David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING JOHN: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scenes 2-4

— 3.2 —

The armies had been fighting for a while. The Bastard, holding the cut-off head of the Duke of Austria, stood on the battlefield. By killing the Duke of Austria, who had received the credit for killing Richard the Lionheart, the Bastard had avenged the death of his father. The Bastard was wearing the lion skin that had belonged to his father.

The Bastard said to himself, “Now, by my life, this day grows wondrously hot. Some airy Devil hovers in the sky and pours down mischief.”

This society believed that airy demons caused such things as thunderstorms, but the Bastard was referring here to the noise of the continuing battle.

The Bastard put the head on the ground and said to himself, “The Duke of Austria’s head will lie there, while I, who was once named Philip but am now named Richard, catch my breath.”

King John; Arthur, who had been captured; and Hubert, who was a loyal supporter of King John, entered the scene.

King John said, “Hubert, keep this boy.”

He then said to the Bastard, “Philip, move forward to the front. My mother is assailed in our tent, and I fear that she has been captured.”

“My lord, I rescued her,” the Bastard said. “Her highness is in a safe place, fear you not. But let’s go on, my liege; for very little pain and effort will bring this labor to a happy end.”

— 3.3 —

The battle was over; England had triumphed. King John, Queen Eleanor, Arthur, the Bastard, Hubert, and some lords met together.

King John said to his mother, Queen Eleanor, “So it shall be; your grace shall stay behind here in France and be very strongly guarded.”

He said to Arthur, “Nephew, don’t look sad. Your grandmother loves you, and your uncle will be as dear to you as your father was.”

Arthur said, “Oh, this will make my mother die with grief!”

King John said to the Bastard, “Kinsman, go for England! Hasten there and arrive before us. And, before we arrive there, see that you shake the moneybags of hoarding abbots; set the imprisoned angels at liberty. The fat ribs of peace must by the hungry now be fed upon. Use our commission to its utmost force.”

King John wanted the Bastard to go to England and raise money — lots of money — from the church; he wanted to empty the church’s moneybags in order to pay for the war England had just fought and to feed hungry English soldiers. The “angels” were coins.

The Bastard replied, “Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back, when gold and silver beckon me to come on. I shall not fear being excommunicated. I leave your highness.”

He then said to Queen Eleanor, “Grandmother, I will pray, if I ever remember to be holy, for your fair safety, and so I kiss your hand.”

“Farewell, gentle kinsman,” Queen Eleanor said.

“Kinsman, farewell,” King John said.

The Bastard exited.

Queen Eleanor said to Arthur, her grandson, “Come here, little grandson; listen as I talk to you.”

“Come here, Hubert,” King John said. “Oh, my gentle Hubert, we owe you much! Within this wall of flesh that is my body, there is a soul who accounts you her creditor and with interest means to repay your love and friendship. And my good friend, your voluntary oath of loyalty to me lives in this bosom, dearly cherished.

“Give me your hand. I had a thing to say, but I will say it at some better, more suitable time. By Heaven, Hubert, I am almost ashamed to say how well I love and respect you.”

“I am much obliged to your majesty,” Hubert said.

“Good friend, you have no reason to say that yet,” King John said, “but you shall have reason, and even if time creeps ever so slowly, yet I shall do you good.

“I had a thing to say, but let it go. The Sun is in the Heaven, and the proud day, accompanied by the pleasures of the world, is all too gay and cheerful and too full of showy ornaments such as flowers to give me audience and listen to me.

“If the midnight bell, with its iron tongue and brazen brass mouth, sounded on into the drowsy race of night; if this same were a churchyard where we stand, and you were the owner of a thousand wrongs; or if that surly spirit, melancholy, had baked your blood and made it heavy and thick, your blood that otherwise runs tingling up and down your veins, making that idiotic jester, laughter, keep men’s eyes and strain their cheeks to idle merriment, a feeling hateful to my purposes; or if that you could see me without eyes, hear me without your ears, and make a reply to me without a tongue, using your imagination alone, without eyes, ears, and the harmful sound of words; then, in despite of this brooding and watchful — like a bird watching her nestlings — day, I would pour my thoughts into your bosom.

“But, ah, I will not! Yet I love you well, and I swear that I think you love me well.”

King John was hinting that he wanted Hubert to do something important for him.

“I love you so well,” Hubert replied, “that whatever you tell me to do, even though my death were the inevitable result of my act, by Heaven, I swear I would do it.”

“Don’t I know that you would?” King John said. “Good Hubert, Hubert, Hubert, throw your eye on yonder young boy.”

The young boy was Arthur, who had a claim to the throne of England.

King John continued, “I’ll tell you what, my friend. He is definitely a serpent in my way, and wherever this foot of mine treads, he lies before me. Do you understand what I am saying? You are his keeper, his jailor.”

“And I’ll keep him in such a way,” Hubert said, “that he shall not offend your majesty.”

“Death,” King John said bluntly.

“My lord?” Hubert said, shocked.

“A grave,” King John said.

“He shall not live,” Hubert said.

“Enough,” King John said. “Good. I could be merry now. Hubert, I love you. Well, I’ll not say what I intend to do for you. Remember.”

He said to Queen Eleanor, “Madam, fare you well. I’ll send those soldiers over to your majesty.”

“My blessing goes with you!” Queen Eleanor replied.

“Go to England, nephew, go,” King John said to young Arthur. “Hubert shall be your servant and wait on you with all true duty.

“Onward toward Calais, ho!”

Calais was a seaport.

— 3.4 —

King Philip II of France, Louis the Dauphin, and Cardinal Pandulph met together. Some attendants were present.

King Philip II said, “So, a roaring tempest on the sea has scattered a whole armada of our defeated ships and separated them from each other.”

“Have courage and comfort!” Cardinal Pandulph advised. “All shall yet go well.”

“What can go well, when we have run so ill?” King Philip II replied. “Are we not beaten? Is not Angiers lost? Arthur taken prisoner? Many dear friends slain? And the bloody King of England has gone into England after overpowering our resistance — he has done this in spite of me, the King of France!”

“The towns he has won, he has fortified,” Louis the Dauphin said. “He has done this quickly and with good deliberation. Such temperate order in so fierce a cause is without parallel. Who has read or heard of any such action similar to this?”

“I could well endure the King of England having this praise, as long as we could find some other country that has endured the shame we endure,” King Philip II said.

Constance entered the scene. She was distraught, and her hair was loose.

“Look at who is coming here!” King Philip II said. “A grave for a soul; she is holding the eternal spirit against her will, in the vile prison of afflicted breath and life. Her body is the prison of her soul.”

He said to Constance, “Please, lady, come with me.”

She said, “Now, now see the result of your peace.”

“Patience, good lady!” King Philip II said. “Be calm! Have comfort, gentle Constance!”

“No, I defy all counsel, all redress, except that which ends all counsel, true redress,” Constance said. “I mean death, death.

“Oh, amiable and lovely Death! You sweet-smelling stench! Sound and wholesome rottenness! Arise from the resting place of lasting night — Hell — you hate and terror to prosperity, and I will kiss your detestable bones and put my eyeballs in your empty eye sockets that resemble vaults. And I will ring these fingers with the worms that serve your household, and I will stop this gap of breath — my mouth — with repulsive dust and be a carrion monster like yourself.”

Constance was distraught and speaking in oxymora: “You sweet-smelling stench! Sound and wholesome rottenness!”

She continued, “Come, grin at me, and I will think you smile and I will buss you as your wife. Misery’s love — oh, come to me!”

Death is often portrayed as a skeleton, which has a fixed, unmoving grin rather than a smile, which involves the movement of facial muscles.

In this society, men were said to kiss their wives and buss their wantons, aka mistresses or prostitutes. “To buss” means “to sensually kiss.”

“Oh, fair afflicted one, be at peace!” King Philip II said. “Be calm!”

“No, no, I will not,” Constance said. “Not as long as I have breath to cry. Oh, I wish that my tongue were in the thunder’s mouth! Then with an emotional outburst of grief I would shake the world, and rouse from sleep that fell anatomy — that cruel skeleton we call Death — that cannot hear a lady’s feeble voice, and that scorns an ordinary incantation of a sorcerer.”

“Lady, you utter madness, and not sorrow,” Cardinal Pandulph said.

“You are not holy to tell such a lie about me,” Constance said. “I am not mad. This hair I tear is mine. My name is Constance. I was Geoffrey’s wife. Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost. I am not mad. I wish to Heaven I were mad! For if I were mad, it is likely that I would forget myself. Oh, if I could, what grief I would forget! Preach some philosophy to make me mad, and you shall be canonized, Cardinal Pandulph. Because I am not mad but am able to feel grief, my reasonable part produces a reasonable way for me to be delivered of these woes — it teaches me to kill or hang myself.

“If I were mad, I would forget my son, or madly think he were a ragdoll — a baby made of rags. I am not mad; too well, too well I feel the different plagues and afflictions of each calamity I have suffered.”

“Bind up your loose tresses of hair,” King Philip II said to Constance.

He then said to the others present, “Oh, what love I note in the fair multitude of her hairs! Where but by chance a silver drop — a tear — has fallen, ten thousand wiry friends — hairs — glue themselves to that drop in sociable, companionable grief, like true, inseparable, faithful loves, sticking together in calamity.”

Earlier, King Philip II had requested Constance to come with him. Now she responded, “To England, if you will.”

She wanted him to invade England.

“Bind up your hair,” King Philip II said.

“Yes, I will do that, and why will I do it? I tore these hairs from their bonds and cried aloud, ‘Oh, I wish that these hands could so redeem and free my son, just as they have given these hairs their liberty!’ But now I envy their liberty, and I will again commit them to their bonds because my poor child is a prisoner.”

She bound her hair.

She continued, “And, Father Cardinal Pandulph, I have heard you say that we shall see and know our friends in Heaven. If that is true, I shall see my boy again, for since the birth of Cain, the first male child, to him who just yesterday took his first breath, there was not such a creature born who was so filled with divine grace.”

Cain was the first child ever born; he was also the first murderer, having murdered Abel, his brother.

Constance continued, “But now canker-sorrow and gnawing grief will eat my bud — Arthur — and chase the native beauty from his cheek and he will look as hollow as a ghost, as dim and meager as a fit of illness, and so he’ll die; and, rising from death so again, when I shall meet him in the court of Heaven, I shall not know him. Therefore, never, never will I behold my pretty Arthur any more.”

“You hold too terrible an opinion of grief,” Cardinal Pandulph said.

“The man who talks to me never had a son,” Constance said.

“You are as fond of grief as you are of your child,” King Philip II said.

Constance replied, “Grief fills the room left unoccupied by my absent child, lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, puts on my son’s pretty looks, repeats his words, reminds me of all his gracious qualities, stuffs his — Arthur’s — vacant garments with his — grief’s — form. So then, do I have reason to be fond of grief?

“Fare you well. If you had endured such a loss as I have, I could give you better comfort than you give me.”

She unbound her hair again and said, “I will not keep orderly hair upon my head, when there is such disorder in my mind.

“Oh, Lord! My boy, my Arthur, my fair son! My life, my joy, my food, my all the world! My widow-comfort, and my sorrows’ cure!”

She exited.

King Philip II said, “I am afraid that she may harm herself, and so I’ll follow her.”

He exited.

Louis the Dauphin said, “There’s nothing in this world that can make me feel joy. Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale that vexes the bored ear of a drowsy man, and bitter shame has spoiled the sweet world’s taste so that it yields nothing but shame and bitterness.”

Cardinal Pandulph said, “Before the curing of a strong disease, even at the instant of healing and health, the fit is strongest; evils that take their leave show evil most of all on their departure. What have you lost by losing the recent battle?”

“All days of glory, joy, and happiness,” Louis the Dauphin said.

“If you had won the battle, certainly you would have lost all days of glory, joy, and happiness,” Cardinal Pandulph said. “When Fortune means to do the most good to men, she looks upon them with a threatening eye. It is strange to think how much King John has lost in this battle that he believes he has so clearly won. Aren’t you grieved that Arthur is his prisoner?”

“As heartily as King John is glad that he has him,” Louis the Dauphin replied.

Cardinal Pandulph said, “Your mind is entirely as youthful as your blood. Now listen to me speak with a prophetic spirit, for even the breath of what I mean to speak shall blow each speck of dust, each straw, each little obstacle out of the path that shall directly lead your foot to England’s throne, so therefore pay close attention to what I say.

“John has seized Arthur; and it cannot be that, while warm life plays and moves in that noble youth’s veins, the misplaced — wrongly placed on England’s throne — John should enjoy an hour, one minute, nay, one quiet breath of rest.

“A scepter snatched with an unruly hand must be as forcefully and violently maintained as it was gained, and he who stands upon a slippery place shows no scruple about using any vile means to help him stay on top. So that John may stand, Arthur must fall. So be it, for it cannot be but so. Soon Arthur shall be dead.”

“But what shall I gain by young Arthur’s fall?” Louis the Dauphin asked.

“You, because of the rightful claim of Lady Blanche your wife, may then make all the claim that Arthur did,” Cardinal Pandulph said. “Arthur had a rightful claim to the throne of England. Once Arthur is dead, you, because of your marriage to Blanche, will have a rightful claim to the throne of England.”

 “And I will lose it, life and all, as Arthur did,” Louis the Dauphin replied.

“How green and inexperienced and fresh in this old world you are!” Cardinal Pandulph said. “John devises plots that you can exploit and the times conspire with you, for he who steeps his safety in true blood shall find only bloody and untrue safety. John will spill Arthur’s true blood in order to secure his grasp on the throne, but that grasp will be slippery.

“This act of murder so evilly carried out shall cool the hearts of all his people and freeze their zeal, so that they will cherish and take advantage of any opportunity, no matter how small, to check his reign.

“No natural luminous appearance in the sky, no scope of nature, no distempered day, no common wind, no customary event, will occur that they do not pluck away its natural cause and call them meteors, prodigies, and signs, abnormalities, presages, and tongues of Heaven, plainly denouncing vengeance upon John.”

In other words, English citizens will interpret even common, ordinary occurrences of nature as being supernatural portents calling for vengeance against King John.

Louis the Dauphin said, “Maybe John will not touch young Arthur’s life, but merely keep Arthur safe and harmless as his prisoner.”

Cardinal Pandulph said, “Attack England, and when John hears of your approach, if young Arthur is not already dead, then as soon as John hears the news that you have invaded England, Arthur dies. When that happens, the hearts of all John’s people shall revolt from him and kiss the lips of unfamiliar change and find strong reasons for revolt and wrath in John’s bloody fingertips.

“I think I see this commotion all already on foot, and even better reasons than I have named are coming into existence for you to invade England! The Bastard, who was once named Faulconbridge, is now in England, ransacking the church and offending charity. If a dozen — only a dozen! — French were there in arms, they would be as a lure to entice ten thousand English to join their side. They would be like a little snow that, tumbled about, soon becomes a mountainous avalanche.

“Oh, noble Dauphin, go with me to your father, the King. It is wonderful what may be wrought out of the Englishmen’s unhappiness, now that the souls of their leaders are filled to the brim with offence and wrongdoing.

“Go to England and invade it. I will go to your father, the King of France, and urge him to do this.”

“Strong reasons result in strong actions,” Louis the Dauphin said. “Let us go. If you say yes, the King will not say no.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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