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

— 1.4 —

In a hall in the castle of the Duke of Albany and his wife, Goneril, Kent stood. He was in disguise.

He said to himself, “If I can disguise my voice with an accent, I may succeed in that purpose for which I razed my likeness by, for example, taking a razor to my beard. Now, banished Kent, if you can serve where you stand condemned, it may happen that your master, whom you respect, shall find you working hard to help him.”

Some horns sounded, announcing that King Lear had returned from his hunt. King Lear, his Knights, and some attendants entered the hall.

“Let me not wait even a moment for dinner; go and get it ready,” King Lear ordered.

An attendant exited.

Seeing the disguised Kent, King Lear asked, “How are you? And what are you?”

“A man, sir.”

“What do you profess? What do you want from us?” King Lear asked.

By “profess,” King Lear meant “profession” or “special calling,” but the disguised Kent interpreted it as meaning “claim.”

He said, “I profess to be no less than I seem. I will serve the man truly who will put me in trust, I will respect a man who is honest, I will converse and keep company with a man who is wise and says little, I will fear the judgment of my god, I will fight when I cannot avoid fighting, and I will eat no fish.”

By “eat no fish,” the disguised Kent meant that he was a Protestant and so did not have to eat fish on Friday, that he was a meat-eater and so a hearty man, and that he did not consort with prostitutes, aka “fish.”

“Who are you?” King Lear asked.

“A very honest-hearted fellow, and as poor as the King,” the disguised Kent replied.

He took a chance in making that particular joke. King Lear had given his wealth to his two oldest daughters, and he was poor, especially for a King, but he took the joke well, replying, “If you are as poor for a subject as he is for a King, you are poor enough. What do you want?”

“Service,” the disguised Kent said. “I want a job.”

“Who would you serve?”


“Do you know me, fellow?”

“No, sir, but you have something in your countenance that makes me want to call you my master.”

“What’s that?”


“What services can you do?” King Lear asked.

“I can keep an ethical secret, ride, run, mar an excellent tale when I tell it, and deliver a plain message bluntly. I can speak plainly, but do not expect me to speak like a courtier. That which ordinary men are fit for, I am qualified in, and my best quality is diligence.”

“How old are you?”

“I am not so young, sir, as to love a woman for singing, nor so old as to dote on her for anything. The years on my back number forty-eight,” the disguised Kent said.

“Follow me; you shall serve me,” King Lear said. “If I like you no worse after dinner, I will not part from you yet. You will stay in my employ for a while at least.”

He then called, “Dinner, ho, dinner! I ordered my dinner a while ago! Where’s my knave? My Fool? Go, one of you, and call my Fool hither.”

An attendant exited.

Oswald, who was loyal to Goneril, entered the hall.

King Lear said, “You, you, fellow, where’s my daughter?”

Oswald said, “Excuse me, sir,” and exited without answering King Lear’s question. This was no way to treat a King.

Perturbed, King Lear said, “What did the fellow there say to me? Call the blockhead back.”

A Knight left to get Oswald.

“Where’s my Fool?” King Lear shouted. “I think the world’s asleep.”

The Knight returned.

“Where’s that mongrel?” King Lear asked, referring to Oswald.

“He says, my lord, that your daughter is not well,” the Knight said.

“Why didn’t the slave come back to me when I called him?”

“Sir, he answered me in the rudest manner that he would not.”

“He would not!”

“My lord, I don’t know what the matter is, but in my opinion, your Highness is not being treated with that ceremonious affection that used to be shown to you,” the Knight said. “I have noticed that a great lessening of kindness appears in the servants in general as well as in the Duke himself and your daughter.”

“Do you really think so?” King Lear asked.

The Knight replied, “Please, pardon me, my lord, if I am mistaken. My duty is to speak up when I think your Highness has been wronged.”

“You have simply reminded me of what I myself have thought. I have perceived a very faint neglect recently, which I have rather blamed on my own possible over-scrupulousness about how I am treated rather than a deliberate intent on their part to be unkind to me. I will look further into it. But where’s my Fool? I have not seen him these two days.”

“Since the young lady Cordelia has gone to France, sir, the Fool has much grieved.”

“Tell me no more about that,” King Lear said. “I have noted it well.”

He ordered an attendant, “Go and tell my daughter I want to speak to her.”

The attendant exited.

King Lear ordered another attendant, “Tell my Fool to come here.”

The attendant exited.

Oswald reentered the hall.

King Lear said to him angrily, “Come here, sir. Who am I, sir?”

“My lady’s father,” Oswald replied.

Wrong answer.

“‘My lady’s father’! That’s like calling me ‘my lord’s knave’! You misbegotten dog! You slave! You cur!”

“Begging your pardon, I am none of these things, my lord,” Oswald said, staring King Lear in the face.

He was treating King Lear as an equal.

“Do you bandy looks with me, you rascal?” King Lear said, hitting him.

“I’ll not be hit, my lord,” Oswald said.

“Nor tripped neither, you base football player,” Kent said, tripping him.

In this society, members of the upper class played tennis and bandied the ball back and forth, while members of the lower class played football, aka soccer.

“I thank you, fellow,” King Lear said to the disguised Kent. “You serve me well, and I’ll treat you well.”

The disguised Kent yelled at Oswald, “Come, sir, get up and go away! I’ll teach you to recognize differences in rank! Get out! Get out! If you want to be thrown on the floor again so you can measure your clumsy length again, stay for a moment, but it will go better for you if you leave! Wise up, and get out of here!”

The disguised Kent threw Oswald out of the hall.

King Lear said, “Now, my friendly fellow, I thank you. Here is a down payment on the money you will earn by being in my service.”

The Fool entered the hall as King Lear gave the disguised Kent some money.

A Fool is not a fool. Many Fools are quite wise.

The Fool said, “Let me hire him, too. Here’s my coxcomb.”

The Fool offered the disguised Kent his Fool’s hat, which was designed to look like the coxcomb of a rooster.

“How are you, my fine fellow?” King Lear asked his Fool.

The Fool said to the disguised Kent, “Sirrah, you had best take my coxcomb.”

“Sirrah” was a title used when addressing a person of inferior social status.

“Why, Fool?” the disguised Kent asked.

“Why, for taking the part of a person who is out of favor,” the Fool said. “If you can’t smile as the wind sits, you will catch cold shortly. If you can’t curry favor with the people in power, you will find yourself out in the cold. So there, take my coxcomb. Why, this fellow has banished two of his daughters, and did the third a blessing against his will; if you follow him, you had better wear my coxcomb because you will be a fool.”

King Lear had banished, in a way, his two older daughters. When he had possessions and power, they had shown respect to him. Now that they had his possessions and power, they no longer needed to show respect to him. King Lear had “banished” his two older daughters out of his intimate circle of family. He had also given Cordelia a blessing — although unintentionally — by disinheriting her and not giving the dowry to her husband that he had promised to give. Because of this, Cordelia had not married the materialistic Duke of Burgundy; instead, she was now Queen of France.

The Fool said to King Lear, “My uncle, I wish that I had two coxcombs and two daughters!”

“Why, my boy?” King Lear asked.

“If I gave my two daughters all my other possessions, I would keep my two coxcombs for myself. There’s my coxcomb; beg another one from your daughters.”

The Fool was calling King Lear twice the fool the Fool was.

“Take heed, sirrah,” King Lear said. “Remember the whip.”

Fools made jokes and entertained Kings; they had much leeway in what they could say, but if they went too far, they could be whipped. Right now, the Fool was calling the King a fool. The Fool was speaking truth to power — or former power — and King Lear did not like what he was hearing.

The Fool said to him, “Truth is a dog that must go to kennel outside; he must be whipped out of doors. In contrast, Lady the flattering bitch is allowed to stand by the fire and stink.”

“This pains me!” King Lear said. He was beginning to wonder whether what the Fool said was true.

“Sirrah, I’ll teach you a speech,” the Fool said.

“Go ahead.”

The Fool said, “Listen to it carefully, my uncle.”

He sang this song:

Have more than you show,

Speak less than you know,

Lend less than you owe,

Ride more than you walk,

Learn more than you hear,

Don’t stake all on a single throw.

Leave your drink and your whore,

And keep indoors,

And you shall have more

Than two tens to a score.”

The Fool gave wise advice in the beginning of the song, but the conclusion was nonsensical. The hearers expected the song to end up something like “And you shall have more / As your net worth becomes more.” However, sometimes we can do the right things and yet suffer a bad result.We can also do things for good reasons and yet suffer a bad result.

As an octogenarian, King Lear wanted to pass his power and possessions on to his daughters because he sincerely believed that they sincerely loved him. Much could be said in support of his decision, but the consequences of it were turning out not to be what he expected and he was beginning to suspect that he had acted wrongly, both in giving all his wealth and power away and in how he had treated Cordelia. In many cases, as when an elderly parent is beginning to show signs of senile dementia, the elderly parent ought to become the ward of his or her children, but King Lear, although he was an octogenarian, was vigorous enough to go hunting with his Knights.

“This song is nothing, Fool,” King Lear said.

“Then it is like the breath of a lawyer who has not received a fee,” the Fool said. “Lawyers will not do good work until they are paid, and you have paid me nothing for my song. Can you make any use of nothing, my uncle?”

“Why, no, boy,” King Lear said. “Nothing can be made out of nothing.”

The Fool said to the disguised Kent, “Please, tell him that nothing is the amount the rent of his land comes to. He will not believe a Fool.”

King Lear had given away all his land — and all the income that his land had formerly brought him. Now he had no income; he had only the allowance his two older daughters were supposed to give him — an allowance that was supposed to include the pay of a hundred Knights to attend him.

“This is a bitter and sarcastic Fool!” King Lear said.

“Do you know the difference, my boy, between a bitter fool and a sweet fool?” the Fool asked.

“No, lad,” King Lear replied. “Teach me.”

“That lord who counseled you to give away all your land, place him here by me,” the Fool said. “You can stand for him. The sweet fool and the bitter fool will immediately appear.”

He pointed to himself and said, “The sweet one is the one in motley here.”

He pointed to King Lear and said, “The bitter one is the one found there.”

No lord had counseled King Lear to give away all his land; it had been the King’s own idea.

“Do you call me fool, boy?” King Lear asked.

Speaking truth to former power, the Fool said, “All your other titles you have given away; the title of ‘fool’ is the one you were born with. You cannot give it away.”

The disguised Kent, who was another man who had spoken truth to power, said to King Lear, “This is not altogether fool, my lord.” He meant that what the Fool was saying was not altogether foolish, but instead included much sense.

The Fool deliberately misunderstood the sentence as saying that the Fool did not have all the foolishness of the world. He said, “No, truly, for the lords and great men will not let me have all the foolishness. Even if I had a monopoly on foolishness, they would have part of it. And this is true of ladies, too — they will not let me have all the foolishness to myself; they’ll be snatching foolishness away from me.”

The Fool paused, and then he added, “Give me an egg, my uncle, and I’ll give you two crowns.”

Crowns are coins, and they are the headwear of a King, and they are the tops of heads.

“What two crowns shall they be?” King Lear asked.

“Why, after I have cut the egg in the middle, and eaten up the egg, what will remain will be the two halves of the eggshell — the two crowns of the egg.”

King Lear had given away his valuables: his land and his income. He had kept the title of King, but that was getting him little respect now.

The Fool continued, “When you split your crown in the middle, and gave away both parts, you behaved as foolishly as if you carried your donkey on your back as you trod over the dirt — you had as little wit in your bald crown when you gave your golden crown away. If I speak like myself — a Fool — in saying this, then let the person who first finds it true be whipped. Such a person is a Fool, and Fools are whipped, and such a person tells the truth, and people who tell the truth in this society are whipped.”

The Fool sang this song:

Fools had never less wit in a year;

For wise men are grown foolish,

They know not how their wits to wear,

Their manners are so apish.”

The Fool’s song stated that fools were not much needed now because wise men were acting like fools — the wise men were imitating, aka aping, fools.

King Lear asked, “Since when have you been so full of songs, sirrah?”

“I have made a habit of singing, my uncle, ever since you made your daughters your mothers, for when you gave them the whip, and pulled down your own pants —”

The Fool sang this song:

Then they for sudden joy did weep,

And I for sorrow sung,

That such a King should act like a child,

And go among the fools.”

The Fool added, “Please, my uncle, keep a schoolmaster who can teach your Fool to lie: I would like to learn to lie.”

“If you lie, sirrah, we’ll have you whipped,” King Lear said, using the royal plural.

“I wonder how you and your daughters are related,” the Fool said. “They’ll have me whipped for speaking the truth, you will have me whipped for lying, and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace and saying nothing. I had rather be any kind of thing than a Fool, and yet I would not be you, my uncle — you have pared your wit on both sides, and left nothing in the middle.”

A Fool is supposed to be a half-wit, but King Lear had given away all of his wits along with everything else.

The Fool looked at the door and said, “Here comes one of the parings.”

Frowning, Goneril entered the hall.

“How are you, daughter!” King Lear said. “Your frown looks like a frontlet — a band going across your forehead. I think that you have been frowning too much lately.”

The Fool said to King Lear, “You were a fine fellow when you had no need to care about her frowning; now you are a zero without a number in front of it to give it value. I am better than you are now; I am a Fool, but you are nothing.”

Angry, Goneril frowned at the Fool.

The Fool said to Goneril, “Yes, indeed, I will hold my tongue; so your face orders me to, although you say nothing. Mum, mum.”

He sang this song:

He who keeps neither crust nor crumb,

Tired of everything, shall want some.”

Crust and crumb referred specifically to a loaf of bread, but metaphorically to everything. The Fool was saying that King Lear had given away all he had, and that he would find himself wanting to have some of his wealth and power back.

The Fool pointed to King Lear and said, “That’s a shelled peapod.”

A shelled peapod is empty of peas, the valued part of the peapod; the shelled peapod itself is worth nothing.

Goneril said to King Lear, her father, “Not only, sir, this your all-licensed Fool, who is permitted to make fun of everyone and everything, but others of your insolent retinue hourly carp and quarrel, breaking forth in rank and gross and not-to-be-endured riots. Sir, I had thought, by making this well known to you, to have found a sure remedy; but now I grow fearful, because of what you yourself have spoken and done only recently, that you protect this kind of behavior and encourage it by being permissive. If this is true, you are committing a fault that will not escape censure. Remedies for this misbehavior must be found, although in order to get a wholesome and healthy society, these remedies might be thought to be an offence to you and cause me shame, except that the necessity for such remedies will silence such criticism and instead be praised as a sensible course of action.”

The Fool said to King Lear, “For, you know, my uncle, the hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long that it had its head bit off by its young. So, out went the candle, and we were left in the dark.”

The cuckoo bird lays its eggs in the nests of other birds such as the hedge-sparrow, which rears the cuckoo’s young, which grow larger than the hedge-sparrow and become a danger to it. The Fool’s point in telling this story was that King Lear was in danger from his ungrateful daughter — who might not even be his biological daughter. At the very least, Goneril was not treating King Lear with the devotion that a biological daughter ought to feel for her father.

Shocked at this treatment from his daughter, King Lear asked, “Are you our daughter?”

He was pointing out that Goneril ought to treat him with the respect due a father.

“Come, sir,” Goneril said, “I wish that you would make use of that good wisdom, of which I know that you have plenty, and put away these moods that recently have transformed you from what you rightly are.”

The Fool said, “May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse?”

The Fool was pointing out that things were backwards here. The father can criticize a daughter, but the daughter ought not to criticize the father.

He sang, “Whoop, Jug! I love you.”

“Jug” was a nickname for “Joan,” and “Joan” was a generic term for “whore.”

King Lear asked sarcastically, “Does anyone here know me? This is not Lear. Does Lear walk like this? Does he speak like this? Where are his eyes? Either his mind weakens, or his faculties are paralyzed — am I awake? It is not so. Who is it who can tell me who I am?”

The Fool answered, “Lear’s shadow — you are the shadow of King Lear.”

“I would like to know who I am because by the signs of sovereignty, knowledge, and reason, I should be falsely persuaded I had daughters.”

The Fool added, “— who will make you an obedient father.”

King Lear asked Goneril sarcastically, “What is your name, fair gentlewoman?”

“This pretense of amazement, sir, is much of the savor of your other new pranks,” Goneril said. “I ask you to understand my purposes correctly. As you are old and reverend, you should be wise. Here you are keeping a hundred Knights and squires; these men are so disordered, so debauched and bold, that our court, infected with their manners, looks like a riotous inn. Their pursuit of pleasure and lust makes our court more like a tavern or a brothel than a palace graced with the royal presence. This shame requires an immediate remedy; therefore, I ask that you — and if need be, I will forcefully take the thing I ask for — a little to reduce in number your train of followers. And let the remaining Knights, who shall still serve you, be such men as are suitable for your age, and know their own place and yours.”

“Darkness and devils!” King Lear shouted. “Saddle my horses; call my train of followers together!”

He shouted at Goneril, “Degenerate bastard! I’ll not trouble you any longer. I still have a daughter left.”

Goneril said, “You physically strike my servants, and the members of your disordered rabble make servants of their betters.”

The Duke of Albany, Goneril’s husband, entered the hall.

King Lear said, “Woe to the person who repents too late.”

He then said to the Duke of Albany, “Oh, sir, have you come? Is it your will? Speak, sir.”

He ordered his followers, who were shocked and were still standing still, “Prepare my horses.”

He then said to Goneril, “Ingratitude, you marble-hearted fiend, you are more hideous than a sea-monster when you show yourself in a child!”

“Please, sir, be patient,” the Duke of Albany said to King Lear. “Control yourself.”

King Lear said to Goneril, “Detested kite — you bird of prey! You lie! My train of followers are men of choice and rarest abilities who know all the particulars of their duty and exactly what they are to do, and they are very careful to live up to their excellent reputations.”

He then said to himself, “Oh, very small fault, how ugly did you seem to be in Cordelia! That very small fault, like an engine, wrenched the frame of my nature from its fixed foundations like a building being pried up — it drew from my heart all love for Cordelia and added to my bitterness.”

He hit himself in the head and shouted, “Oh Lear, Lear, Lear! Beat at this gate that let your folly and foolishness in and let your dear and considered judgment out!”

He said to his train of followers, “Let’s go; go, my people.”

The disguised Kent and the Knights left. The Fool remained.

The Duke of Albany said, “My lord, I am as guiltless as I am ignorant of what has upset you.”

“That may be true, my lord,” King Lear said.

He then cursed his daughter: “Hear, Nature, hear; dear goddess, hear! Suspend your purpose, if you intended to make this creature fruitful! Into her womb convey sterility! Dry up in her the organs of increase and birth and from her dishonored body never allow a babe to spring and honor her! If she must teem with an infant, create her child of spleen, so that it may live and be a perverse and unnatural torment to her! Let it stamp wrinkles in her youthful brow. Let it fret channels of falling tears in her cheeks. Let it turn all her mother’s pains and beneficial care of her child to mocking laughter and contempt so that she may feel how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless and ungrateful child!”

He shouted, “Away! Away! Let’s leave!”

He exited.

The Duke of Albany asked his wife, Goneril, “Now, by the gods whom we adore, what is the cause of this?”

She replied, “Never afflict yourself by knowing the cause; instead, let his disposition have the scope that dotage gives it.”

King Lear returned; he was crying with anger.

He shouted, “What! Fifty of my followers released in a single moment! Within a fortnight of my giving you wealth and power!”

“What’s the matter, sir?” the Duke of Albany asked.

King Lear replied, “I’ll tell you.”

He said to Goneril, “Life and death! I am ashamed that you have the power to shake my manhood like this. I am ashamed that you can cause these hot tears, which break from me involuntarily. I am ashamed that you are worth the tears of a King. May pestilential gusts and fogs of unhealthy air fall upon you! May the very deep wounds — too deep to be probed and cleansed — of a father’s curse pierce every sense you have and cause you pain!”

He shouted, “Old foolish eyes, if you weep because of this cause again, I’ll pluck you out, and cast you, with the tears that you shed, on the ground to mix with clay.

“Has it come to this? Let it be so. I still have a daughter left who, I am sure, is kind and will offer comfort to her father. When she shall hear this about you, she’ll flay your wolvish visage with her fingernails. You shall find that I’ll resume the Kingly appearance that you think I have cast off forever. You shall — that I promise you!”

King Lear exited again. The Fool remained again.

Goneril said to her husband, “Did you see that, my lord?”

Preparatory to criticizing her, he said, “I cannot be so partial, Goneril, to the great love I bear you —”

“Be quiet, please,” Goneril said.

She called, “Oswald, come here!”

She said to the Fool, “You, sir, are more knave than Fool. Follow your master.”

The Fool called, “My uncle Lear, my uncle Lear, tarry and take the Fool with you.”

He sang this song:

A fox, when one has caught her,

And such a daughter,

Should surely be sent to the slaughter,

If my Fool’s cap would buy a halter, aka a noose,

And so the Fool follows after his master.”

The Fool exited.

Goneril said sarcastically, “This man has had ‘good’ counsel.”

She meant that this man — her father — had NOT received good counsel from the Fool.

She added, “A hundred Knights!”

She said sarcastically, “It is ‘politic’ and ‘safe’ to let him keep armed and ready a hundred Knights. Yes, that way on every dream, each rumor, each fancy, each complaint, and each dislike, he may protect his dotage with their powers, and hold our lives at his mercy.”

She shouted, “Oswald, I say!”

The Duke of Albany said, “Well, you may be fearing something that will not happen.”

“That is safer than being too trustful,” she replied. “Let me always take away the harms I fear; that is better than always fearing to be taken by harms. I know my father’s heart. What he has uttered, I have ordered to be written to my sister. If she should sustain him and his hundred Knights after I have showed their unfitness —”

Oswald entered the hall.

“How is it going now, Oswald?” Goneril asked. “Have you written that letter to my sister?”

“Yes, madam.”

“Take with you some company, and ride away on horseback and deliver the letter to my sister. Inform her in full of my particular fears, and add to them such reasons of your own as may strengthen it more. Go now, and quickly return.”

Oswald exited.

Her husband was looking at her. He was not pleased.

Goneril said to him, “No, no, my lord, your mild and gentle way of acting — although I myself do not condemn it — yet, begging your pardon, other people much more criticize you for lacking wisdom than praise you for your harmful mildness. Your leniency can result in danger.”

He replied, “How far your eyes may pierce the future I cannot tell; however, when we strive to make something better, often we mar what’s already well.”

Goneril started to speak: “No, because —”

He cut her off: “Well, we will see what the result of your actions will be.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved




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David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scenes 2-3

— 1.2 —

Holding a letter while alone in a room in the Earl of Gloucester’s castle, Edmund said to himself, “You, Nature, are my goddess; to your law my services are bound. The laws of Nature are better than the laws of Civilization. Why should I stand in the midst of pestilential customs and permit the finely and curiously detailed laws of nations to deprive me of what I want just because I am some twelve or fourteen months younger than Edgar, my brother.

“Why am I a bastard? Why am I therefore regarded as base? My proportions are as well put together, my mind as noble and refined, and my appearance as like my father’s as is Edgar’s, who is the son of my father’s wife. Why do they brand people like me with the words ‘base,’ ‘baseness,’ and ‘bastardy’? They call me base, but am I base?

“I am a person who, having been created as the result of lusty stolen natural pleasure, aka adultery, has acquired more beneficial qualities, which are both physical and mental as well as energetic, than a whole tribe of fools who were created in a dull, stale, tired bed — the result of a long marriage — in between bedtime and morning.

“Well, then, legitimate Edgar, I must have your land and other inheritance. Our father’s love is the same for the bastard Edmund and for the legitimate Edgar — that’s a fine word: ‘legitimate’!

“Well, my legitimate Edgar, if this letter I have forged succeeds, and if my plot thrives, Edmund the base shall overtop and surpass Edgar the legitimate.

“I grow; I prosper. Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”

The Earl of Gloucester entered the room. Upset by recent events, he talked to himself.

“Kent has thus been banished! And the angry King of France has departed! And King Lear left last night! He has limited his power! He is now confined to an allowance! All this was done suddenly, as if he had been pricked by a gad — a spear!”

Seeing his illegitimate son, he said, “Edmund, how are you? What is the news?”

“If it please your lordship, there is no news.”

He hastily put away the letter he had forged — and looked as if he had a secret reason for putting it out of sight.

“Why are you so eager to put away that letter?” the Earl of Gloucester asked.

“I know no news, my lord,” Edmund replied.

“What letter were you reading?”

“I was reading nothing, my lord.”

“No?” the Earl of Gloucester said. “Why then did you need to put it in your pocket with such a terrible display of haste? By definition, nothing has no need to hide itself. Let me see it. Come, if it really is nothing, I shall not need spectacles to read it because it is nothing rather than something.”

“Please, sir, pardon me,” Edmund said. “It is a letter from my brother, and I have not read it all, but judging from the part that I have read, I find it not fit for you to read.”

His curiosity aroused, the Earl of Gloucester said, “Give me the letter, sir.”

“I shall offend, I see, whether I keep it or give it to you to read. The content of the letter, judging from the part I read, is offensive.”

“Let me see it! Let me see it!”

“I hope, for my brother’s sake, that he wrote this letter only as a trial or test of my virtue,” Edmund said.

The Earl of Gloucester read the letter out loud:

This policy of reverence for old age makes bitter the best years of our lives, keeps our fortunes from us until our own old age cannot relish and enjoy our fortunes. I begin to find useless and foolish bondage in the oppression made by aged tyranny, which holds command over us, not because it has power, but because we allow it to. Come to me so that I may speak more about this. If our father would sleep until I waked him, you would enjoy half of his income forever, and live the beloved of your brother, EDGAR.”

The Earl of Gloucester said, “Ha! This is conspiracy! He wrote about my death: ‘If our father would sleep until I waked him, you would enjoy half of his income.’ My son Edgar! Did he write this? Does he have the heart and brain that this thought bred in?”

The Earl of Gloucester said to Edmund, “When did you get this letter? Who brought it to you?”

“It was not brought to me, my lord,” Edmund said. “There’s the cunning of it. I found this letter in my bedroom — it had been thrown through the window.”

“Do you know whether the handwriting is your brother’s?”

“If the content of the letter were good, my lord, I would swear that it was his handwriting, but because of the content, I would prefer that the handwriting were not his.”

“It is his handwriting,” the Earl of Gloucester said.

“True, my lord,” Edmund said. “It is his handwriting, but I hope his heart is not in the content.”

“Has he ever before tried to find out what you think about this business of taking my income and making me a ward?”

“Never, my lord, but I have heard him often maintain that it is fitting that, when sons are at a mature age, and fathers are declining, the father should be a ward to the son, and the son should manage the father’s income.”

“Oh, he is a villain — a villain! This is the same opinion that he expressed in the letter! He is an abhorrent villain! He is an unnatural, detestable, brutish villain! He is worse than brutish! Go and find him. I’ll arrest him — that abominable villain! Where is he?”

“I do not know for certain, my lord,” Edmund said. “If it shall please you to suspend your indignation against my brother until you can get from him better testimony and evidence of his intent, you shall run a safe course; whereas, if you violently proceed against him, mistaking his purpose, it would make a great gap in your own honor, and shake into pieces the heart of his obedience. I dare bet my life that he wrote this letter to test my affection for you, and that he had no more dangerous intention than that.”

“Do you really think so?” the Earl of Gloucester asked.

“If your honor judges it fitting, I will place you where you shall hear us talk about this, and with your own ears you shall learn for yourself what his intention was in writing the letter. This can be done without any further delay — we can do it this evening.”

“He cannot be such a monster —”

“I am sure that he is not,” Edmund said.

“— to his father, who so tenderly and entirely loves him. Heaven and Earth! Edmund, seek him out. Find him, and worm yourself into his confidence for me, please. Find a way — whatever way you think is best — to do this. I would give anything — including my own wealth and rank — to know the truth.”

“I will look for him, sir, immediately,” Edmund said. “I will carry out the business as I shall find means and let you know what I find out.”

“These recent eclipses of the Sun and Moon portend no good to us,” the Earl of Gloucester said. “Although human reason can explain these recent eclipses in various ways, yet all of Humankind finds itself scourged by the devastating consequences that follow the eclipses: Love cools, friendship falls off and declines, brothers divide, mutinies and riots occur in cities, discord occurs in countries; treason occurs in palaces, and the bond between son and father is cracked. This villain of mine — Edgar — comes under this prediction: the son goes against the father, the King falls away from his natural temperament, and the father goes against the child.

“We have already seen the best years. Now machinations, emptiness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly and disturbingly to our graves.

“Edmund, find this villain — Edgar! You shall lose nothing by it; do it carefully.

“And the noble and true-hearted Kent has been banished! What is his offense? It is honesty! Strange!”

The Earl of Gloucester exited.

Alone, Edmund said to himself, “This is the excellent foolishness of the world, that, when bad things happen to us — which are often due to the excesses of our own behavior — we avoid taking responsibility. Instead, we regard the Sun, the Moon, and the stars as guilty of causing our disasters. We think that we were villains by necessity; fools by the compulsion of astrological stars; knaves, thieves, and traitors because of the predominance of astrological planets; drunkards, liars, and adulterers because of an enforced obedience to astrological planetary influence; and all that we are evil in we say was caused by supernatural astrological compulsion.

“What an admirable evasion of responsibility is made by a lecherous man when he says that a star caused his lusty disposition! My father had sexual intercourse with my mother under the Dragon’s Tail — the constellation called Drago. And my nativity took place under Ursa Major — the constellation called the Big Bear, in which Mars is predominant but in which Venus has influence. According to astrology, it follows that I am warlike and lecherous.”

He thrust his tongue between his lips and blew a raspberry, and then he added, “I would have been what I am even if the maidenliest star in the Heavens had twinkled on my bastardizing. Edgar —”

At this moment, Edgar entered the room.

“— and right on cue here he comes like the conclusion of an old comedy. Now I need to act with villainous melancholy, and heave a sigh like Tom o’Bedlam — an insane beggar — would.”

He said more loudly, so that Edgar would hear him, “Oh, these eclipses predict divisions and conflicts!”

Then he hummed to himself and pretended that he did not know that Edgar had entered the room.

“How are you, brother Edmund?” Edgar asked. “What serious contemplation are you engaged in?”

“I am thinking, brother, of a prediction I read the other day about what will follow these eclipses.”

“Do you concern yourself about that? Is that really something you want to waste your time on?”

“I promise you that the astrologer writes of very bad consequences, such as unkindness between the child and the parent; death, dearth, dissolutions of friendships that have lasted a long time; divisions in state, as well as menaces and maledictions against King and nobles; needless suspicions and distrusts, banishment of friends, loss of supporters, breaking up of marriages, and I know not what else.”

“How long have you been a devotee of astrology?”

“Come, come; when did you last see my father?”

“Why, just last night.”

“Did you speak with him?” Edmund asked.

“Yes, for two hours.”

“Did you part on good terms? Did you notice any displeasure in him by his words or in his countenance?”

“None at all,” Edgar replied.

“Think about how you may have offended him, and at my entreaty please stay away from him until some time has passed and lessened the heat of his displeasure, which right now so rages in him that his doing physical harm to you would not stop his anger.”

“Some villain has done me wrong and has been spreading malicious lies about me,” Edgar said.

“I think that you are right,” Edmund said. “Please, stay away from him and keep your emotions under control until the intensity of his rage lessens. Also, I ask you to go with me to my quarters, from whence I will bring you at the appropriate time to hear my lord speak. Please, go now. Here’s my key. If you need to be outside my quarters, go armed.”

“Armed, brother!” Edgar said, astonished.

“Brother, I advise you the best I know how. Arm yourself. Carry weapons. I am not an honest man if I know of any good intention toward you right now. I have told you what I have seen and heard, but only faintly. I have told you nothing like the horrible reality of our father’s anger toward you. Please, go now.”

“Shall I hear from you soon?”

“I will do what I can to help you.”

Edgar exited, and Edmund said to himself, “I have a credulous father! And I have a noble brother, whose nature is so far from doing anyone harm that he thinks that no one would do him harm. On his foolish and honest nature my deceptions work well! I see the treachery ahead of me that I need to do. Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit. All with me is meet that I can fashion fit. If I cannot get lands through inheritance, I will get them through treachery. I am willing to do whatever it takes.”

— 1.3 —

King Lear was now staying with Goneril in the palace of her husband, the Duke of Albany. In a room of the palace, Goneril was talking to her steward, Oswald.

“Did my father strike my gentleman because he scolded his Fool — his court jester?” Goneril asked.

“Yes, madam.”

“By day and night he wrongs me; every hour he bursts out into one gross offense or other that sets us all at odds and throws us into tumult. I’ll not endure it. His Knights grow riotous, and he himself upbraids us about every trifle. When he returns from hunting, I will not speak with him; tell him that I am sick. If you slack off your former services to him, you shall do what I want you to do. I will take responsibility for your slothful service to him.”

“He’s coming, madam,” Oswald said. “I hear him.”

Horns sounded.

“Be as casually disobedient to him as you please — you and your fellow servants,” Goneril said. “I want this to come up for discussion. If he dislikes the servants’ behavior, let him go to my sister, whose mind and mine, I know, are in agreement that we will not be ruled by him. He is a foolish and idle old man, who still wants to exert the authority that he has given away! Now, by my life, old fools are babes again; and they must be treated with rebukes in place of flatteries — when they abuse those flatteries. Remember what I tell you.”

“I will, madam.”

“And let his Knights have colder looks from you and the other servants. The consequences that develop from it do not matter. Tell the other servants that. I want to cause a confrontation so that I can tell my father what I think. I’ll write immediately to my sister to tell her to do the same things that I am doing.

“Go, and prepare for dinner.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved




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David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR: A Retelling in Prose — Cast of Characters and Act 1, Scene 1


Lear, King of Britain; King Lear is over 80 years old.

King of France.

Duke of Burgundy.

Duke of Cornwall.

Duke of Albany.

Earl of Kent.

Earl of Gloucester (pronounced Gloster).

Edgar, legitimate son to Gloucester.

Edmund, bastard son to Gloucester.

Curan, a courtier.

Oswald, steward to Goneril.

Old Man, tenant to Gloucester.



An Officer, employed by Edmund.

A Gentleman, attendant on Cordelia.

A Herald.

Servants to Cornwall.

Goneril, Lear’s oldest daughter; married to the Duke of Albany.

Regan, Lear’s middle daughter; married to the Duke of Cornwall.

Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter; at the beginning of the play, she is unmarried.

Knights of Lear’s train, Officers, Messengers, Soldiers, and Attendants.

Scene: Britain.

Note: Duke is a title higher than Earl.

— 1.1 —

In King Lear’s palace, the Earl of Kent, the Earl of Gloucester, and Edmund, who was Gloucester’s bastard son, were talking together.

The Earl of Kent said to the Earl of Gloucester, “I thought the King had more preferred the Duke ofAlbany than the Duke of Cornwall.”

The Duke ofAlbany had recently married King Lear’s oldest daughter, Goneril, while the Duke of Cornwall had recently married King Lear’s middle daughter, Regan.

The Earl of Gloucester replied, “It always seemed so to us, but now, in thedivision of the Kingdom, it is not apparent which ofthe two Dukes he values most. The shares of the Kingdom for the two Dukes are so equally divided that the closest examination of the two shares cannot make either Duke covet the other Duke’s share.”

“Isn’t this your son, my lord?”the Earl of Kent asked the Earl of Gloucester, motioning toward Edmund.

“I have paid for his upbringing,” the Earl of Gloucester replied. “I have so often blushed to acknowledge him as my son that now I am inured to it and can brazenly say that he is mine.”

“I cannot conceive what you mean,” the Earl of Kent replied.

“Sir, this young fellow’s mother could very definitely conceive,” the Earl of Gloucester punned. “In fact, upon conceiving she grew round-wombed with a pregnant belly, and had, indeed, sir, a son for her cradle before she had a husband for her bed. Do you smell a fault from what I say? Edmund, my son, is illegitimate.”

“I cannot wish the fault undone since the issue of it is so handsome,” the Earl of Kent diplomatically replied.

“But I also have, sir, a son by order of law — he is legitimate — about a year older than this son. My legitimate son is no dearer to me than my illegitimate son. Though this knave came somewhat saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet his mother was beautiful, there was good entertainment at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged.”

The Earl of Gloucester called his illegitimate son, Edmund, names such as “knave” and “whoreson,” but he used those names affectionately.

He asked his illegitimate son, “Do you know this noble gentleman, Edmund?”

“No, my lord.”

“He is my lord of Kent,” the Earl of Gloucester said. “Remember him hereafter as my honorable friend.”

“I am at your service, my lord,” Edmund said respectfully.

“I want to be your friend, and I will do what I can to know you better,” the Earl of Kent replied.

“Sir, I shall make every effort to deserve your respect and earn your high opinion.”

“Edmund has been out of the country for nine years, and he shall go away again,” the Earl of Gloucester said.

Hearing trumpets blow, he added, “The King is coming.”

King Lear, the Duke of Cornwall, and the Duke of Albany entered the room. With them were the King’s daughters — Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia — and some attendants. One attendant carried a coronet, which someone below the rank of King was meant to wear. Events would show that the person intended to wear the coronet was Cordelia.

King Lear said, “Usher into the royal presence the lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester.”

“I shall, my liege,” Gloucester replied and then exited. Edmund went with him.

“In the meantime we shall express our darker purpose,” King Lear said, using the royal plural. “This purpose is dark because we have kept it secret from all of you; however, some of you already know part — but only part — of what I am going to do. Give me the map. Know that we have divided into three our Kingdom, and it is our firm intent to shake all cares and responsibilities from our age. As you know, I am over 80 years old. We will confer our cares and responsibilities on younger strengths, while we, unburdened, crawl toward death.”

King Lear had talked of his “darker purpose.” “Darker” meant “secret” or “hidden,” but many of the people listening to him, such as the Earl of Kent, believed that it was a bad idea to divide the Kingdom and that it would have dark and evil consequences.

King Lear continued, “Our son-in-law of Cornwall, and you, our no less loving son-in-law of Albany, pay attention. We have this hour a firm purpose to make known publicly our daughters’ individual dowries, so that future strife may be prevented now. Because you will receive your share of the Kingdom before I die, no one needs to fight over his share after I die.

“The King of France and the Duke of Burgundy are great rivals for the love of Cordelia, our youngest daughter, who is still unmarried. Long in our court they have made their amorous sojourn, courting Cordelia. Today, the decision about whom Cordelia will wed will be made.

“Tell me, my daughters — since now we will divest ourself of rule, possession of territory, and the cares of government — which of you shall we say loves us most? I will give the largest dowry to that daughter whose natural affection for her father merits the largest territory.

“Goneril, you are our eldest-born; you will speak first.”

“Sir, I love you more than words and language can make clear,” Goneril said. “To me you are dearer than eyesight, possession of land, and freedom of action. You are beyond what can be valued as rich or rare. I love you no less than I love life with grace, health, beauty, and honor. I love you as much as a child has ever loved, or a father has ever found himself to be loved. My love for you is a love that makes language poor, and speech inadequate to express how much I love you.”

Cordelia was disgusted by the fulsomeness of Goneril’s praise, and she expected to hear the same kind of praise from her other sister, Regan. By pouring on the praise, these two sisters hoped to benefit by receiving bigger dowries.

Cordelia also worried. She thought, What should Cordelia do? Love, and be silent.

Cordelia loved her father, but she loathed fulsome praise that was used to manipulate a father in order to gain wealth. It is better to show one’s love though one’s actions rather than fake it through one’s words.

King Lear pointed to the map and said to Goneril, “Of all these boundaries, even from this line to this,with shady forests and with enriched open plainswith plenteous rivers and extensive meadows,we make you lady. This territory will perpetually belong to your and Albany’s descendants.”

He then said, “What does our second daughter,our dearest Regan, wife to Cornwall, have to say? Speak.”

Regan replied, “Sir, I am madeof the self-same mettle that my sister is. Prize me at her worth. Value me as you value her.”

“Mettle” meant “nature” or “character.” However, it is a homonym for “metal.” Subsequent events would show that both Goneril and Regan were hard-hearted.

Regan continued, “In my true heartI find that Goneril names what my love really is — only she comes too short. I professthat I am an enemy to all other joysthatthe most perfect part of me can enjoy, and I find that I am made happy only in your dear Highness’ love.”

Regan’s quest for a bigger dowry had caused her to be even more fulsome in her description of her love for her father than her older sister, Goneril. If Regan, as she had said, really is made happy only in the love of her father, then loving her husband and being loved by him brings her no happiness.

Cordelia thought, Poor Cordelia!And yet I am not so, since I am sure that my love for my father is richer than my tongue. I love my father more than I can say.

Pointing to the map, King Lear said to Regan, “To you and your descendants forever after will belong this ample third of our fair Kingdom. It is noless in space, value, and pleasurethan that conferred on Goneril.”

He then turned to Cordelia and said, “Now, our joy, although you are the last of my daughters to be born and therefore the youngest, the King of France with its vineyards and the Duke of Burgundy with its dairy pastures strive for your love and wish to marry you. What can you say to drawathird of the Kingdom that is more opulent than your sisters’ shares?”

King Lear had planned from the beginning to give Cordelia a better part of the Kingdom than he would give to her sisters. Her sisters were already married, and an excellent dowry would help Cordelia to get an excellent husband. Besides, Cordelia was his favorite daughter. One of several reasons to divide up the Kingdom now — before he died — was to give Cordelia the best share. If the Kingdom were divided after his death, Cordelia, being the youngest, would get the worst share, or no share.

Cordelia remained silent, so King Lear told her, “Speak. What can you say to drawathird of the Kingdom that is more opulent than your sisters’ shares?”

She gave an honest, not a fulsome, answer: “Nothing, my lord.”

Shocked, King Lear exclaimed, “Nothing!”

“Nothing,” Cordelia repeated.

“Nothing will come from nothing,” King Lear said. “Speak again.”

“Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth,” Cordelia said.

Ecclesiasticus 21:26 states, “The heart of fools is in their mouth: but the mouth of the wise is in their heart.”

Cordelia continued, “I love your majesty according to my filial duty — no more and no less. I love you as a daughter ought to love her father.”

“Cordelia! Mend your speech a little, or it may mar your fortunes.”

“My good lord,” Cordelia said, “you have begotten me, bred me, and loved me. I return those duties back to you as are rightly fit. I obey you, love you, and greatly honor you.

“Why do my sisters have husbands, if they say that all their love is for you? When I shall wed, that lord who takes my hand shall carry half my love with him, as well as half my care and duty. Half of my love will be for you, and half will be for my husband. To be sure, I shall never marry like my sisters have; they give you all their love and none to their husband.”

“Do you say this from your heart?” King Lear asked.

“Yes, my good lord.”

“Can you be so young, and so untender? Are you really this hard-hearted?”

“I am so young, my lord, and I say the truth. I am honest.”

“Let it be so,” King Lear said. “Your truth, then, shall be your dowry. I swear by the sacred radiance of the Sun, the mysteries of the underworld goddess Hecate, and the night; by all the operations of the astrological orbs from whom we exist, and cease to be, that here I disclaim all my paternal care, kinship, and common blood with you. From here on, I regard you as a stranger to my heart and me, forever. The barbarous Scythian, or that person who cannibalizes his parents and children to feed his appetite, shall to my bosom be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved as you, my former daughter. I renounce you; you are no longer my daughter. You are no kin of mine.”

The Earl of Kent began to object: “My good liege —”

King Lear shouted, “Peace, Kent! Silence! Come not between the dragon and his wrath. I loved Cordelia the most, and I thought to give all the rest I had to her in return for her tender loving care. Leave, and avoid my sight!”

The Earl of Kent did not leave.

King Lear said, “Now it seems that I will find my peace in my grave, as here I take her father’s heart away from her and give it away to someone else!”

He ordered, “Call the King of France!”

Everyone was stunned; no one moved.

King Lear said, “Who will carry out my orders? Call the Duke of Burgundy, too.”

Some attendants left.

Pointing to the map, King Lear said, “Cornwall and Albany with my two daughters’ dowries digest this third dowry — the one that should have been Cordelia’s. Let pride, which Cordelia calls plain-speaking, be her dowry and get her a husband. I do invest you, Cornwall and Albany, jointly with my power, first position, and all the magnificent trappings that accompany majesty.

“We reserve for ourself a hundred Knights, by you to be paid. We shall also reside with you, by turn, one month at a time. We retain for ourself the title of King, and all the honors and prerogatives that are due to a King. You two shall have the power and authority, revenue, and execution of the royal duties and responsibilities. Beloved sons-in-law, they are yours. To confirm what I say, share this coronet between yourselves.”

The Earl of Kent said, “Royal Lear, whom I have ever honored as my King, loved as my father, followed as my master, and mentioned in my prayers as my great patron —”

King Lear warned the Earl of Kent, “The bow is bent and drawn; stay out of the way of the arrow.”

The Earl of Kent replied, “Let the arrow fly even though the forked arrowhead invades the region of my heart. Kent shall be without manners when Lear is mad. What will you do, old man? Do you think that I will ignore my duty and be afraid to speak up when a powerful man bows down before flattery? An honorable man is bound by duty to speak out when majesty stoops to folly. Reverse your judgment; change your decision, and after you have thought things over carefully, stop this hideous rashness. I will stake my life that what I say is true: Your youngest daughter does not love you least, nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound reverbs no hollowness. Cordelia may not be able to fulsomely express how much she loves you, but she loves you nonetheless. My duty is to speak truth to power.”

“Kent, on your life, speak no more,” King Lear threatened.

“My life I have never valued except as a pawn to wage war against your enemies, nor am I afraid to lose it in an attempt to keep you safe.”

“Get out of my sight!” King Lear shouted.

“See better, Lear,” the Earl of Kent said, “and aim your sight at me. I will not lead you astray.”

King Lear started to speak: “Now, by Apollo —”

“Now, by Apollo, King,” the Earl of Kent interrupted, “you swear by your gods in vain.”

“Oh, vassal! Unbeliever!” King Lear shouted, laying his hand on his sword.

Both the Duke of Albany and the Duke of Cornwall said to King Lear, “Dear sir, don’t.”

The Earl of Kent said to King Lear, “Do. Kill your physician, and give the physician’s fee to your foul disease. Revoke your decision. Or, if you do not, as long as I can shout from my throat, I’ll tell you that you are making a mistake and are doing evil.”

“Hear me, traitor!” King Lear shouted. “On your allegiance, hear me! Since you have sought to make us break our vow, something that we have never dared to do, and since with unnatural pride you have intervened between our order and its carrying out, something that neither our nature nor our high position as King can bear, I now demonstrate my power and give you your reward for your interference. We allow you five days to get provisions to shield yourself from the disasters and evils of the world. On the sixth day, you must turn your hated back upon our Kingdom. If, on the tenth day following, your banished body is found in our dominions, that moment will be the moment you die. Get out! By Jupiter, we shall never revoke your exile!”

“Fare you well, King,” the Earl of Kent said. “Since thus you will appear, freedom lives out of your country, and banishment is here.”

He said to Cordelia, “The gods to their dear shelter take you, maiden, who justly think, and have most rightly said!”

He said to Regan and Goneril, “And I hope that your deeds may show that your large and generous speeches were true, so that good effects may spring from words of love.”

He said to the Duke of Albany and the Duke of Cornwall, “Thus Kent bids all you Princes adieu; he’ll shape his old course in a country new. I will stay true to myself — and speak the truth — in another country.”

The Earl of Kent exited.

The Earl of Gloucester returned to the presence of King Lear. With him were the King of France, the Duke of Burgundy, and some attendants.

The Earl of Gloucester said, “Here are the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy, my noble lord.”

“My lord of Burgundy,” King Lear said, “we first address ourself to you, who with this King of France have been competing to marry Cordelia, our daughter. What is the least dowry that you would require to be paid immediately to marry my daughter, without which you would cease your quest of love?”

“Most royal majesty, I crave no more than what your Highness has already offered, and I am sure that you will not offer less.”

“Right noble Burgundy, when Cordelia was dearly beloved by us, we did regard her as being dear and valuable, but now her price has fallen. Sir, there she stands. If you like anything within her, who seems to be worth little, or if you like all of her, she is there, and she is yours. But be aware that I am displeased with her, and I will not give her a dowry. If you want to marry her without a dowry, then marry her. If you must receive a dowry in order to marry her, then do not marry her.”

“I don’t know what to say,” the Duke of Burgundy replied.

“Will you marry Cordelia although she possesses infirmities and imperfections, although she lacks friends, although she has recently earned our hatred, although her only dowry is our curse upon her head, and although I have sworn that she is no longer my daughter? Will you take her, or leave her?”

“Pardon me, royal sir,” the Duke of Burgundy said. “No choice can be made when such conditions exist. A true choice involves two viable options to choose between. Here only one viable option exists to be chosen.”

“Then leave her, sir,” King Lear said. “You have good reason — by the power who made me, I have told you all her wealth.”

King Lear then said, “As for you, great King of France, I have such friendship for you that I would not do anything to harm it such as have you marry a female I hate; therefore, I advise you to cease loving Cordelia. Instead, avert your liking to a worthier maiden. Do not love a wretch whom Nature is almost ashamed to acknowledge hers. Cordelia is unnatural.”

“This is very strange,” the King of France said. “Cordelia very recently was the main object of your love, the subject of your praise, the balm of your age. How can the best and dearest Cordelia in a moment of time commit an action so monstrous that it dismantles so many layers of your favor? Surely, her offense must be so unnatural that it is monstrous, or else the affection you previously felt for her was undeserved — but it would take a miracle for me to believe either of these things.”

Cordelia said to King Lear, “I beg your Majesty — even though I lack the ability to do what the glib and oily do, which is to speak and promise to do something without meaning to do what they say and promise; in contrast, when I intend to do something, I do it before I speak — that you make known that it is no vicious blot such as murder or other foul immorality, no unchaste action or dishonorable action, that has deprived me of your grace and favor. What has done that is the lack of things that I am richer for not having: an always-begging eye and such a fulsome tongue as I am glad I do not have, although not to have it has deprived me of your like for me.”

Cordelia deliberately chose to use the word “like” instead of “love.”

King Lear replied, “It would have been better for you never to have been born than to have failed to please me better.”

The King of France asked, “Is Cordelia’s fault only this — a natural tendency not to announce publicly what she intends to do?”

He asked, “My lord of Burgundy, what do you say to the lady? Love’s not love when it is mingled with regards that stand aloof from the entire point. Love ought not to be affected by a dowry or the lack of a dowry. Will you have her? She is herself a dowry. Will you marry Cordelia?”

“Royal Lear,” the Duke of Burgundy said, “if you give as her dowry that portion which you yourself proposed, then I will take Cordelia by the hand and make her Duchess of Burgundy.”

“I will give nothing as her dowry,” King Lear replied. “I have sworn that. I am firm in my decision and will do what I have sworn to do.”

The Duke of Burgundy said to Cordelia, “I am sorry, then. You have lost a father, and now you must lose a husband.”

Cordelia said, “May peace be with Burgundy! Since he loves status and money, I shall not be his wife.”

The King of France said, “Fairest Cordelia, you are most rich, being poor; most choice, being forsaken; and most loved, being despised! Here and now I seize upon you and your virtues. It is lawful for me to take what has been cast away.

“Gods, gods! It is strange that from their cold neglect my love should kindle to inflamed respect. Although the gods neglect you, I even more strongly love you. Your dowerless daughter, King Lear, thrown to my lot, is to be Queen of us, of what is ours, and of our fair France. Not all the Dukes of waterish Burgundy can buy this unprized precious maiden away from me.”

By “waterish Burgundy,” the King of France meant that the Duke of Burgundy was weak. Blood did not flow in his veins — only weak water did.

The King of France added, “Bid them farewell, Cordelia, although they have been unkind to you. What you lose here, you will find better elsewhere.”

“You have her, King of France,” King Lear said. “Let her be yours, for we have no such daughter, nor shall we ever see that face of hers again. Therefore, Cordelia, be gone without our grace, our love, or our benison and blessing. Come, noble Duke of Burgundy.”

Everyone left except for the King of France, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia.

The King of France said to Cordelia, “Bid farewell to your sisters.”

Cordelia said, “With eyes washed by tears, Cordelia leaves you, the jewels of our father. I know you for what you really are, and like a sister I am very loath to call your faults by their actual names. Treat our father well. To your professed bosoms I commit him, but if I still were within his grace, I would recommend him to a better place. So, farewell to you both.”

Cordelia had committed her father to her sisters’ “professed bosoms” — the love that they had professed for him, aka the love that they had said that they had for him. She wanted them to treat him with all the love that they had publicly proclaimed that they had for him. She did not want them to treat him the way that they actually felt about him.

“Don’t tell us what our duty to our father is,” Regan said.

“Concern yourself with making your husband happy,” Goneril said. “He is the one who is marrying you as an act of charity. You have failed in your obedience as a daughter, and you well deserve to be treated by your husband with the same lack of love that you have shown to your father.”

“Time shall unfold what covered cunning hides,” Cordelia said. “Time at first covers faults, but eventually it reveals and derides them. Well may you prosper!”

“Come, my fair Cordelia,” the King of France said.

He and Cordelia exited.

Goneril said to Regan, “Sister, I have to talk to you about something that closely concerns us both. I think our father will depart from here tonight.”

“That’s very certain,” Regan said. “He will leave and stay with you; next month he will stay with us.”

“You see how full of changes he is in his old age,” Goneril said. “We have seen much evidence of those changes. He always loved our sister most; it is grossly obvious that he used poor judgment when he cast her off.”

“It is the infirmity of his old age,” Regan said, “yet he has always known himself only but little.”

“He was rash even when he was at his best and soundest,” Goneril said. “What can we look forward to now that he is old? He will have the imperfections that he has always had, but added to them will be the unruly waywardness that unhealthy and angry old age bring with them.”

“He is likely to continue to engage in such impulsive outbursts as that which led to Kent’s banishment,” Regan said. “That is the behavior that we are likely to see our father engaging in.”

“There will be additional formalities before the King of France leaves here,” Goneril said. “Please, let’s sit and put our heads together. If our father continues to exert authority with his customary impulsiveness, then his recent abdication of his power to us will be in name only — he will be a problem to us.”

“We shall think further about it,” Regan said.

“We must dosomething,” Goneril said. “A blacksmith must strike and shape iron while it is hot or he will lose his labor and opportunity. Like a blacksmith, we also must strike while the iron is hot.”


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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.”


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

— 4.2 —

King John, the Earl of Pembroke, the Earl of Salisbury, and some other lords met. King John had recently been crowned again. When he had been excommunicated, his subjects had been released from their vows of loyalty to him. When King John was crowned again, his subjects renewed their vows of loyalty. The other lords did not think that it had been necessary for King John to be crowned again.

Using the royal plural, King John said, “Here once again we sit, once again crowned, and looked upon, I hope, with cheerful eyes.”

“This ‘once again,’ except that it pleased your highness, was superfluous,” the Earl of Pembroke said. “You have been crowned one time too many. You were crowned before, and that high royalty — your crown — was never plucked from off your head, and the faiths of your subjects were never stained and spoiled with revolt. Your subjects never troubled the land with fresh anticipation of any longed-for change or better government.”

The Earl of Salisbury said, “Therefore, to be possessed with double pomp, to adorn a title that was rich before, to gild refined gold, to paint a lily, to throw perfume on the violet, to smooth ice, or add another hue to the rainbow, or light a candle in hopes of adding beauty to the Sun — the beauteous eye of Heaven — is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

“Except that your royal pleasure must be done,” the Earl of Pembroke said, “this act is like an ancient tale told again, and in the last repeating troublesome, being urged at a time unseasonable. It is like repeating a story that is already well-known and does not need repeating — and in addition telling it at a bad and inconvenient time.”

The Earl of Salisbury said, “In this the ancient and well-known face of plain old form — simple customary behavior — is much disfigured, and, like a change of wind blowing into a sail, it makes the course of thoughts fetch about and change direction, it startles and frightens thought, and it makes sound opinion sick and truth be suspected, because you have put on so new a fashioned robe.”

His point was that by having a second, unnecessary coronation, King John was causing people to wonder why it had been held. Did King John feel it was needed because of a weak claim on the throne?

The reference to “so new a fashioned robe” meant 1) a new coronation robe as opposed to the one King John had worn when he was first crowned, and 2) a robe of a new style, rather than the robe of “plain old form,” aka a coronation done in the customary manner.

The Earl of Pembroke said, “When workmen strive to do better than well, they confound their skill and harm their work because of greediness to do even better. Often the excusing of a fault makes the fault worse because of the excuse. It is like patches set upon a little tear that discredit more in the hiding of the fault than did the fault before it was so patched. A small tear may not be noticed; a large patch will definitely be noticed.”

“We made these points when we gave advice to you before you were newly crowned,” the Earl of Salisbury said, “but it pleased your highness to overrule our advice, and we are all well pleased, since all and every part of what we would, aka wish, makes a stand at what your highness will.”

“Makes a stand” is ambiguous. The phrase can mean “halt,” in which case the Earl of Salisbury was saying that he and the other lords would halt their own wishes when King John overruled them. The phrase can also mean “stand up to,” in which case the Earl of Salisbury was saying that he and the other lords would stand up to King John.

Although the Earl of Salisbury had said that he and the other lords were “all well pleased,” in fact they were not.

King John said, “Some reasons for this second coronation I have informed you of, and I think that the reasons are strong. Later, when lesser is my fear, I shall give you more reasons that are stronger than these.”

He may have been referring to a time after Arthur was dead; Arthur’s death would lessen his fear of losing his crown.

He continued, “In the meantime, ask about what you would have reformed that is not already well, and well shall you perceive how willingly I will both hear you and grant you your requests. Make a petition to me now.”

The Earl of Pembroke said, “Then I, as the one who is the spokesman of these lords present in order to express the proposals of all their hearts, both for myself and them, but chief of all for your safety and security, for the which I myself and they direct our best efforts, heartily request the enfranchisement of Arthur. We want him to be released from prison because his imprisonment moves the murmuring lips of discontent to break into this dangerous argument: If you rightfully hold what in peacetime you have, why should then your fears, which, as they say, attend the steps of wrong, move you to coop up your tender kinsman and to choke his days with barbarous ignorance and deny his youth the rich advantage of good exercise, training, and education? If you are rightfully King, why should Arthur be imprisoned?

“That the time’s enemies — those opposed to the current state of affairs — may not have this to use as an excuse for discontent, let our petition that you have bid us to ask be for his liberty, which for our goods we no further ask than to the extent that our welfare, which depends on you, counts it as your welfare that he have his liberty.”

The Earl of Pembroke and the other lords wanted Arthur to be set free because they believed that this would be in King John’s best interest.

Hubert entered the room.

“Let it be done,” King John said. “Arthur shall be set free, and I commit his youth to your direction. You shall supervise his education.

“Hubert, what news did you bring with you?”

He and Hubert talked quietly; the others could not hear them.

The Earl of Pembroke said quietly to the other lords so that King John and Hubert could not hear him, “This — Hubert — is the man who would do the bloody deed of killing Arthur. He showed his warrant to a friend of mine. The image of a wicked heinous sin and crime lives in his eye; that secretive appearance of his shows the mood of a much-troubled breast, and I fearfully believe that he has done that which we so feared he had orders to do.”

The Earl of Salisbury said, “The color of the King’s face comes and goes between his purpose and his conscience. The color changes from red to white depending on whether he is happy he has achieved his aim or is horrified at the evil he has done. The color is like red-wearing heralds going between two dreadful armies set up for battle: The red comes and goes. His passion is so ripe that it necessarily must break. His emotion is so strong that it will break out like the bursting of a boil.”

The Earl of Pembroke said, “And when it breaks, I fear that the foul corruption of a sweet child’s death will issue from it.”

King John said, “We cannot hold mortality’s strong hand.”

This meant 1) Even I, the King, cannot keep death away from the living, and 2) Even I, the King, cannot survive grasping mortality’s strong hand; I, the King, will also die. In other words, all of us are mortal.

He continued, “Good lords, although my will to give is living, the request that you demand is gone and dead. Hubert tells us that Arthur died last night.”

“Indeed, we feared his sickness was past cure,” the Earl of Salisbury said.

“Indeed, we heard how near his death he was before the child himself felt he was sick,” the Earl of Pembroke said.

In other words, the lords believed that Arthur had not died of illness but had been murdered.

The Earl of Pembroke continued, “This must be answered and accounted for either here or hence.”

“Hence” meant in the afterlife.

“Why do you bend such solemn brows on me?” King John asked. “Why do you frown at me? Do you think I bear the shears of destiny? Do I command the pulse of life?”

The three Fates commanded the pulse of life; they controlled human life. Clotho spun the thread of life. Lachesis measured the thread of life, determining how long a person lived. Atropos cut the thread of life; when the thread was cut, the person died.

“This is obvious foul play,” the Earl of Salisbury said, “and it is shameful that greatness — a King — should so blatantly inflict it. May your game — your intrigue — end with the same result! And so, farewell.”

The Earl of Pembroke said, “Wait a moment, Lord Salisbury. I’ll go with you, and find the inheritance of this poor child — his little Kingdom of a grave that he violently inherited. That blood — that life — which owned the breadth of this isle, now holds and owns just three feet of it. It’s a bad world when such things happen! This evil must not be thus endured. This evil will break out to all our sorrows, and before long I fear.”

The lords exited.

“They burn in indignation,” King John said. “I repent because my plan did not work. There is no sure foundation set on blood, no certain life achieved by others’ death.”

A messenger entered the room.

King John said to him, “You have a fearful and frightening eye. Where is the blood that I have seen inhabit those cheeks of yours? So foul a sky does not clear without a storm. Pour down your weather and news, which must be bad. How goes all in France?”

“All in France move from France to England,” the messenger said. “Never has such an army for any foreign invasion been before levied in the body of a land. They have learned from your example of doing things speedily. At the time you should be told that they are preparing to invade England, the news instead comes that they have all arrived and invaded England.”

“Oh, where has our intelligence — the people who should have gathered this information — been drunk?” King John said. “Where has it slept? Where is my mother’s care? How can such an army be gathered in France, and she not hear of it?”

“My liege, your mother’s ear is stopped with dust,” the messenger said. “Your noble mother died on the first of April, and I hear, my lord, that the Lady Constance died in a delirious frenzy three days before your mother died, but this information comes from a rumor I idly heard without paying much attention to it. I don’t know whether it is true or false.”

“Withhold your speed, dreadful events!” King John said. “Oh, make a treaty with me until I have pleased my discontented peers! Bad news is coming to me too quickly.

“My mother is dead! How wildly then walks my estate in France! My affairs in France that my mother was taking care of are now disordered!

“Under whose leadership came those armies of France that you tell me have truly landed here?”

“They are under the leadership of Louis the Dauphin,” the messenger said.

“You have bewildered me with these ill tidings,” King John said.

The Bastard entered the room. With him was Peter of Pomfret.

King John said, “Now, what says the world to your proceedings? What is the reaction to what you have done under my orders? Do not seek to stuff my head with more ill news, for it is full.”

“If you are afraid to hear the worst,” the Bastard said, “then let the worst unheard fall on your head.”

Two proverbs of the time were 1) “It is good to fear the worst” and 2) “To know the worst is good.” If you know and fear the worst, you can take steps to deal with it.

“Bear with me, kinsman,” King John said, “because I was bewildered under the tide of bad news, but now I breathe again aloft the flood of bad news, and can pay attention to any tongue, whatever news it brings.”

“How I have fared among the clergymen, the sums I have collected shall express,” the Bastard said. “But as I labored and traveled here through the land, I found the people full of strange fantasies. They are possessed by rumors, full of idle dreams, not knowing what they fear, but full of fear.

“And this man here is a prophet, whom I brought with me from the streets of Pomfret. I found him with many hundreds treading on his heels; to them he sang, in rude harsh-sounding rhymes, that, before the next Ascension Day at noon, your highness should deliver up your crown.”

Ascension Day commemorates the ascension of Jesus Christ — bodily — into Heaven.

King John said to Peter of Pomfret, “You idle dreamer, why did you do that?”

“Because I have foreknowledge,” Peter of Pomfret said. “I know that this will truly happen.”

“Hubert, take this man away,” King John said. “Imprison him, and at noon on that day which he says I shall yield up my crown, let him be hanged. Take him to a prison, and then return, for I must make use of you.”

Hubert exited with Peter of Pomfret.

King John said to the Bastard, “Oh, my gentle cousin, have you heard the news that is abroad about who have arrived on our shores?”

“The French, my lord,” the Bastard replied. “Men’s mouths are full of the news. Besides, I met Lord Bigot and Lord Salisbury, who have eyes as red as newly kindled fire, and others as well, who were going to seek the grave of Arthur, who they say was killed last night at your instigation.”

“Gentle kinsman, go, and thrust yourself into their companies,” King John said. “Join them. I have a way to win their loves again; bring them before me.”

King John may have been willing to execute Hubert in order to appease the nobles.

“I will seek them out,” the Bastard said.

“Make haste,” King John said. “Put the better foot before you and go as fast as you can! Oh, let me have no enemies who are my subjects, not when adverse foreigners frighten my towns and cause dread with their show of determined invasion! Be Mercury, attach feathers to your heels, and fly as fast as thought from them to me again.”

Mercury, the messenger of the gods, wore winged sandals. In some myths, he had winged feet.

“The spirit of the time shall teach me speed,” the Bastard said. “Speed is necessary at this time.”

He exited.

King John said, “Spoken like a spirited noble gentleman.”

He then said to the messenger, “Go after him, for he perhaps shall need some messenger to go between me and the peers; you shall be that messenger.”

“With all my heart, my liege,” the messenger said.

He exited.

“My mother is dead!” King John said.

Hubert entered the room.

“My lord, they say five moons were seen last night,” Hubert said. “Four were fixed and did not move, and the fifth whirled about the other four in a bizarre motion.”

“Five moons!” King John said.

“Old men and beldams — crones — in the streets prophesy upon the sight ominously and daringly. Young Arthur’s death is common gossip in their mouths, and when they talk about him, they shake their heads and whisper to one another in the ear, and he who speaks grips the hearer’s wrist, while he who hears reacts in fear, with wrinkled brows, with nods, and with rolling eyes.

“I saw a blacksmith stand with his hammer, like this” — he demonstrated — “while his iron cooled on the anvil, with open mouth swallowing a tailor’s news. The tailor, with his shears and measuring tape in his hand, standing in slippers, which in his nimble haste he had incorrectly thrust upon the wrong feet, told of many thousand warlike French who were marshaled for fight and drawn up in battle positions in Kent.

“Another lean unwashed artificer cut off the tailor’s tale and talked about Arthur’s death.”

“Why do you seek to possess me with these fears?” King John asked. “Why did you urge me so often to cause young Arthur’s death? Your hand has murdered him. I had a mighty reason to wish him dead, but you had none to kill him.”

“Had no reason, my lord?” Hubert said. “Why, didn’t you incite me to kill him?”

King John said, “It is the curse of Kings to be served by slaves who take their whims for a warrant to break within the blood-containing house of life, and when the King shuts his eyes such slaves infer a law and suppose themselves to know the meaning of dangerous majesty, when perhaps majesty frowns more because of a whim than because of a deliberate and carefully considered decision.”

Showing King John a document, Hubert replied, “Here is your signature and seal authorizing what I did.”

King John replied, “Oh, when the last account between Heaven and Earth is to be made and we are judged, then this signature and seal shall be witnesses against us and damn us!

“How often the sight of means to do ill deeds makes deeds ill done! If you had not been nearby — you, who are a fellow by the hand of nature noted, written down, and confirmed with a signature to do a deed of shame — this murder had not come into my mind. But taking note of your abhorred appearance, and finding you fit for bloody villainy and apt and liable to be employed in danger, I half-heartedly mentioned Arthur’s death to you, and you, to be endeared to a King, made it no matter of conscience to destroy a Prince.”

“My lord —” Hubert began.

King John interrupted, “Had you only shook your head or paused when I spoke darkly and obscurely what I purposed, or turned an eye of doubt upon my face, as if you were asking me to tell my tale in explicit words, deep shame would have struck me dumb and made me break off, and those fears of yours might have wrought fears in me. But you understood me by my signs and did in signs again parley with sin.

“Yes, without a pause you let your heart consent, and consequently your rude hand enacted the deed, which both of our tongues held vile to name.

“Get out of my sight, and never see me anymore! My nobles leave me, and my government is challenged, even at my gates, with ranks of foreign troops.

“Indeed, in the body of this fleshly land of mine, this Kingdom, this confine of blood and breath, hostility and civil tumult reign between my conscience and my nephew’s death.”

“Arm yourself against your other enemies,” Hubert said. “I’ll make a peace between your soul and you. Young Arthur is alive. This hand of mine is still a maiden and an innocent hand; it is not painted with the crimson spots of blood. Within this bosom never entered yet the dreadful emotion of a murderous thought, and you have slandered nature in my form, which, however rude exteriorly, is yet the cover of a fairer mind than to be butcher of an innocent child.”

“Does Arthur live?” King John said. “Oh, hasten to the peers, throw this report on their incensed rage, and make them tame to their obedience! When the lords hear that Arthur lives, they will again obey me.

“Forgive the comment that I in my anger made about your appearance, for my rage was blind, and foul imaginary eyes of blood presented yourself as more hideous than you are.

“Don’t answer me, for there is no time, but to my private chamber bring the angry lords with all expedient haste.

“I beseech you only slowly; run faster than I beseech you.”


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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.”


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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.”


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