David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING JOHN: A Retelling in Prose — Act 5, Scenes 1-3

— 5.1 —

King John, Cardinal Pandulph, and some attendants were in a room of the King’s palace. Cardinal Pandulph was holding King John’s crown.

King John said to Cardinal Pandulph, “Thus have I yielded into your handthe circle — the crown — of my glory.”

Cardinal Pandulph gave the crown to King John and said, “Take againfrom this my hand — as a grant from the Pope— your sovereign greatness and authority.”

King John put the crown on his head and said, “Now keep your holy word. Go and meet the French,and use all your power from his Holiness to stop their marches before we are engulfed with fire.

“Our discontented counties — shires and lords — revolt;our people refuse to practice obedience,instead swearing allegiance and the love of their soulto foreign blood, to foreign royalty.

“This inundation of diseased dispositions can be made healthy again only by you. So don’t pause, for the present time is so sick that medicine must be immediately ministered, or else an incurable destruction will ensue.”

Cardinal Pandulph replied, “It was my breath that blew this tempest up, following your stubborn treatment of the Pope, but since you are a gentle convert and are again obedient to the church, my tongue shall hush again this storm of war and make fair weather in your blustering land.

“On this Ascension Day, remember well that I, following upon your oath of service to the Pope, go and make the French lay down their arms.”

He exited.

King John said, “Is this Ascension Day? Didn’t the prophet say that before Ascension Day at noon I should give up my crown? And so I have. I thought that I should give it up on constraint and force, but Heaven be thanked, I gave it up only voluntarily.”

The Bastard entered the room and delivered this bad news: “All Kent has yielded; nothing there holds out except Dover Castle. London has received, like a kind host of an inn, the Dauphin and his armies. Your nobles will not listen to you, but have gone to offer their service to your enemy, and wild amazement and bewilderment hurry up and down the small number of your worried, fearful friends — friends whose loyalty to you can be doubted.”

“Wouldn’t my lords return to me and be loyal again, after they heard that young Arthur was alive?” King John asked.

“They found him dead and cast into the streets,” the Bastard said. “He was an empty casket, where the jewel of life by some damned hand was robbed and taken away.”

“That villain Hubert told me that young Arthur lived,” King John said.

“So, on my soul, Arthur did live, for anything Hubert knew,” the Bastard said. “Hubert sincerely thought that Arthur was alive. But why do you droop? Why do you look sad? Be great in act, as you have been in thought. Don’t let the world see fear and serious doubt govern the motion of a Kingly eye. Be as stirring as the time; be fire with fire; threaten the threatener and defy and intimidate the brow of threatening horror. If you do this, inferior eyes, which borrow their behaviors from the great, will grow great by your example and put on the dauntless spirit of resolution.

“Go, and glisten like Mars, the god of war, when he intends to grace and honor the battlefield. Show boldness and aspiring confidence.

“What, shall they seek the lion in his den — the King in his country — and frighten him and make him tremble there? Oh, let it not be said. Range abroad and seek the enemy, and run to meet displeasure farther from the doors, and grapple with him before he comes so near.”

King John said, “The legate of the Pope has been with me, and I have made a happy peace with him: He has promised to dismiss the armies led by the Dauphin.”

“Oh, what an inglorious, shameful, and humiliating league and alliance!” the Bastard said. “Shall we, upon the footing of our own land, send fair-play orders and make compromise, insinuation, parley, and base truce to an invading army?

“Shall a beardless boy — the Dauphin, who is a pampered, spoiled child — confront our battlefields, and flesh his spirit in a warlike soil, mocking the air with colors idly spread, and find no check?”

“To flesh a sword” meant “to cover it with an enemy’s blood.” Here the Bastard was complaining that a representative of the Pope would make peace when the Bastard preferred to fight.

The Bastard continued, “Let us, my liege, go to arms. Let’s prepare to fight. Perhaps Cardinal Pandulph cannot make your peace, or if he does, let it at least be said that the French saw that we intended to defend ourselves against their invasion.”

“You have the management of this present time,” King John said. “Do what you said you want to do. Prepare an army.”

“Let’s leave, then, with good courage!” the Bastard said. “Yet, I know, our party may well meet a prouder foe.”

His last words were ambiguous and could mean 1) Our army could very well meet a prouder and more courageous army than our army is, or 2) Our army could very well fight off a prouder and more courageous army than the one the Dauphin has brought.

— 5.2 —

Louis the Dauphin, the Earl of Salisbury, Lord Melun, the Earl of Pembroke, and Lord Bigot met in Louis the Dauphin’s camp at Saint Edmundsbury. Some French soldiers were present.

Louis the Dauphin handed Lord Melun a document and said, “My Lord Melun, let this be copied out,and keep it safe for our memory. Return the original to these English lords again, so that, having our fair and equitable agreement written down,both they and we, perusing over these notes,may know why we took the sacramentand keep our faiths firm and inviolable.”

In this culture, people would take communion in order to sanctify a treaty or agreement.

The Earl of Salisbury said, “Upon our sides our agreement never shall be broken. Noble Dauphin, although we swearavoluntary zeal and an uncompelled faithto your proceedings, yet believe me, Prince,I am not glad that such a sore of the present timeshould seek a healing bandage by despised revolutionand heal the inveterate corruption of one wound — Arthur’s death— by making many. The present time is ill and must be healed — unfortunately — by rebellion against King John.

“It grieves my soul that I must draw this metal sword from my sideto be a widow-maker therewhere honorable rescue and defensecries out upon the name of Salisbury!”

The Earl of Salisbury was conflicted. He believed that he was honorably rescuing England by rebelling against King John and so honorable rescue cried out in support of the name of Salisbury, but he was also supporting a French army’s invasion of England and so honorable defense cried out against the name of Salisbury.

He continued, “But such is the infection of the time that, for the health and medicine of our right, we cannot act except with the very hand of stern injustice and confused wrong. And isn’t it a pity, my grieved and unhappy friends, that we, the sons and children of this isle, were born to see so sad an hour as this, wherein we step after a foreigner, march upon her gentle bosom, and fill up our country’s enemies’ ranks? I must withdraw and weep upon the stain of this cause forced upon us — to favor the gentry of a remote land and follow unfamiliar battle flags here.

“What, here? Oh, my nation, I wish that you could move yourself away from here! I wish that Neptune’s arms, which hug you, could bear you away from the knowledge of yourself, and grapple you to a pagan shore, where these two Christian armies might join the blood of malice in a vein of league, and not spend it so unneighborly!”

Neptune is the Roman god of the ocean. By saying that Neptune’s arms hug England, the Earl of Salisbury meant that it was an island country.

“You show a noble temperament in this emotion of yours,” Louis the Dauphin said. “Great emotions wrestling in your bosom make an earthquake of nobility.”

In this culture, people believed that violent winds under the surface of the earth caused earthquakes.

He continued, “Oh, what a noble combat you have fought between compulsion and a worthy, excellent respect — between what you have been forced to do and the brave consideration of your true duty!”

Wiping away the tears from the Earl of Salisbury’s face, Louis the Dauphin said, “Let me wipe off this honorable dew that with a silvery appearance trickles down your cheeks. My heart has melted at a lady’s tears, which are an ordinary inundation, but this effusion of such manly drops, this shower, blown up by a tempest in the soul, startles my eyes, and makes me more amazed than if I had seen the domed top of Heaven decorated all over with burning meteors.

“Lift up your brow, renowned Salisbury, and with a great heart heave and thrust away the storm. Hand over these waters to those eyes of a baby who never saw the giant adult world enraged, nor met with fortune other than at feasts, completely full of warm emotions, of mirth, and of merrymaking.

“Come, come; for you shall thrust your hand as deep into the purse of rich prosperity as I — Louis myself — do. And so, nobles, shall you all, all you who knit your sinews to the strength of my sinews.

“And even there, I think, an angel spoke.”

One kind of angel was a coin. Louis the Dauphin had promised to pay the English lords for their support. Here he may have been contemptuous of the English lords, although he would have been careful not to show it.

Cardinal Pandulph arrived.

Seeing him, Louis the Dauphin said, “Look where the holy legate is coming in order to give us authorization from the hand of Heaven and on our actions to set like a seal on a warrant the name of right with holy breath.”

“Hail, noble Prince of France!” Cardinal Pandulph said to Louis the Dauphin. “The news is this: King John has reconciled himself with Rome; his spirit has submitted that so stood out against the holy church, the great metropolis and jurisdiction of Rome.

“Therefore, now wind up your threatening battle flags, and tame the savage spirit of wild war, so that like a lion reared by hand, it may lie gently at the foot of peace, and be no further harmful except in appearance.”

“Your grace must pardon me,” Louis the Dauphin said. “I will not go back to France. I am too highly born to be treated like a piece of property, to be a second-in-command, or a useful serving man and instrument to any sovereign state throughout the world.

“Your breath first enflamed the dead embers of wars between this chastised Kingdom and myself and brought in matter that should feed this fire, and now it is far too huge to be blown out with that same weak wind which inflamed it.

“You taught me how to know the face of right, you acquainted me with my interest in — my valid claim to — this land. Yes, you thrust this enterprise into my heart, and now you come to tell me that King John has made his peace with Rome? What is that peace to me?

“I, by the honor of my marriage bed, after the death of young Arthur, claim this land for mine. As the husband of Blanche, I am next in line to the English throne.

“And, now that England is half-conquered, must I go back to France because King John has made his peace with Rome? Am I Rome’s slave? What penny has Rome spent on this military expedition, what men has Rome provided, what munitions has Rome sent to prop up and support this military action? Isn’t it I who take on this expense? Who else but I, and such as to my claim are liable, sweat in this business and maintain this war?

“Haven’t I heard these islanders shout out, ‘Vive le Roi!’ — ‘Long live the King! — as I have traveled past their towns? Haven’t I here the best cards for the game, to win this easy match played for a crown? And shall I now give up all that has already been conceded to me? This is a game that I have almost won and that I will win.

“No, no, on my soul, it never shall be said that I gave up such an easy victory.”

“You look only on the outside of this work,” Cardinal Pandulph said. “You are looking only at the surface.”

Louis the Dauphin replied, “Outside or inside, I will not return to France until my attempt so much is glorified as was promised to my ample hope before I gathered this gallant army of war, and selected these fiery spirits from the world to stare down conquest and to win renown even in the jaws of danger and of death.”

A trumpet sounded to announce an important visitor.

“What robust trumpet thus summons us?” Louis the Dauphin asked.

The Bastard arrived, accompanied by attendants.

“Let me have audience in accordance with the fair play and rules of chivalry of the world,” the Bastard said to the Dauphin. “I have been sent to speak to you.”

He then said to Cardinal Pandulph, “My holy lord of Milan, I have come from King John to learn how you have done on his behalf. And, as you answer, I know the scope and warrant limited to my tongue. As you answer, I know what I can and I cannot say in my position as King John’s ambassador.”

Cardinal Pandulph said, “The Dauphin is too obstinately hostile, and he will not conform to my entreaties. He flatly says he’ll not lay down his arms.”

Referring to young Lewis the Dauphin, the Bastard said, “By all the blood that fury ever breathed, the youth says well.”

The Bastard preferred warfare to diplomacy.

He then said to Lewis the Dauphin, “Now hear our English King, for thus his royalty speaks through me.

“He is prepared, as is reasonable he should be prepared.

“King John smiles at this apish and unmannerly approach, this armed masquerade and unadvised revelry, this unbearded sauciness and these boyish troops, and he is well prepared to whip this dwarfish war, these pigmy arms, from out of the circle of his territories.

“Think of that hand which had the strength, even at your door, to cudgel you and make you leap over the bottom half of a two-part stable door, to dive like buckets in concealed wells, to crouch in the straw covering your stable floors, to lie like pawned articles locked up in chests and trunks, to cuddle with swine, to seek sweet safety in vaults and prisons, and to shiver and shake even at the crying of your nation’s crow, thinking that the crow’s voice comes from an armed Englishman.

“Shall that victorious hand be enfeebled here in England, that victorious hand which in your own chambers in France chastised you?


“Know the gallant monarch is in arms and like an eagle over his aery soars in order to swoop down on and drive away any annoyance that comes near his nest.

“And you degenerate, you ingrate rebels, you bloody Neroes, ripping up the womb of your dear mother England the way that Emperor Nero of Rome ripped up his mother’s womb after he murdered her, blush for shame, for your own ladies and pale-faced maidens like Amazonian warrior-women come tripping after drums, their thimbles changed to armed gauntlets, their needles changed to lances, and their gentle and peaceful hearts changed to fierce and bloody inclination.”

Louis the Dauphin said, “There end your bravado, and turn your face away in peace. We grant that you can out-scold us.

“Fare you well. We regard our time as too precious to be spent with such a braggart.”

“Give me permission to speak,” Cardinal Pandulph said.

“No, I will speak,” the Bastard said.

Using the royal plural, Louis the Dauphin said, “We will listen to neither of you.”

He ordered, “Strike up the drums, and let the tongue of war plead for our interest and our being here.”

The Bastard said, “Indeed your drums, being beaten, will cry out, and so shall you, when you are beaten. Do but start an echo with the clamor of your drum, and even at hand a drum is ready braced that shall reverberate entirely as loudly as your drum. Sound another drum of yours, and another drum of ours shall sound as loud as your drum and rattle the sky’s ear and mock the deep-mouthed thunder.

“Now at hand, close by, not trusting to this dilatory, shifting legate here, whom he has used for entertainment rather than need is warlike John, and on his forehead sits a bare-ribbed death — a skeleton — whose duty this day is to feast upon whole thousands of the French.”

“Strike up our drums so we can find this danger,” Louis the Dauphin said.

“And you shall find it, Dauphin,” the Bastard said. “Do not doubt it.”

— 5.3 —

King John and Hubert talked together on the battlefield as the battle raged.

“How goes the day with us?” King John asked. “Who is winning? Tell me, Hubert.”

“It goes badly for us, I fear,” Hubert replied. “How fares your majesty? How are you?”

“This fever, which has troubled me so long, lies heavy on me,” King John said. “My heart is sick!”

A messenger arrived and said, “My lord, your valiant kinsman, Faulconbridge, wants your majesty to leave the battlefield and send him word by me which way you go.”

Faulconbridge was Sir Richard, aka the Bastard.

“Tell him that I am going toward Swinstead, to the abbey there,” King John said.

“Be of good comfort because the great supply of reinforcement troops that was expected by the Dauphin here was wrecked three nights ago on Goodwin Sands,” the messenger said. “This news was brought to Sir Richard just now. The French fight coldly, and they are retreating.”

“Ay, me!” King John said. “This tyrant fever burns me up, and it will not let me welcome this good news. Let’s set on toward Swinstead. Take me immediately to my litter. Weakness possesses me, and I am faint.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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