David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HENRY VIII: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scene 3

— 2.3 —

Anne Boleyn and an Old Lady talked in an antechamber of Queen Catherine’s apartments.

In the middle of a conversation, Anne Boleyn said, “Not for that neither. Here’s the pang that torments: His highness having lived so long with her, and she so good a lady that no tongue could ever pronounce her dishonorable — by my life, she never knew harm-doing — now, after being enthroned for so many yearly courses of the Sun, still growing in majesty and pomp, to leave which is a thousand times more bitter than it is sweet at first to acquire, and after all this, the King orders her to go! The pity of this would move a monster.”

The Old Lady said, “Hearts of the very hardest temper melt and lament for the Queen.”

“Oh, God’s will!” Anne Boleyn said. “It would be much better if she had never known pomp. Although pomp is secular and worldly, yet if that quarreler, Lady Fortune, divorces pomp from the bearer, it is as painful a suffering as that caused by the severing of soul and body.”

“Alas, poor lady!” the Old Lady said. “She’s a foreigner in England now again.”

“So much the more must pity drop upon her,” Anne Boleyn said. “Verily, I swear, it is better to be lowly born, and wander freely with humble livers in contentment and happiness, than to be perked up in a glittering grief, and wear a golden sorrow. It is better to be impoverished and happy than to be rich and unhappy.”

“Our happiness is our best possession,” the Old Lady said.

“By my truth and virginity, I would not be a Queen,” Anne Boleyn said.

The word “Queen” was much pronounced much like the word “quean,” which means “whore.”

The Old Lady said, “Curse me, but I would, and I would risk maidenhead for it; and so would you, for all this taste of your hypocrisy. You, who have the so beautiful parts of a woman, have also a woman’s heart, which has always desired eminence, wealth, and sovereignty, all of which, to say truly, are blessings, and which gifts, despite your hypocritical acting, the capacity of your soft cheveril conscience would receive, if you might please to stretch it.”

Cheveril is soft, pliable leather used to make gloves. Fingers fit in gloves, and cheveril stretches so that the fingers fit. Penises fit in vaginas, and vaginas stretch so that the penises fit.

“No, truly,” Anne Boleyn said.

“Yes, truly and truly,” the Old Lady said. “Wouldn’t you be a Queen?”

The Old Lady spoke unclearly; she may have said “quean,” not “Queen.”

“No, not for all the riches under Heaven,” Anne Boleyn replied.

The Old Lady said, “It is strange: A bent coin worth only three pence would hire me, old as I am, to Queen [quean?] it, but, I ask you, what do you think of becoming a Duchess? Have you limbs that would bear that load of title?”

The way that Anne Boleyn would become a Duchess would be to marry a Duke. If that were to happen, Anne Boleyn would bear the Duke’s weight on her limbs as they made love.

“No, truly,” Anne Boleyn said.

“Then you are weakly made,” the Old Lady said. “Pluck off a little.”

“Pluck off a little” meant 1) “Come down in rank a little.” That is, if you can’t marry a Duke, then marry someone in the next lowest group: an Earl, and 2) “Take off some clothing.” Besides the obvious meaning, the Old Lady had in mind that the length of the trains of dresses depended on the social status of the woman wearing the dress. Women of high social status had dresses with long trains. Women of lower social status had dresses with shorter trains.

The Old Lady continued, “I would not be a young Count in your way, for more than blushing comes to.”

The Old Lady spoke unclearly, and she may have said “cunt” instead of “Count.” If so, she had said, “I would not be a young cunt in your position, that of virginity, for more than blushing comes to.” In other words, she would eagerly give up her virginity with no more cost than a blush.

The Old Lady continued, “If your back cannot vouchsafe — that is, bear — this burden, it is too weak ever to get — or beget — a boy.”

Women who are unable to bear the weight of a man in the missionary position are unlikely to get married or to give birth to boys.

“How you do talk!” Anne Boleyn said. “I swear again that I would not be a Queen for all the world.”

The Old Lady said, “Truly, for little England you would venture an emballing. I myself would for Carnarvonshire, even if there belonged no more to the crown but that.”

“Little England” meant either 1) England, which is little compared to some other countries, or 2) “Little England” in Wales: the county of Pembrokeshire, whose inhabitants spoke English rather than Welsh.

“Emballing” meant 1) being invested with the ball — an emblem of royalty, and/or 2) being balled (the act of sex).

The Old Lady then said, “Look. Who is coming here?”

The Lord Chamberlain entered the antechamber and said, “Good morning, ladies. What would it be worth to know the secret of your conversation?”

Anne Boleyn replied, “My good lord, it is not even worth asking about. We were pitying the sorrows of our mistress the Queen.”

Lord Chamberlain said, “Pitying the Queen’s sorrows is a soft, tender business, and it is a suitable act for good women to do. There is hope that all will be well.”

“I pray so to God, amen!” Anne Boleyn said.

“You have a kind, gentle mind, and Heavenly blessings follow such persons. So that you may, fair lady, perceive that I speak sincerely and that high note has been taken of your many virtues, the King’s majesty commends to you his good opinion of you, and he gives to you honor that is no less flowing than the title of Marchioness of Pembroke. To this title he adds, out of his grace, a thousand pounds a year in annual support.”

Anne Bolen replied, “I do not know what kind of my obedience I should tender; more than my all is nothing.”

The Old Lady would know exactly how to thank the King: by giving him access to her vagina. Perhaps Anne Boleyn had some unconscious inkling of that. She was talking of giving the King more than all that she had, which is nothing. A man has a thing, or penis. A woman has no thing, or vagina.

Anne Boleyn continued, “My prayers are not words duly hallowed, and my wishes are not of more worth than empty vanities, yet prayers and wishes are all I can return to the King. I ask your lordship to please speak my thanks and my obedience, as from a blushing handmaid, to his highness the King, whose health and royalty I pray for.”

In Genesis 16, Sarah, who is barren, sends her handmaid to have sex with Abram, Sarah’s husband, so that he can have a child. Like Abram, King Henry VIII wanted to sire a male heir.

Lord Chamberlain replied, “Lady, I shall not fail to corroborate the fair opinion that the King has of you.”

He thought, I have perused her well. Beauty and honor in her are so mingled that they have caught the King, and who knows yet but from this lady may come a gem to lighten all of this isle?

King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn would be the parents of Queen Elizabeth I.

Lord Chamberlain said, “I’ll go to the King, and say I spoke with you.”

As he exited, Anne Boleyn said, “My honored lord.”

The Old Lady said, “Why, look at this; see, see! I have been begging sixteen years in court, and I am still a beggarly courtier. I have never been able to find the right time — I was always either too early or too late — to make a successful petition for money. But you — oh, fate! I can’t believe that you have had a fortune thrust upon you! You are a very fresh fish here, and yet you have had your mouth filled up before you open it!”

The Old Lady meant that Anne’s “mouth” had been filled with money before she asked for it, but readers may be forgiven for thinking about sex, including oral sex — Anne’s mouth could be filled with the King’s penis before she opened it to say “I do” in the marriage ceremony.

Readers may also remember that in the future Anne Boleyn would be accused of adultery and treason, found guilty, and beheaded. The ancient Greeks and Romans put a coin in the mouth of a dead person so that the dead person’s soul could pay a toll to Charon, who would ferry the soul to the Land of the Dead.

Anne Boleyn said, “This is strange to me.”

The Old Lady asked, “How does it taste? Is it bitter? I’ll bet forty pence that the answer is no. There was a lady once, it is an old story, she was a lady who would not be a Queen [quean?] — she would not be that for all the mud in Egypt. Have you heard that story?”

The story was actually recent. Anne Boleyn had very recently said that she would not be Queen for all the world.

Anne Boleyn said, “Come, you are pleasant. You are joking.”

The Old Lady said, “If I had your reason for singing, I could soar higher than the lark. The Marchioness of Pembroke! A thousand pounds a year for pure respect! No other obligation! By my life, that promises more thousands. Like the trains of noble dresses, honor’s train is longer than the front part of the skirt. By this time, now, I know your back will bear a Duchess. Tell me, aren’t you stronger than you were?”

The Old Lady believed that Anne’s back would bear the weight of a Duchess; that is, it would bear the weight — the guilt — of supplanting Queen Catherine, who had been married to King Henry VIII’s older brother: Duke Arthur of Cornwall.

She was also asking whether Anne’s back was strong enough to bear the weight of King Henry VIII and give birth to a son.

Anne Boleyn replied, “Good lady, make yourself mirthful with your own particular flights of fancy, and leave me out of them. If this had excited my passion even a jot, I would wish that I did not exist. I grow faint when I think about what follows.

“The Queen is comfortless, and we are forgetful in our long absence from her. Please, do not tell her what you’ve heard here.”

“What do you think I am?” the Old Lady asked.

Readers may want to answer this question in this way: a bawd.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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