William Shakespeare’s “1 Henry IV”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scene 2

— 3.2 —

In a room in King Henry IV’s palace in London, the King, Prince Hal, and others had been meeting.

King Henry IV said, “Everyone leave except for Prince Hal. The Prince of Wales and I must talk privately, but stay nearby because I shall need to talk to you again soon.”

The others exited from the room.

The King said to Prince Hal, “I think that it is possible that God has secretly judged me because of some sin that I have committed and therefore is using you to punish and to torment me. The way that you are leading your life makes me think that your purpose in life is to give to me the hot vengeance of Heaven and to beat me with the rod of Heaven to punish me for my sins. Explain to me how else you could indulge in such unsuitable and low desires, such vulgar and despicable actions, and such barren pleasures, and how else could such vulgar friends become associated with you, who are the Prince of Wales?”

“Your majesty, my father,” Prince Hal said, “I wish that I could clear myself of all the offenses charged against me as easily and clearly as I am certain that I can clear myself of many of these offenses charged against me. Yet let me ask of you one favor. The ears of great personages often hear false tales made up by smiling busybodies and gossips. If I can clear myself of many of these charges — and I can — I ask that I be forgiven for some youthful indiscretions, provided that I confess those indiscretions honestly.”

“Let God forgive you!” the King said. “Harry, let me tell you that I am amazed at your personal desires, which are not those of your ancestors. Because of your violence, you have lost your place in council. John, your younger brother, now occupies that place. You are now almost absent from the hearts of all the members of my court and of your own relatives. The hopes and expectations that I had of your youth are ruined, and every man prophesies that you will fail. Had I acted the way that you are now acting — constantly appearing in public, showing myself often to the eyes of men who grow used to your presence, which is becoming stale and cheap to the common people — I would never have acquired the good opinion of the people. Instead, they would have stayed loyal to King Richard II, and I would still be in disgraceful banishment. I would not be King, and I would have no renown or success. I made sure that I was seldom seen in public, so that when I did appear in public I was to the common people like the rare sight of a comet. Men would tell their children, ‘This is he.’ Others would ask, ‘Where? Which one is Bolingbroke?’ I acted as graciously as an angel to the common people, and I acted with great humility. The result was that men pledged their allegiance to me with loud shouts and salutations from their mouths even when Richard was present. In that way, each appearance in public by me was fresh and new and to be wondered at. My presence was like a priest’s ceremonial robe, seldom seen, and when seen, regarded with wonder. My appearances at occasions of state were seldom, but they were sumptuous like a feast. By being rarely seen, I inspired awe when I was seen.

“Richard II was my complete opposite. He was a flighty King, and he skipped and pranced and ambled and kept company with shallow jesters and rash wits who would flare up brightly but briefly and lacked lasting substance. He debased his royal self by mingling with capering fools, who profaned his name with crude jokes. He laughed at the jokes of boys and he allowed youths without beards to insult him, thus losing the majesty that belongs to a King. He became a frequent visitor to the common streets, and he attempted with his presence to make himself popular. Those who saw him soon became surfeited with the sight of him. He was like honey, which is good in small servings but when people have too much of it they begin to hate its sweetness, and even a little is too much. As King, he sometimes needed to present himself officially to the common people, but even at such solemn times, he was like the cuckoo in June — so common that no one bothers to look at it. They hear the cuckoo, but they ignore it. When people did look at Richard II, they did not look at him as if he were special — they had seen him too often to regard seeing him as anything special. But when a King is seldom seen, then people look at him with an extraordinary gaze — that is what happens when Sun-like majesty shines seldom in admiring eyes. But when Richard showed himself, the common people dozed and their eyelids drooped. They slept right in front of him, not showing him respect, and when they did wake up and look at him it was with such a look as sullen men give to their enemies. He had appeared before them so often that they were glutted, gorged, and full with his presence.

“You, Harry, are now just like he was then. You have lost the respect that should be given to a Prince. Why? Because you associate with base low-lives. Everyone’s eyes are weary of seeing you because they see you so often, except for my eyes, which would like to see you more often. And now my eyes are doing that which I do not want them to do, blinding me with tears of foolish tenderness.”

Prince Hal promised, “From now on, my very gracious father, I will act more like myself — more like a Prince ought to act.”

King Henry IV said, “For all the world, you are now as King Richard II was then. As I was when I traveled out of my exile in France and set foot at Ravenspurgh, so is Hotspur now. I swear by my scepter and by my soul that he has a better claim than you to the throne. His claim to the throne rests on accomplishments; your claim to the throne is a mere matter of birth. Hotspur has no hereditary right to the throne or anything even resembling a hereditary right to the throne, and yet he has filled battlefields with men in armor and he is at the head of an army that is opposed to me, the King. Even though he is the same young age as you, he leads old lords and reverend bishops on to bloody battles and to violent war. Hotspur earned never-dying honor by fighting against the renowned Douglas! Hotspur’s high deeds, hot incursions, and great name in arms have given him a reputation as the supreme and preeminent soldier throughout all of the Christian nations. Three times has the young Hotspur, a Mars in swaddling clothes, an infant warrior, in battles defeated great Douglas. He has captured him once, freed him, and made a friend of him so that Douglas would join the rebellion and shake the peace and security of our throne.

“What have you to say to this? Percy, Northumberland, the Archbishop of York, Douglas, and Mortimer all are rebelling against us and are up in arms. But why am I telling you this? Why, Harry, do I tell you about my foes, when you are my nearest and dearest enemy? You, Harry, are very likely, through being a slave to fear, base inclination, and ill temper, to fight against me. You would accept the pay of a mercenary from Hotspur, you would follow at his heels like a dog, and you would bow to him when he frowns at you. You would do all of these things in order to hurt me by showing me how degenerate you are.”

Prince Hal replied, “Do not think that. It is not true. God forgive those who have so much swayed your majesty’s good thoughts away from me! I will redeem all this on Hotspur’s head during battle. At sunset of some glorious day, I will be so bold as to tell you that I am your son. On that day, I will wear a garment all covered with blood and my face will be encased in a mask made of blood. This blood, when washed away, shall wash away my shame with it. All of this will happen, I swear, on the day, whenever it occurs, that this child of honor and renown, this gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight, and your own Harry with the bad reputation shall happen to meet in battle. I wish that Hotspur’s honors and glories were multiplied many times and that my shames and indignities were doubled because when he and I meet in battle, I shall make this northern youth — this Hotspur — exchange his honors and glories for my shames and indignities. Hotspur, although he does not know it, will be the means of my redemption. He has accomplished many glorious deeds, but in battle I shall make him give up every glorious deed and every honor, no matter how small. By defeating Hotspur, I shall win for myself greater glory and honor than he has accrued. I swear to God that this shall be so. I shall tear Hotspur’s glory and honor from his heart. I pray that God allows this to happen. If He allows it, I beg that your majesty may forgive the long-grown wounds of my intemperate behavior. If God does not allow this to happen, then I will die on the battlefield and my death will cancel all the debts I owe to the living. I swear that I will die a hundred thousand deaths on the battlefield before I break even the smallest part of my vow.”

King Henry IV said, “As a result of your vow, a hundred thousand rebels will die! You will have command of troops and my complete trust.”

Sir Walter Blunt entered the room.

“How are you, Sir Walter?” King Henry IV asked. “You look serious.”

“The news that I have come to tell you is serious,” Blunt said. “A Scottish nobleman has sent word that Douglas and the English rebels have joined forces the eleventh of this month at Shrewsbury. If all the rebels keep their promises and show up with their armies, they will have as mighty and fearsome a force as has ever committed foul play in England.”

“Our armies are also setting forth,” King Henry IV said. “The Earl of Westmoreland and an army set forth today; with him went my son, Lord John of Lancaster. For five days, I have known about the news you bring. This coming Wednesday, Harry, you shall set forth with an army. On Thursday, I will set forth with an army and go to Bridgenorth. Harry, you will march through Gloucestershire. In twelve days, all of our armies will meet at Bridgenorth. We have much to do. Let’s get to work. People who delay grow fat and tired.”

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