Though hidden in one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays, Constance is a character all actors wishing to tackle high stakes emotional text should seek to perform. And her speech in Act 3, scene 4, has to be one of the most powerful and gut-wrenching speeches in Shakespeare’s whole canon.
This is a speech of grief and rage. In it, we find a character who has lost their son who must persevere through adversity to prove their own sanity. It is a master-challenge for an actor, as they must find the perfect balance between emotional expression and resisting the temptation to play the victim.
This is one mammoth speech, let’s dive in.
TRIGGER WARNING: This speech deals with highly emotional content, including mental illness, and grief of a lost child.
Before we meet Constance in this scene, we need to know a bit of background about how she has landed in this tragic situation. What is essential to understand about the foundation of her character is the fact that she is ambitious. She wishes for her son Arthur to become King of England, and she believes the crown is his by right.
This desire is where Constance meets her first obstacle: for instead of the crown passing to Arthur’s husband, Geoffrey, it instead went to the titular character of the play, John. So Constance must fight to reclaim the crown for her son, Arthur. To do this, she enlists the help of various other monarchs: King Phillip of France and the Duke of Austria. These alliances cause tension in the Kingdom, and Constance begins to make herself some powerful enemies.
Though ambitious and resourceful, Constance is limited by her agency as a female in the time of this play’s setting. Without the support of her allies, there is little she can do for Arthur, and eventually this problem comes to a head. King Phillip, seeing a more profitable alliance with John, abandons Constance, and in a battle between King John’s forces and their opposition, Arthur, Constance’s son, is kidnapped.
The kidnapping (and ultimate death) of Arthur is what propels Constance into a deep state of grief. This grief is misinterpreted, criticised and even mocked by the people around Constance – they tell her she holds “too heinous a respect of grief” and that she utters “madness and not sorrow”. The speech which follows is Constance’s attempt at pleasing absolute sanity – that if these men around her had experienced what she had, they too would be struck with a grief so piteous and profound.
(NB: an edit has been made in this scene to compile this monologue. Please read the full text of the scene to determine whether you would like to add or subtract sections of the text.
Thou art not holy to belie me so;
I am not mad: this hair I tear is mine;
My name is Constance; I was Geffrey’s wife;
Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost:
I am not mad: I would to heaven I were!
For then, ’tis like I should forget myself:
O, if I could, what grief should I forget!
Preach some philosophy to make me mad,
And thou shalt be canonized, cardinal;
For being not mad but sensible of grief,
My reasonable part produces reason
How I may be deliver’d of these woes,
And teaches me to kill or hang myself:
If I were mad, I should forget my son,
Or madly think a babe of clouts were he:
I am not mad; too well, too well I feel
The different plague of each calamity.
You hold too heinous a respect of grief.
He talks to me that never had a son.
You are as fond of grief as of your child.
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows’ cure!
Belie: Fail to give a true impression of something
Canonized: of a priest; to become a saint after their death
Sensible: Truly (Constance is grieving the way one should be allowed to grieve)
Babe of Clouts: A miscarriage
Wit: Function of the mind, quickness and sanity.
You are not holy to misrepresent me like this.
I am not mad: the hair I am ripping out is my own,
My name is Constance, I was Geoffrey’s wife,
Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost.
I’m not mad, but I really wish I was.
Because if I was, then I might forget my situation;
Oh, if I could forget, I would forget so much grief!
If you could somehow make me mad, Cardinal, it would be a good thing.
You would be rewarded for doing so.
Because I am not mad but am grieving like I should be,
my sanity tells me I may be free from my grief
if I were to kill or hang myself.
If I was mad, I would forget my son,
Or in madness think he had not been born.
I am not mad. Too sharply, too sharply
I feel the sadness which I feel.
– interjections from the other characters –
Grief fills up the room which my son used to live in,
it lies in his bed and stalks me when i walk,
reminds me of all the beautiful things about Arthur, my son,
And walks around the house in my son’s place.
If grief wore my son’s clothes, would then I be able to love grief?
good bye. If you had lost what I had,
I could comfort you better than you are comforting me.
O God, my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow comfort and the cure to all my sadness!
Notes On Performance
As I have stated in the introduction, balance is key in this scene. Balance in performance between intention and emotion, balance between obstacle and objective.
The obstacles in this scene for Constance are insurmountable. They are huge. She lacks agency to begin with in her current setting, and the war she wages for her son’s succession to the throne hangs on a delicate thread from the moment it is undertaken.
Like Lady Macbeth and Ophelia, this speech is a lament. We do not hear from Constance again in this play. She is reported by another to have died; what caused her death, we can only guess at. This is Constance’s swan song, and just like Ophelia fighting to be understood, and Lady Macbeth fighting to rid her conscience of guilt, Constance too must fight.
It is absolutely necessary for the actor playing Constance to engage with the character’s emotional state; this is unavoidable in the text and fuels Constance’s intention, but there is a real risk of over indulging in emotion and for the actor to play Constance as a victim. To play the victim simply means the actor is being self-affecting; that whatever actions and objectives they are playing is towards themselves, whether to encourage and show more of an emotional state or to feel acutely their own commitment to the scene.
To avoid this trap, the actor must take their intention from themselves and place it onto the other characters in the scene. In this case, the other characters speaking to Constance are Cardinal Pandulph and King Phillip, both of whom have either betrayed or ridiculed her.
Constance is pursuing the understanding, the empathy of these men. She does not wish them to pity her, but for them to dismiss her grief as madness is a step too far for Constance. She tells them,
“My name is Constance; I was Geffrey’s wife;
Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost:
I am not mad: I would to heaven I were!”
This “I am not mad” is at the core of Constance’s objective. She wishes to push through her grief to prove her sanity.
In technical terms, what could (and should) emerge in this scene is variety. Through the actor playing different actions, this scene will flow between exclamations of emotion and direct, needle-like pursuit of an objective.
There is an intimacy, a privacy to this scene which is mixed with its public nature. Shakespeare loves to disrupt the traditional functioning of a court, and frequently uses grief-struck women who have begun to disregard custom to do this. As Constance, use this fact. It is power. Constance is now no longer bound by manners or status, her grief has released her from those bands. She will now do and say whatever she must to get across to these men.
Due to the tricky nature of this speech, you may like to watch a rendition of it for reference. This performance by Camille O’Sullivan is particularly moving. Check it out if you like, I hope you enjoy.
What a task this speech is for an actor. Done well, it is unavoidably moving for an audience. Indulge too much, however, and you may soon fall into the trap of playing the victim.
The emotional content of this scene: the loss of a child, should not be underestimated by the actor. Particularly if this is a speech you are preparing for a series of auditions, or one you plan to spend some time with, put into place some strategies for self care. Tap in and tap out of the role. Learn how to ‘de-role’ effectively. Know and understand the difference between the character’s emotion and your own – there is a difference, and pouring yourself into this character without proper precautions could be dangerous and damaging.