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From Henry V (Act 1, Scene 2)

August 14, 2017

Canterbury:

So work the honey-bees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts;
Where some, like magistrates, correct at home,
Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad,
Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent-royal of their emperor;
Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The sad-eyed justice, with his surly hum,
Delivering o’er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone.

–William Shakespeare, 1599

COMMENTARY: Shakespeare sometimes gives his most poetic speeches to minor characters. Here, the Bishop of Cantebury, one of the most insignificant characters in Henry V, makes a nice Homeric simile comparing a kingdom to a hive of bees. I like the careful almost panoptic thoroughness of the lines, the way each little character in the bee kingdom is celebrated. I like “armed in their stings/ Make boot upon the summers velvet buds” and “singing masons building roofs of gold” and “kneading up the honey.” Of course, the speech is really “about” Henry’s kingdom and how social harmony derives from cooperation, but, reading it, I lose the meaning and get caught up in the bees.

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