parliament. Either I will be restored to my blood, aka my privileges of noble rank and noble birth that I lost when my father was executed, or I will make my ill the advantage of my good — that is, I will make the injuries done to me fuel my ambition to advance.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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