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

— 4.3 —

Arthur, wearing the clothing of a ship-boy, stood on a wall of the castle in which he was imprisoned.

He said to himself, “The wall is high, and yet I will leap down. Good ground, be pitiful and don’t hurt me! There’s few or none who know me. If they see me, this ship-boy’s appearance has quite disguised me. I am afraid to jump, and yet I’ll venture it. If I get down, and do not break my limbs, I’ll find a thousand stratagems to get away. It’s as good to die and go, as to die and stay. It’s as good to die while attempting an escape as to stay and die at my uncle’s orders.”

He jumped — and fell hard on the rocks below.

He said, “Oh, me! My uncle’s hard spirit is in these hard stones. I am mortally hurt. May Heaven take my soul, and may England keep my bones!”

He died.

The Earl of Pembroke, the Earl of Salisbury, and Lord Bigot arrived on the scene.

Talking about Louis the Dauphin, the Earl of Salisbury said, “Lords, I will meet him at Saint Edmundsbury. It is our best safeguard, and we must welcome this courteous offer at this perilous time.”

“Who brought that letter from the Cardinal?” the Earl of Pembroke asked.

The Earl of Salisbury replied, “The Count Melun, a noble lord of France, whose private communication to me of the Dauphin’s friendship is much more comprehensive than these lines import.”

Lord Bigot said, “Tomorrow morning let us meet him then.”

“Or rather let us then set forward,” the Earl of Salisbury said, “for it will be two long days’ journey, lords, before we meet him.”

The Bastard entered the scene.

“Once more today well met, distempered lords!” he greeted them.

Earlier that day, the Bastard had met them as they set out to find Arthur’s grave.

The Bastard continued, “The King by me requests your presence immediately.”

“The King has dispossessed himself of us,” the Earl of Salisbury said. “We will not line his thin and stained cloak with our pure honors, nor serve the foot that leaves the print of blood wherever it walks. We will not serve and obey him. Return and tell him that. We know the worst. We know that he had Arthur killed.”

“I will say whatever you think, but good words, I think, would be best to send to the King,” the Bastard said.

“Our griefs, and not our manners, reason now,” the Earl of Salisbury said. “Our grievances talk for us; we no longer observe courtesy when it comes to the King.”

“But there is little reason in your grief,” the Bastard said. “Therefore, it would be reasonable if you had manners now.”

“Sir, sir, anger has its privilege,” the Earl of Pembroke said.

“That is true,” the Bastard said. “Anger has the privilege to hurt the one who is angry; it does not have the privilege to hurt anyone else.”

A proverb of the time stated, “Anger punishes itself.”

They had been traveling as they talked, and the Earl of Salisbury said, “This is the prison.”

Seeing the corpse of Arthur, the Earl of Salisbury asked, “Who is he who is lying here?”

Recognizing Arthur, the Earl of Pembroke said, “Oh, death, made proud with pure and Princely beauty! The earth had not a hole to hide this deed. No grave could hide this murder.”

The Earl of Salisbury said, “Murder, hating what itself has done, lays this murder out in the open to urge on revenge.”

Lord Bigot said, “Or, when he doomed this beauty to a grave, found it too precious-Princely for a grave.”

The corpses of Kings and Princes were not buried in graves; they were embalmed and placed in mausoleums and tombs.

“Sir Richard, what do you think?” the Earl of Salisbury asked. “Have you beheld, or have you read or heard anything like this? Could you think that such a thing could happen? Do you almost doubt, although you see it, that you see it? Could thought, without this object, form such another? This is the very top, the height, the crest, or the crest upon the crest, of murder’s aims. This is the bloodiest shame, the wildest savagery, the vilest stroke, that ever glaring-eyed wrath or staring rage presented to the tears of soft remorse.”

“All past murders are excused because of this inexcusable murder,” the Earl of Pembroke said. “And this murder, so sole and so unmatchable, shall give a holiness, a purity, to the yet unbegotten sins of times to come and show that a deadly bloodshed is only a jest in comparison to this heinous spectacle.”

“It is a damned and a bloody work,” the Bastard said. “It was done by the graceless action of a heavy hand, if this is the work of any hand.”

“If it is the work of any hand!” the Earl of Salisbury said. “We had a kind of inkling of what would ensue. This murder is the shameful work of Hubert’s hand, and the stratagem and the plan of the King, whom I forbid my soul ever to obey.”

He knelt and said, “Kneeling before this ruin of sweet life, and breathing to Arthur’s breathless excellence the incense of a vow, a holy vow, I vow never to taste the pleasures of the world, never to be infected with delight — to enjoy delight while such a murder is unavenged is an illness — nor be conversant with ease and idleness, until I have made this hand glorious by giving it the honor of revenge.”

“Our souls religiously confirm your words,” the Earl of Pembroke and Lord Bigot said.

The Earl of Salisbury stood up.

Hubert arrived.

Not seeing the corpse of Arthur, he said, “Lords, I am hot with haste in seeking you. Arthur is still alive; the King has sent for you.”

The Earl of Salisbury said, “Oh, he is old and does not blush at death. Avaunt — leave! — you hateful villain. Get thee gone!”

The word “thee” was less formal and less respectful than the word “you.”

“I am no villain,” Hubert said.

“Must I rob the law?” the Earl of Salisbury said, drawing his sword.

By killing Hubert before Hubert had a fair trial, the Earl of Salisbury would be robbing the law, which would, he thought, sentence Hubert to death.

“Your sword is bright, sir; put it up again,” the Bastard said. “Sheath your sword.”

A bright sword is unused; the Bastard’s implication was that the Earl of Salisbury’s sword was for decorative purposes only.

“Not until I sheathe it in a murderer’s skin,” the Earl of Salisbury said.

“Stand back, Lord Salisbury, stand back, I say,” Hubert said. “By Heaven, I think my sword’s as sharp as yours. I would not have you, lord, forget yourself, nor tempt the danger of my true defense, lest I, by paying attention only to your rage, forget your worth, your greatness, and your nobility.”

“Get out, dunghill!” Lord Bigot said. “Do you dare to challenge a nobleman?”

Hubert’s social class was lower than that of the lords.

“Not for my life,” Hubert said, “but yet I dare to defend my innocent life against an Emperor.”

The Earl of Salisbury said, “You are a murderer.”

“Do not prove that I am a murderer by making me kill you,” Hubert said. “As of now, I am no murderer. Whoever speaks falsely, speaks not truly; whoever speaks not truly, lies.”

In this society, these were close to fighting words. Hubert was close to calling the Earl of Salisbury a liar. Two noblemen would fight a duel if one called the other a liar. If a commoner called a nobleman a liar, the nobleman would attack him.

“Cut him to pieces,” the Earl of Pembroke said.

“Keep the peace, I say,” the Bastard said.

“Stand aside, or I shall wound you, Faulconbridge,” the Earl of Salisbury said to the Bastard.

“You would be better off if you wounded the Devil, Salisbury,” the Bastard said. “If you only frown at me, or move your foot, or direct your hasty anger to do me shame, I’ll strike you dead. Put up your sword immediately; or I’ll so maul you and your toasting-iron — your sword, which you use only for toasting cheese — that you shall think the Devil has come from Hell.”

“Is this what you want to do, renowned Faulconbridge?” Lord Bigot said. “Second — that is, support — a villain and a murderer?”

Hubert said, “Lord Bigot, I am neither a villain nor a murderer.”

“Who killed this Prince?” Lord Bigot said, pointing to Arthur’s corpse.

Seeing the corpse for the first time, and recognizing Arthur, Hubert said, “An hour has not passed since I left him alive and well. I honored him, I loved him, and I will weep the rest of my life for the loss of his sweet life.”

He wept.

The Earl of Salisbury said, “Trust not those cunning waters of his eyes, for villainy is not without such tears, and he, long experienced in villainy, makes his eyes’ water seem like rivers of remorse and innocence. Come away with me, all you whose souls abhor the unclean, morally impure stinks of a slaughterhouse, for I am choked by this smell of sin.”

Lord Bigot said, “Let’s go toward Saint Edmundsbury to see Louis the Dauphin there!”

The Earl of Pembroke said to the Bastard, “Tell the King he may find us there.”

The lords exited.

“Here’s a good world!” the Bastard said sarcastically. “Here’s a mess!”

He asked Hubert, “Did you know about this ‘fair’ work? If you did this deed of death, then you are beyond the infinite and boundless reach of mercy, and you are damned, Hubert.”

“Listen to me, sir,” Hubert said.

“Ha!” the Bastard said. “I’ll tell you what. You are damned as black — no, nothing is as black and damned as you are black and damned — you are more deeply damned than Prince Lucifer. There is not yet so ugly a fiend of Hell as you shall be, if you killed this child.”

“Upon my soul —” Hubert began.

The Bastard interrupted, “If you even just consented to this most cruel act, do nothing but despair because you are already damned. And if you need a cord, the smallest thread that a spider ever twisted from her womb will be enough to strangle you, a slender reed will be a beam you can use to hang yourself on, or if you want to drown yourself, put just a little water in a spoon, and it shall be like all the ocean, enough to drown such a villain as you. I suspect you very seriously.”

Many people of the time believed, “The greater the villain, the worse the fortune.”

Hubert replied, “If I in act, consent, or sin of thought am guilty of stealing that sweet breath which was enclosed in this beauteous clay — Arthur’s body — then let Hell lack enough pains to torture me. Let Hell torture me with every torment it has. When I left Arthur, he was well.”

“Go, carry him in your arms,” the Bastard said. “I am amazed and bewildered, I think, and I lose my way among the maze of thorns and dangers of this world.”

Hubert picked up Arthur’s body.

The Bastard said, “How easily you take all England up!”

“All England” literally meant “the rightful King of England.” Figuratively, it referred to the country of England. Arthur’s death would have bad effects on England. Already it had caused some English lords to desert King John and go over to the side of Louis the Dauphin.

The Bastard continued, “From forth this morsel of dead royalty, the life and the right and the truth of all this realm has fled to Heaven, and England now is left to tug and scramble and to tear by the teeth the disputed ownership of the proud-swelling state — it is disputed because the rightful English King is dead.

“Now for the bare-picked bone of majesty, dogged war bristles his angry crest and snarls in the gentle eyes of peace. Now French armies away from their home and discontents here at home in England meet in one line and fight on the same side, and vast confusion waits — as a raven waits for a sick, fallen beast to die — for the imminent decay and destruction of usurped Kingship.

“Now happy is he whose cloak and belt can withstand this tempest.”

He said to Hubert, “Carry away that child and follow me with speed. I’ll go to King John. A thousand pressing matters are at hand, and Heaven itself frowns upon the land.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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