If ever there was a time to trust your gut, for Clarence – this was the moment. We’re looking at Richard the Third, Act 1, Scene 4. Clarence is recounting a nightmare to Brackenbury about a trip he took into hell – the speech is visceral, filled with imagery, horror and suspense. If only Clarence listened to his gut, telling him that his doom was near, perhaps he would have been able to escape his fate! Unfortunately, for Clarence, he wouldn’t be so lucky. Let’s have a look at this fantastic speech.
Though the character of Clarence is a daily small role in this particular play, Shakespeare’s audience has actually known Clarence for a long time, and this speech is a swan song for a really well established character. Clarence had an important role to play in Henry the Sixth, particularly in part three, where he was as much of an important player as Richard, duke of Gloucester, was. Clarence’s shame, guilt and imprisonment is due to his inability to pick a side in the war between the houses of York and Lancaster, depicted in Henry the sixth. Clarence swapped sides more than once, and that treachery has landed him in the Tower of London, unsure of what his fate will be and at the mercy of an ill King (and brother).
O, I have pass’d a miserable night,
So full of ugly sights, of ghastly dreams,
That, as I am a Christian faithful man,
I would not spend another such a night,
Though ’twere to buy a world of happy days,
So full of dismal terror was the time!
Methoughts that I had broken from the Tower,
And was embark’d to cross to Burgundy;
And, in my company, my brother Gloucester;
Who from my cabin tempted me to walk
Upon the hatches: thence we looked toward England,
And cited up a thousand fearful times,
During the wars of York and Lancaster
That had befall’n us. As we paced along
Upon the giddy footing of the hatches,
Methought that Gloucester stumbled; and, in falling,
Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard,
Into the tumbling billows of the main.
Lord, Lord! methought, what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!
What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatter’d in the bottom of the sea:
Some lay in dead men’s skulls; and, in those holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,
As ’twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
Which woo’d the slimy bottom of the deep,
And mock’d the dead bones that lay scatter’d by.
O, then began the tempest to my soul,
Who pass’d, methought, the melancholy flood,
With that grim ferryman which poets write of,
Unto the kingdom of perpetual night.
The first that there did greet my stranger soul,
Was my great father-in-law, renowned Warwick;
Who cried aloud, ‘What scourge for perjury
Can this dark monarchy afford false Clarence?’
And so he vanish’d: then came wandering by
A shadow like an angel, with bright hair
Dabbled in blood; and he squeak’d out aloud,
‘Clarence is come; false, fleeting, perjured Clarence,
That stabb’d me in the field by Tewksbury;
Seize on him, Furies, take him to your torments!’
With that, methoughts, a legion of foul fiends
Environ’d me about, and howled in mine ears
Such hideous cries, that with the very noise
I trembling waked, and for a season after
Could not believe but that I was in hell,
Such terrible impression made the dream.
Oh I have had a terrible night,
So full of ugly sights, of terrifying dreams,
That (as I am a Christian faithful man)
I wouldn’t spend another light like that
Even if it mean it could buy a lifetime of happy days
It was such a terrifying time!
I thought I had escaped from the tower
and was aboard a ship bound for Burgundy
Traveling with my brother Richard
Who wanted me to walk with him on the fence line of the ship
We looked towards England, and talked of many fearful memories
during the war of the roses that had happened to us.
As we walked along the uneven floor of the hatches, I thought that Richard tripped,
and as he tried to catch himself he pushed me into the ocean.
Lord, Lord! I thought, “What pain it is to drown!”
What dreamful noise of water in my ears!
What ugly sights of death are in my eyes!
I thought I saw 1000 underwater shipwrecks
Ten Thousand dead bodies being eaten by fish,
Blocks of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Countless stones, priceless jewels,
All scattered at the bottom of the sea
Some of these jewels lay in dead men’s skulls in the eye holes.
Oh, them began the storm of my soul
As my soul began to pass into the underworld.
The first person to meet me in the underworld was my Father in law, Warwick
Who shouted, “What terrible punishment can the underworld devise for the oath-breaker Clarence?”
Then he vanished.
Then there came a wandering shadows, like an angel, with bright blood-stained hair, and he cried,
“Clarence is here – Clarence the liar and coward who stabbed me in the field at Tewksbury – catch him, demons! Take him to the torture chamber!”
And with that, I thought a platoon of demons surrounded me and howled in my ears
The cries were so hideous that I woke up, and for some time after the dream I was sure that I was still in hell.
It was such a terrible dream.
Notes on Performance
Imagery. If I were to say one word about what was important to focus on in this speech, that would be it. Imagery, imagery! This speech is laden with vivid images. Clarence is depicting a dream which still haunts him. This is not like the dreams we have where we forget the details from the moment we wake up – this dream had SUCH an effect on Clarence that, “for a season after
[I] Could not believe but that I was in hell”. For a season after. For a long time after waking, Clarence actually believed that he was still in hell. If that isn’t a bad omen, I don’t know what is.
The actor approaching this speech needs to spend a LOT of time detailing and endowing the images which have arisen in Clarence’s dream. They need to be able to see – specifically, the tower, the ship, the brother who pushes him off the ship, the deep dark ocean, the treasures at the bottom, the wreckages and dead bodies, the ferryman of the underworld, the ghosts, the fiends howling in his ears.
The actor should go through a careful and meticulous process of building the detail of each of those images. Meditating on those images, the actor will be able to picture them in their mind, then begin to attach them to the words they are saying. Eventually, the images will arise effortlessly and without need of additional labour, and they can arise seamlessly in performance.
The second influential factor in this speech is the world and the given circumstances. Clarence has been imprisoned in the tower. It would be cold, dark, damp and wet. This is a man of nobility, and I can assure you he would not feel comfortable in this environment. Brackenbury, whom he is speaking with, is his only comfort, though that comfort will soon leave him.
As well, Clarence is on the verge of going back to sleep. Have you ever been with a child after a bad nightmare? The last thing they wish to do is go back to sleep – for that is the inescapable place where the terrors are held. Personalise your connection to these circumstances; the world, Brackenbury, and being on the verge of going back to sleep, and the scene will be energised for you.
What’s important in this speech is that there is a fire alive within the actor. A great image a friend of mine used in preparation for an audition was “I need to kick the hornet’s nest”. This is a fantastic image and is exactly what is required from the actor in this speech. Do your work on the images, build your connection to the given circumstances, they kick the hornet’s nest. Stir and churn something up within you and speak these words through that experience. Clarence is staring death in the face, after all. This is no time to be polite. Go for it.