David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s I HENRY IV: A Retelling (Free PDF)

Chapter 1

— 1.1 —

In 1399, Henry Bolingbroke succeeded in deposing his first cousin King Richard II of England, thereby becoming King Henry IV. Even after becoming King, however, he ruled over an uneasy country, many citizens of which believed that he had unjustly seized the crown. After Richard II died, Henry IV vowed to go on a crusade to the Holy Land and return it to Christian hands. Political events, however, kept coming up that required delaying that crusade.

King Henry IV met with one of his younger sons, Lord John, who was Earl of Lancaster, as well as with the Earl of Westmoreland and Sir Walter Blunt, and others in his palace in London. King Henry IV was under great stress due to political and personal troubles.

Using the royal we, King Henry IV said, “We are shaken by events and wan with care, but let us find time and breath in this shaky and still-frightened peacetime to talk about the new battles that we intend to fight in distant foreign lands. No more will the English soil drink the blood of her children. No more will the English fields be filled with cutting war. No more will the English flowerets be bruised by the tread of armored warhorses. The soldiers of hostile forces that have recently opposed and killed each other in civil wars were all countrymen, as similar to each other as are shooting stars. Now, these formerly hostile forces shall all march as one in mutual well-ordered ranks. No more will they be opposed against acquaintances, relatives, and allies. They will be united for a common purpose. No more will the edge of war, as if it were an ill-sheathed knife, cut our people. Therefore, friends, we will hold a crusade and go as far as the sepulcher of Christ in Jerusalem. We are now the soldier of Christ, under Whose blessed cross we have been conscripted and for Whom we are pledged to fight. Therefore, we will raise an English army composed of people who were shaped in their mothers’ wombs and born to chase away the pagans from those holy fields over whose acres walked those blessed feet which fourteen hundred years ago were nailed for our benefit to the bitter cross. For twelve months, we have been planning to do this. You know this, so we need not tell you our plans again.”

He then ordered, “My noble kinsman Westmoreland, tell us what the council decided yesterday about planning this urgent crusade.”

The Earl of Westmoreland replied, “My liege, we hotly discussed this crusade, and we had assigned many specific military responsibilities, but we were interrupted by a messenger bearing important news from Wales. The news was bad concerning the noble Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March. He led the men of Herefordshire to fight the lawless and wild Owen Glendower, who captured him. The Welshmen butchered a thousand men of Herefordshire. The Welshwomen did such a beastly shameless transformation to those corpses that it cannot be retold or spoken about except with much shame.”

True, the Earl of Westmoreland thought. The wild Welshwomen castrated the English corpses.

King Henry IV said, “The news of this new battle must have necessarily stopped your debate about our crusade to the Holy Land.”

Westmoreland replied, “This news and other news did that. Other news, even more disturbing and unwelcome, came from the north of England. On Holy-rood day, September 14, young Harry Percy — known also as the gallant Hotspur — fought the brave Earl of Douglas, that ever-valiant Scot, at the hill of Holmedon. The news we received was that they were fighting a serious and bloody battle with much firing of artillery. Our messenger left at the peak of the battle and so was unable to report who would win the battle.”

“I have received more recent news than you about that battle,” King Henry IV said. “A dear, truly devoted friend, Sir Walter Blunt, has newly alighted from his horse. He and his horse are stained with the various kinds of soil that lie between the hill of Holmedon and this palace of ours in London. He has brought us pleasant and welcome news: Hotspur has defeated the Earl of Douglas. Sir Walter Blunt himself saw the bloody corpses of ten thousand bold Scots and twenty-two knights heaped in piles on the plains by Holmedon. Hotspur has taken some nobles prisoner: Mordake, who is the Earl of Fife and the oldest son of the defeated Douglas; and the Earl of Athol, the Earl of Murray, the Earl of Angus, and the Earl of Menteith. Is not this an honorable spoil? Is not this a gallant prize? Ha, Westmoreland, is it not?”

“Truly,” Westmoreland replied, “it is a conquest for a Prince to boast of.”

“Indeed it is,” King Henry IV said, “but you make me sad and make me sin in envy when you say that. I am envious that the Earl of Northumberland is the father to so blest a son as Hotspur. Anyone who wishes to speak of honor speaks about Hotspur. In a crowd of young men, Hotspur stands out; if he were a tree in a grove, he would be the very straightest tree in that grove. Hotspur is the darling and the pride of Fortune. I see people praise Hotspur, and then I look at my own oldest son, my young Harry — my Prince Hal and the future King of England — and I see debauchery and dishonor upon his brow. I wish that I could prove that a mischievous fairy had come by when the two Harrys were infants and had swapped them! In that case, Hotspur would be my son, and Prince Hal would be the son of the Earl of Northumberland. Such thinking is sinful. But let us move on to other matters. What is your opinion of young Hotspur’s pride? He has sent word to me that he shall deliver to me, from all his prisoners, only one: Mordake, the Earl of Fife. He has sent word to me that he will keep all the other prisoners. Hotspur knows that he cannot keep as prisoner Mordake, who is of royal blood, but all prisoners are required to be turned over to me, the King, so that we can ransom them.”

Westmoreland replied, “Hotspur must be following the advice of Thomas Percy, the Earl of Worcester, who is his uncle. Worcester is opposed to you in every way possible, and his advice is making Hotspur proud and resistant to your authority. He is like a proud bird that preens its feathers and raises its crest.”

“I have sent word to Hotspur to come to me and to answer for his actions,” King Henry IV said. “Because of this, I must for a while put aside my crusade to Jerusalem. On Wednesday, we will meet with the council at Windsor. Inform all the lords about the meeting, and then quickly return here. More is to be said and to be done. I am angry now, and I do not wish to speak publicly.”

“I will do as you wish, my liege,” Westmoreland said.

— 1.2 —

Prince Hal, who was a young man, and Sir John Falstaff, who was an old, obese knight who lived by committing crimes and entertaining people with his wit, were talking together in a place in London where the Prince sometimes stayed.

Falstaff asked, “Hal, what time of day is it, lad?”

Hal replied, “You are so fat-witted because of your drinking of that Spanish white wine we call sack and because of your unbuttoning your pants after supper and sleeping upon benches until afternoon that you have forgotten to ask whatever it is that you truly want to know. What the Devil do you have to do with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of sack and minutes were castrated cocks fattened for eating — capons — and clocks were the tongues of women who run brothels and dials were the signs of whorehouses and the blessed Sun himself were a beautiful hot prostitute wearing a flame-colored dress made of taffeta, I see no reason why you need to ask the time of the day.”

“You make a good point, Hal,” Falstaff said. “Those of us who live by robbing travelers and taking their wallets live by the time of the Moon and the seven stars, and not by the time of Phoebus Apollo, that wandering knight so fair who drives the chariot of the Sun across the sky each day. Dear rogue, please, when you are King, God save your grace — oops, I should say ‘God save your majesty’ because you have no grace.”

“What, none?” Prince Hal asked. “I have no sense of propriety, no sense of virtue?”

“No, you don’t, Prince Hal,” Falstaff said, “In fact, you don’t have enough grace to say a prayer before eating an egg and butter.”

“Get to the point,” Prince Hal said. “When I am King, what?”

“I have a request,” Falstaff said. “When you are King, don’t allow those of us who are squires of the night to be called thieves of the day. True, we stay up at night and sleep during the day — we commit our robberies at night. But let us be called by dignified names. Let us be called Diana the Moon goddess’ foresters. Let us be called gentlemen of the shade. Let us be called servants of the Moon. And let men say that we are men of good government or conduct because we are governed, as the sea and its tides are, by our noble and chaste mistress the Moon, under whose countenance we steal.”

“You speak truly,” Prince Hal said. “Your comparison is apt. The fortune of us who are the Moon’s men ebbs and flows like the sea and its tides, because we are governed, as the sea and its tides are, by the Moon. This I can prove with an example. A wallet filled with gold that was resolutely robbed from a traveler on Monday night is dissolutely spent on Tuesday morning. The money is gotten by crying, ‘Put your hands up!’ And it is spent by crying, ‘Sack! Bring in more sack!’ We see the ebb when the robber stands at the foot of a ladder leading to a gallows, and we see the flow or flood when the robber is standing at the top of the gallows with a rope around his neck.”

“By the Lord, you speak the truth, lad,” Falstaff said. Uncomfortable at the thought of hanging, a very real possibility in his life, he changed the subject: “Don’t you think that the Hostess of the tavern is a most sweet wench?”

“She is as sweet as the honey from the hills around Syracuse in Sicily, my old lad of the Castle,” Prince Hal replied. “Of course, you should know. After all, you know well the London brothel that roisterers everywhere call the Castle. And the Castle is a place where the Hostess of the tavern could very well work. By the way, don’t you think that a buff jerkin is a most sweet robe of durance?”

“The Sheriff’s officers wear buff jerkins because they are made of leather and so wear well and endure, but of course you mean durance in the sense of imprisonment,” Falstaff complained. “You keep bringing up things that could form part of my future life. Why are you making these particular quips and jests? Why should I want to hear about buff jerkins? I would prefer to hear about the plague!”

“Why should I want to hear about the Hostess of the tavern?” Prince Hal replied. “I would prefer to hear about the pox!”

“The pox is syphilis,” Falstaff said. “If you have much to do with the Hostess of the tavern, you are very likely to hear about syphilis. Remember, Hal, you have called her to a reckoning many times.”

“The reckonings I have called her to have been to pay our bills for food and drink,” Prince Hal said. “I have never needed to pay reckonings for her other business — the one involving women and bedrooms. Have I ever asked you to pay even part of a bill?”

“No, Prince Hal,” Falstaff said. “I’ll give you your due. You have always paid the entire bill.”

“Yes, I have, both here and elsewhere, as long as my money held out,” Prince Hal said. “And when I have run out of money, I have used my credit.”

“Yes, you have,” Falstaff said. “And you have used so much credit that it is fortunate that it is here apparent that you are heir apparent. But, Hal, let ask you whether there will be gallows standing in England when you are King? Will courageous highwaymen continue to be collared by the overly long arm of the law? Please, Hal, when you are King, do not hang thieves.”

“I won’t, but you will,” Prince Hal said.

“Shall I hang thieves?” Falstaff said. “Oh, joy! By the Lord, I’ll be an excellent judge.”

“You are already judging incorrectly,” Prince Hal said. “I mean that you will do the hanging and therefore become an excellent hangman.”

“If you say so, Hal,” Falstaff said. “Hanging thieves is much better than hanging around in the court.”

“Would you hang out to obtain suits?” Prince Hal asked.

“If I hung out in court, I would obtain lawsuits, but if I were a hangman, I would obtain suits of clothing because the clothing of the hung is forfeited to the hangman. Truly, the hangman does not have a lean wardrobe. But all this talk of hanging is making me as melancholy as a tomcat howling at night or a bear tormented by dogs.”

“Or an old, toothless lion, or a sad note on a lover’s lute.”

“Yes, or the drone of a single note played on a Lincolnshire bagpipe.”

“What about a timorous rabbit, or the melancholy of Moorditch?”

“Moorditch, ugh!” Falstaff said. “That foul drainage ditch! That sewer where lepers and insane people beg! Hal, you make the most unsavory comparisons. Why am I surprised! You are prone to making similes, you rascally, sweet young Prince.”

Falstaff decided to imitate a Puritan, as he so often did, and said, “But, Hal, please, trouble me no more with worldly considerations. I wish to God that you and I knew where a supply of good reputations could be bought. An old lord of the council criticized me the other day in the street because I allow you to be my friend, but I ignored him even though he made some good points. Yes, indeed, he talked very wisely, and in the street, too.”

“You did well because wisdom cries out in the streets, and no man regards it,” Prince Hal said, thinking that if Falstaff were going to pretend to be a holy man that he would respond by paraphrasing Proverbs 1:20.

“You have a talent for twisting scripture to serve your ends,” Falstaff said, “and you have a talent for corrupting people — even saints! You have done much harm to me by corrupting me, Hal. I pray that God forgives you for it! Before I knew you, Hal, I knew nothing of evil. But now that I know you, Hal, I am, if a man should speak truly, little better than one of the wicked. I must repent my life, and I will reform and give my life to the Lord. If I do not, I am a villain and I will be damned to Hell. But I have no intention of being damned — not even for the son of a King.”

“Where shall we steal a wallet tomorrow, Jack?” Prince Hal asked Falstaff.

“By God, wherever you want,” Falstaff said enthusiastically. “I will make up one of the members in your band of robbers. If I do not, call me a villain and disgrace me.”

“I can see that you want to reform your life,” Prince Hal said. “A moment ago you were praying to God, and now you are ready to be a thief.”

Falstaff joked, “Why, Hal, being a thief is my vocation, Hal. It is no sin for a man to labor in his vocation.”

A thief named Edward Poins entered the room. He was on terms of great familiarity with Falstaff and Prince Hal.

Falstaff said, “Welcome, Poins! Now we will learn whether our friend Gadshill has set up a robbery for us to perform. If men were able to be saved by merit, what hole in hell would be hot enough for Gadshill and his evil deeds? He is the most unparalleled villain who ever cried ‘Put your hands up!’ to a honest man.”

True, Prince Hal thought, Gadshill takes his name — the only one I know — from Gad’s Hill, the scene of many, many robberies.

“Good day, Ed,” Prince Hal said to Ned Poins.

“Good day, sweet Hal,” Poins replied.

To Falstaff, Poins said, “How are you, Monsieur Remorse? Are you still repenting your sins — or pretending to? How are you, Sir John Sack and Sugar? Are you still engaging in your favorite hobbies — drinking too much and increasing the size of your belly? Jack, are you and the Devil still tussling over your soul, which you sold to him for a cup of Madeira wine and a cold chicken leg on Good Friday, the most holy of fast days?”

“Sir John will keep his word and his agreement,” Prince Hal said. “The Devil shall get Falstaff’s soul, for Falstaff will not break the proverb that says to give the Devil his due.”

Poins said to Falstaff, “In that case, you are damned because you are keeping your word to the Devil. How odd to be damned for keeping one’s word.”

“Falstaff would have been damned in any case,” Prince Hal said. “If he did not keep his word to the Devil, he would be damned for not keeping his word.”

Poins said, “Now to business. Be at Gad’s Hill by 4 a.m. Pilgrims are going to the holy shrine at Canterbury to make rich donations, and traders are riding to London with fat wallets. I have masks for all of you, and each of you has his own horse. Gadshill will be spending the night in an inn in Rochester. I have already ordered supper for tomorrow night at our favorite tavern in Eastcheap. We could do this robbery in our sleep. If you will go with me and be robbers, I will stuff your wallets full of money; if you will not, stay at home and be hanged.”

“Ed,” Falstaff said, “if I stay at home and do not go with you, I’ll turn state’s evidence and have you hanged for going.”

“You’re joking, chipmunk cheeks,” Poins said. “You need the money from the robbery. I have never known you when you did not need money from a robbery.”

“Hal, will you make up one of our band of robbers?” Falstaff asked.

“Who? I?” Prince Hal asked, shocked. “Am I a thief? No, I am not. I will not go with you.”

Prince Hal thought, Falstaff would like for me to be a thief. He truly is a false staff. He would like for me to be an alcoholic and a criminal. That way, he could control me, and later, after I am King, he could loot all of England. Still, he can be great fun to be around.

“Hal,” Falstaff said, “no honesty, manhood, or good fellowship are in you and it is false that you come from the bloodroyal, if you lack the courage to rob a man for ten shillings, which as you know, is the monetary worth of our English coin the royal.”

Prince Hal replied, “I will be a madcap and act on wild impulses.”

“That’s well said,” Falstaff said.

“I lied,” Prince Hal said. “I will stay at home.”

“By the Lord, then I’ll be a traitor,” Falstaff said, “when you are King.”

“So be it,” Prince Hal said. “I don’t care.”

Poins said, “Sir John, please leave the Prince and me alone. I will give him reasons why he should join our band of robbers early tomorrow morning. I will persuade him to go with us.”

Falstaff said to Poins, “May God give you the spirit of persuasion and may Hal profit from what you tell him, so that what you speak may move Hal and what he hears he shall believe. That way, the true Prince may, for the sake of entertainment, prove a false thief. We poor criminals need royal protection. Farewell. If you need me, I will be at my favorite tavern in Eastcheap.”

“Farewell, old man with the vigor of a young robber,” Prince Hal said. “If you were a summer, you would last until November 1: All-Saints Day.”

Falstaff departed, and Poins said to Prince Hal, “Please, my good sweet honey lord, ride with us tomorrow. I have a practical joke that I want to execute that I cannot manage alone. Falstaff, Bardolph, Peto, and Gadshill shall rob those men that I have already told you about. You and I will not be with them. When they have robbed the travelers and taken their money, you and I will rob the robbers. If we do not, then cut my head from off my shoulders.”

Prince Hal was intrigued, but he was cautious. He said, “You and I will have to separate ourselves from the four robbers. How can we do that?”

Poins replied, “You and I will set forth before or after them, and we will appoint a place to meet before the robbery, but we will not show up there. Falstaff, Bardolph, Peto, and Gadshill will then commit the robbery by themselves. As soon as they have the money, you and I shall set upon them and rob them.”

Still cautious, Prince Hal said, “It is very likely that they will recognize us because of our horses and our clothing, and simply because they know us so well.”

“I have thought of that,” Poins said. “They will not see our horses. I’ll tie them in the wood. They will know the masks that I have brought, but we will change masks. Also, I have some garments made of buckram cloth that we can wear over our clothing.”

“One more thing,” Prince Hal said. “It will be the two of us trying to rob the four of them. The odds are not in our favor.”

Poins replied, “I know that two of them are cowards who will readily turn their backs to us and run away, and if a third fights longer than he sees reason to, I vow never to fight again. Listen: The point of this practical joke is to hear the outrageous lies that fat Falstaff will tell when we meet to eat our supper. He will swear that he fought at least thirty swordsmen. He will describe the parries he made and the blows he took and the dangers he faced. Then you and I will tell him what really happened, and we will laugh at him.”

Prince Hal thought that the reward outweighed the risk, and so he said, “Let’s do it. Get everything we need, and we will play this practical joke. Tomorrow night, we will meet with the would-be robbers in Eastcheap. There we will listen to Falstaff tell his lies. Farewell.”

“Farewell, my lord,” Poins said, then departed.

Now alone, Prince Hal said to himself, “I know all of you for the robbers and lowlifes you are, and for a while I will allow you to commit your crimes and follow your idle, undisciplined inclinations. In so doing, I will imitate the Sun, which allows ugly storm clouds to cover up his beauty and hide him from the world. When the Sun decides to reveal again his glorious self, he will be marveled at all the more because of his absence and because he broke through the ugly storm clouds that seemed to be about to strangle him. If every day of the year were holidays during which men sought entertainments, to seek entertainments would be as tedious as going to work. But when holidays seldom come, they are desired. Good things that are rare are the most pleasing. Someday, I will stop my riotous and unworthy behavior, and I will accept the responsibilities of being a Crown Prince — responsibilities that I never sought but that came to me because of who my father is. I will make it known that I am so much better than I act now. Men will expect the worst from me, but I will give them my best. I will be like bright metal lying on dark soil. My riotous past will set off my goodness to a greater extent than goodness alone without a riotous past could ever appear. I will live a riotous life now, but I have a plan. I will reform when men think it is most unlikely that I will reform.”

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