David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING JOHN: A Retelling in Prose — Act 4, Scene 1

— 4.1 —

Hubert and some executioners met in a room in the castle where Arthur was being held prisoner.

Hubert said to the executioners, “Heat these irons hot for me, and standin the alcove behind the wall hanging. When I stamp my footon the ground, rush forth and bind the boy whom you shall find with mefast to the chair. Be heedful. Go now, and watch.”

“I hope your warrant will authorize this deed,” the first executioner said.

“You have offensive scruples!” Hubert said. “Don’t be afraid. Look to it — do your part.”

The executioners stood behind the wall hanging.

Hubert called, “Young lad, come here; I have something to say to you.”

Arthur walked into the room.

“Good morning, Hubert,” Arthur said.

“Good morning, little Prince,” Hubert said.

“Considering that I have so great a title to be more than a Prince — I ought to be recognized as a King! — I am as little a Prince as it is possible to be.”

Looking closely at Hubert, he added, “You are sad.”

“Indeed, I have been merrier,” Hubert said.

“Have mercy on me!” Arthur said. “I think that nobody should be sad but I, yet I remember that when I was in France, young gentlemen like myself would be as sad as night, but only because it was a whim of theirs. By my faith as a Christian, I swear that if I were out of prison and kept sheep as a shepherd, I would be as merry as the day is long, and so I would be here, except that I am afraid that my uncle plots more harm to me. He is afraid of me, and I am afraid of him. Is it my fault that I am Geoffrey’s son? No, indeed, it is not; and I wish to Heaven that I were your son, as long as you would love me, Hubert.”

Hubert thought, If I talk to him, his innocent prattling will awaken my mercy, which lies dead within me; therefore, I will be sudden and dispatch this business quickly.

“Are you sick, Hubert?” Arthur asked. “You look pale today. Truly, I wish you were a little sick, so that I might sit up all night and stay awake with you. I assure you that I love you more than you love me.”

Hubert thought, His words take possession of my bosom. His words fill my heart.

He said out loud, “Read this, young Arthur.”

He gave Arthur a paper.

Hubert thought, Foolish tears, what are you doing! Turning pitiless torture out of doors! I must be quick, lest my resolution drops out of my eyes in tender womanish tears.

He said out loud, “Can you not read it? Is it not fairly and clearly written?”

“It is written too fairly, Hubert, for so foul an effect,” Arthur said. “Must you with hot irons burn out both of my eyes?”

“Young boy, I must,” Hubert replied.

“And will you?” Arthur asked.

One meaning of “will” was “want,” so one of the meanings of Arthur’s question was “And do you want to?”

“And I will,” Hubert replied.

“Have you the heart?” Arthur asked. “When your head ached, I tied my handkerchief around your brows, the best I had; a Princess embroidered it for me, and I never asked you for it again.”

In this society, handkerchiefs were expensive, so Arthur was generous in not asking for it to be returned to him.

Arthur continued, “And with my hand at midnight I held your head, and like the watchful minutes to the hour, always and continually I cheered up the heavy time, saying, ‘What do you need?’ and ‘Where does it hurt?’ Or ‘What good deed may I perform for you?’”

Arthur had continually talked to Hubert, making sounds, just like a clock does when it ticks.

He continued, “Many a poor man’s son would have lain still and never have spoken a loving word to you, but you when you were sick had a Prince serve as your nursemaid. You may think that my love was devious love and call it cunning. Do so, if you will. If Heaven will be pleased that you must use me ill, why then you must.

“Will you put out my eyes? These eyes never did and never shall as much as frown at you.”

“I have sworn to do it,” Hubert said. “And with hot irons I must burn them out.”

“None except those in this Iron Age would do it!” Arthur said.

People in this society believed in a historical succession of ages, aka eras, each one worse than the previous one: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. The worst was the Iron Age, which was characterized by fraud and violence.

Arthur continued, “The iron itself, although heated red-hot, as it approached near these eyes, would drink my tears and quench its fiery indignation even in the matter — the tears — of my innocence. Indeed, after that, the iron would consume itself and rust away simply because it had contained fire to harm my eyes.

“Are you more stubborn and hard than hammered iron? If an angel would have come to me and told me that Hubert would put out my eyes, I would not have believed the angel — I would believe no tongue but Hubert’s.”

Hubert stamped his foot on the ground and called, “Come out.”

The executioners came out from their hiding place behind the wall hanging. They carried a rope, a heated iron spike, and a brazier of hot coals.

Hubert ordered, “Do what I told you to do.”

Arthur pleaded, “Oh, save me, Hubert, save me! My eyes are blinded just from the fierce looks of these bloody men.”

“Give me the iron, I say, and bind him here,” Hubert ordered.

“Why do you need to be so violent and rough?” Arthur asked. “I will not struggle, I will stand stone-still.

“For Heaven’s sake, Hubert, let me not be bound! Listen to me, Hubert, drive these men away, and I will sit as quietly as a lamb. I will not stir, nor wince, nor speak a word, nor look upon the iron angrily. Just thrust these men away, and I’ll forgive you, whatever torment you inflict on me.”

Hubert told the executioners, “Go and stand in another room; let me alone with him.”

The first executioner said, “I am very pleased to be away from such a deed.”

The executioners exited.

“I have driven away my friend!” Arthur said, referring to the first executioner. “He has a stern look, but a gentle heart. Let him come back so that his compassion may give life to yours.”

“Come, boy, prepare yourself,” Hubert said.

“Is there no remedy?” Arthur said. “Is there no way I can avoid being blinded?”

“None,” Hubert said. “You must lose your eyes.”

“Oh, Heaven, I only wish that there were a mote in your eyes, a grain, a dust, a gnat, a wandering hair, any annoyance in that precious sense of eyesight!” Arthur said. “Then feeling what small things are irritable and painful there, your vile intent to put a hot iron in my eyes must necessarily seem horrible to you.”

“Are you doing what you promised to do once I sent away the executioners?” Hubert asked. “You promised to be quiet. Hold your tongue.”

“Hubert, a pair of tongues is unable to plead adequately for a pair of eyes,” Arthur said. “Let me not hold my tongue, let me not, Hubert. Or, Hubert, if you will, cut out my tongue and let me keep my eyes. Oh, spare my eyes even if their only use is always to look at you!

“Look, I swear that the instrument of blinding is cold and would not harm me.”

“I can heat it, boy,” Hubert said.

“No, truly the fire is dead with grief,” Arthur said. “Being created for comfort, it died rather than be used to inflict undeserved acts of cruelty.

“See for yourself. There is no malice in this burning coal; the breath of Heaven has blown its spirit out and strewn repentant ashes on its head.”

“But with my breath I can revive it, boy,” Hubert said. “I can blow on it and make it glow.”

“If you do, you will only make it blush and glow with shame at your proceedings, Hubert,” Arthur said. “Perhaps it will throw sparks in your eyes, and like a dog that is compelled to fight, it will snatch at its master who incites him to fight.

“All things that you should use to do me wrong deny their service to you. Only you lack that mercy which fierce fire and iron extends to me; fire and iron are noted for their merciless uses.”

“Well, see to live,” Hubert said. “You will be able to see so that you can take care of your living self. I will not touch your eyes for all the treasure that your uncle — King John — owns. Yet I swore and I did intend, boy, with this same iron to burn out your eyes.”

“Oh, now you look like Hubert!” Arthur said. “You were disguised all this time.”

“Peace; say no more,” Hubert said. “Adieu. Your uncle must not hear anything except that you are dead. I’ll fill these fierce, cruel spies with false reports of your death. Pretty child, you shall sleep safe and without fear and secure, knowing that Hubert, for the wealth of all the world, will not hurt you.”

“Oh, Heaven!” Arthur said. “I thank you, Hubert.”

“Silence; say no more,” Hubert said. “Stay close to me and secretly go in with me. I am undergoing much danger for you.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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