David Bruce: “William Shakespeare’s ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’: A Retelling in Prose” — Act 1, Scene 2

— 1.2 —

In a room of the King of France’s palace in Paris, the French King stood, holding a letter. With him were many lords and attendants. At this time, the people of Florence and Siena, two cities in the Tuscan region of Italy, were at war against each other.

The King said, “The Florentines and Sienese are by the ears; they have fought with equal fortune and continue a defiant war that is full of boasting on both sides.”

“By the ears” meant “fighting like beasts”; some animals when fighting will go for their opponents’ ears.

“So it is reported, sir,” the first lord said.

“The report is most credible and believable,” the King said.

Using the royal plural, he said, “We here consider it a certainty; our cousin the King of Austria vouches for it.”

In this culture, a monarch often used the word “cousin” to refer to another monarch. The word did not mean that they were related; it simply meant that they were fellow monarchs.

The King continued, “The King of Austria cautions us that the Florentines will appeal to us for speedy aid. Concerning this, our dearest friend prejudges the business and would seem to have us deny this request.”

The first lord said to the King of Austria, “His love and wisdom, of which your majesty has proof, may plead for amplest credence. His love and wisdom are evidence that you should carefully consider what he writes.”

“He has armed our answer,” the French King said, “and the Duke of Florence is denied before he comes here. Yet, for our gentlemen who mean to fight in the Tuscan war, they freely have our royal permission to fight on either side.”

“This war may well serve as a training ground for our gentry, who are longing for military exercise and exploit.”

The King looked up and asked, “Who is he who is coming here?”

Bertram, Lafeu, and Parolles entered the room.

“It is the Count Rousillon, my good lord,” the first lord said. “It is young Bertram.”

The King said to Bertram, “Youth, you have your father’s face. Generous nature, rather with carefulness than in haste, has well composed and produced you. May you inherit your father’s moral character, too! Welcome to Paris.”

“My thanks and duty are your majesty’s,” Bertram said.

“I wish I had that bodily soundness — health — now that I had when your father and myself in friendship first tried our soldiership! Your father had a deep knowledge of the military service of the time and the bravest and most excellent soldiers were his disciples.

“He lasted long, but haggish age stole on us both and wore us out so that we were out of action.

“It much restores me to talk about your good father. In his youth he had the wit that I can well observe today in our young lords, but they may jest until their own scorn returns to them unnoted before they can hide their levity in honor. Young lords today laugh so much at other people that they don’t realize that other people laugh at them; fortunately, they grow up and become honorable and stop laughing at other people. Your father never laughed at others.

“Your father was like a courtier. His pride was not touched with contempt toward other people, and his sharpness of intellect was not touched with bitterness toward other people. If they ever were touched with these qualities, it was your father’s social equal who brought them into being, and your father’s honor, acting as a clock to itself, knew the true minute — the right time — when his sense of grievance bid him to speak up, and at this time his tongue obeyed his hand. His tongue said only what the hand of his clock of honor bid him to say — he did not overstate or understate his grievance but said only the right thing.

“Those who were below him in social rank he treated as creatures of another place — he treated them as if they were of a higher social rank than they actually had. And he bowed his eminent head to their low ranks, making them proud of his humility. He was humble as he received the praise of the poor.

“Such a man might be an example to these younger times; if his example were followed well, it would demonstrate to these young lords that they now are regressing and becoming worse.”

Bertram replied, “The memory of my good father, sir, lies richer in your thoughts than on his tomb. The attestation and affirmation of my father’s good character lives not in his epitaph as much as it does in your royal speech.”

“I wish I were with him!” the King said. “He would always say … I think I hear him say it now; his praiseworthy words he scattered not superficially in ears, but grafted and implanted his words to make them grow there and to bear fruit … ‘Let me not live’ … this his good melancholy often began at the end and conclusion of an entertainment, when it was over and out. ‘Let me not live,’ said he, ‘after my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff — the charred wick hindering further burning — of younger spirits, whose apprehensive and perceptive senses disdain all but new things; whose minds are completely occupied with devising new fashions of clothing and whose loyalties expire before their fashions.’

“This he wished. I after him do after him wish the same thing, too — I survived him, but I follow him in wishing for the same thing. Since I can bring home neither wax nor honey, I wish that I quickly were set free from my hive, to give some laborers room.”

“You are loved, sir,” the second lord said. “They who least lend love to you shall lack you first. Those who least love you will miss you first.”

“I fill a place, I know it,” the French King replied. He wanted to die, to vacate the place he filled.

He then asked Bertram, the Count of Rousillon, “How long has it been, Count, since the physician at your father’s palace died? He was very famous.”

“He died some six months ago, my lord.”

“If he were still living, I would try him and see if he could cure my illness,” the King said. “Lend me an arm; the other doctors have worn me out with several different medical treatments; nature and sickness contend over my illness at their leisure.

“Welcome, Count. My son’s no dearer to me than you are.”

“I thank your majesty,” Bertram replied.

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