William Shakespeare’s “1 Henry IV”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 5, Scene 1

— 5.1 —

The next morning, on 21 July 1403, King Henry IV, Prince Hal, Lord John of Lancaster, Sir Walter Blunt, and Falstaff met in the King’s camp near Shrewsbury

King Henry IV said, “The Sun is red like blood as it begins to appear over that bushy mountain. It seems ill and feverish, and the day is pale in comparison.”

Prince Hal said, “The southern wind blows as if it is playing a trumpet and announcing what the Sun means by its appearance. The hollow whistling in the leaves foretells a stormy and windy day.”

“Let the weather sympathize with the losers of the upcoming battle,” King Henry IV said. “Nothing can seem foul to those who win.”

A trumpet sounded.

The Earl of Worcester and Sir Richard Vernon came into the King’s camp.

The King said, “How are you, my Lord of Worcester! It is not good that you and I should meet upon such terms as now we meet. You have deceived our trust, and made us take off our comfortable robes of peace so that we could crush our old limbs in ungentle steel armor. This is not as it should be, my lord. What do you say now? Will you untie this ill-tempered knot of hateful war? Will you move again in that obedient orbit where you did give a fair and natural light, and will you cease to be a comet going its own way and showing itself to be a terrifying omen and a sign of evil soon to come? A dutiful subject should revolve around his King in an obedient orbit, but you do not do so.”

“Hear me, my liege,” Worcester said. “For my own part, I could be well content to spend the end of my life in peaceful and quiet hours. I have not sought this day of battle.”

“You have not sought it!” the King said. “How has it come, then?”

Falstaff said, “Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it.”

Prince Hal said to Falstaff, “Shut up, you chattering fool.”

Worcester said to the King, “It pleased your majesty to turn your looks of favor away from myself and all the Percys, and yet I must remind you, my lord, we were the first and dearest of your friends. For you I broke my staff of office under King Richard II, and I rode swiftly day and night to meet you on the way and kiss your hand, while still you were in position and in reputation not as strong and fortunate as I. It was myself, my brother, and his son who brought you home to England and boldly did face the dangers of the time. You swore to us at Doncaster that you did not intend to challenge the King and that you wanted nothing more than what you had inherited: the Dukedom of Lancaster. We swore that we would help you gain your inheritance.

“But within a short time, good fortune poured on you, and you became ambitious. You had the help of the Percys, and you had the good fortune that King Richard II was absent from England and in Ireland. England was suffering from the abuses of the King, you seemed to have been grievously wronged, and contrary winds kept King Richard II so long in Ireland that everyone in England thought that he was dead.

“You took advantage of these things, and you decided to seize power in your hands. You forgot the oath you made to us at Doncaster. You took advantage of our aid the way that a cuckoo takes advantage of a sparrow. The cuckoo lays its eggs in the nest of a sparrow, and its offspring grows larger than the sparrow’s nestlings and pushes them out of the nest. You grew large and powerful because of our feeding you, and you began to oppress us. You had grown so large and powerful that we, your supporters, dared not go near you because of fear that you would swallow us. We were forced, for the sake of safety, to fly with nimble wing out of your sight and raise this army. We have been forced to do this because of things that you have done. You have treated us badly and unnaturally, you have threatened us, and you have violated all the promises you made to us before you became King.”

“These things you have indeed articulated,” King Henry IV said. “You have proclaimed them in the centers of marketplaces and had them read in churches to adorn the garment of rebellion with some fine color that might please the eyes of fickle turncoats and poor malcontents who stare with their mouths open and then hug themselves with delight at the news of tumultuous rebellion. You are putting lipstick on a pig. Rebels have always come up with weak justifications for bloody warfare; they have never lacked for supporters such as angry beggars who are hungry for pellmell havoc and confusion.”

Prince Hal said, “In both armies are many souls who shall pay very dearly with their lives or with grievous injuries if the armies join in battle. Tell your nephew, Hotspur, that the Prince of Wales joins with the entire world to praise him. Except for this rebellion, I swear, I do not think that a nobler gentleman, more active-valiant or more valiant-young, more daring or bolder, than he is now alive to grace this age with noble deeds. For my part — I speak it to my shame — I have neglected my responsibilities. I hear that Hotspur would agree that this is true. Yet let me say this in front of my father: I am willing, although Hotspur has a much better reputation in warfare than do I, to fight him in single combat to the death. Whoever wins the single combat wins the war. I am willing to fight him in order to save bloodshed and lives in both armies.”

King Henry IV, who believed that the odds would be against his son, said, “And, Prince of Wales, we would be willing for you to fight Hotspur in single combat, except that infinite reasons are against it. No, Worcester, no, a single combat will not happen.”

He added, “We love our people well. We even love those who are misled and are on the side of Hotspur. If they are willing to accept our pardon, then Hotspur and they and you shall be my friends again and I shall be their friend. Tell Hotspur about the pardon I am offering and bring me word of what he will do. Understand that if he will not stop this rebellion and will not accept the pardon, then I will command rebuke and dreadful punishment to go to him and mete out justice. Go now. We need no longer talk. My offer of pardon to you rebels is fair; I advise you to accept it.”

Worcester and Sir Richard Vernon left the King’s camp.

Prince Hal said, “Your offer of pardon will not be accepted, I swear. Douglas and Hotspur are both confident that they will be victorious in battle.”

“Therefore,” King Henry IV said, “everyone get ready to attack. Once they answer and decline our pardon, we will set on them and start the battle. May God support us because our cause is just!”

Everyone departed except for Prince Hal and Falstaff.

Falstaff said, “Hal, if you see me wounded and down in the battle, bestride me and protect me and save my life. It is what a friend would do.”

“Anyone who bestrides your vast bulk would have to be a colossus,” Prince Hal replied, “so say your prayers. I need to go now.”

“I wish it were bedtime, Hal, and all were well,” Falstaff said.

“Why, you owe God your life, and so you owe God a debt,” Prince Hal said. “The only way to pay God the debt you owe is with your death.”

Prince Hal left to go to his troops and make sure that they were ready for him to lead them into battle.

Falstaff said, “I may owe God a debt, but the debt is not yet due, and I would hate to pay that debt before it is due. God has not appeared before me and demanded that the debt be paid, and I will not go to Him and voluntarily pay the debt. It doesn’t matter. Honor spurs me on to go into battle. Yes, but suppose that honor leads me to be killed or wounded in battle? What then? Can honor set a broken leg? No. Can honor set a broken arm? No. Can honor take away the pain of a wound? No. Does honor have skill in surgery, then? No, it does not. What is honor? It is a word. What is in that word ‘honor’ — what is that honor? It is nothing but the air that we breathe out when we pronounce a word. Who has honor? He who died on Wednesday. Does he feel honor? No. Does he hear it? No. Can it be sensed? Not by the dead. Dead people can have honor, but it is worthless to them. Will honor stay with the living? No. Why not? While people are living, they have detractors — people slander them. Therefore, I’ll have nothing to do with honor. Honor is only a coat of arms that identifies a dead nobleman. I now end my catechism.”

Many people, if they had witnessed this scene, would think, A catechism is a series of questions designed to elicit a person’s view — for example, about religious matters. Falstaff’s religion is to look out for himself. Falstaff regards himself as the most important thing that exists — he regards himself as the center of the universe. Other people often regard something or someone or Someone as being more important than themselves. Those people are not Falstaff.

Some people, if they had witnessed this scene, would think, Falstaff is right, you know. It is better to be a live coward than a dead hero.

Other people, such as Hotspur and Prince Hal, regard honor as worthwhile and important.

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