Henry V Monologue (Act 4, Scene 1) | Monologues Unpacked
Henry V Monologue

Henry V Monologue (Act 4, Scene 1)

Written by on | Monologues Unpacked

Let’s have a look at a soliloquy from Henry the Fifth. This is a truly fantastic character to explore. Henry is put through so many trials and high-stakes situations, and his personality is  constantly torn between his pride and honour. We see him bolstering his disheartened troops in  the siege of Harfleur, we see him rallying his officers before the battle of Agincourt. We also see him be petty and competitive, and in the case of this speech, desperate. This text, taken from Act IV, Scene I, beginning with the line “Upon the King” is the soliloquy we’ll be unpacking today.

Context

So as always, let’s talk about what’s going on for Henry at this point in the play. It’s dawn, on the  day of the Battle of Agincourt, where the English forces led by Henry are outnumbered 5 to one.  Morale is low amongst his troops, and Henry wishes to speak to some of them to understand their feelings, and perhaps boost their morale and even empathise with his situation. Let’s think about that for a second; Henry’s main concern does not seem to be with the well-being of his men but rather with his reputation. It says a lot about Henry as a character. These flaws are wonderful for us to explore as actors, though we must be careful not to judge him outright. We need to endeavour to empathise with his situation.  

In disguise, he speaks to two soldiers in the English camp, Bates and Williams. He attempts to  convince them of the King’s (his own) good intentions and loyalty to his soldiers, and the difficulty of his position as King, but the soldiers remain unmoved by his arguments. The men speak of the guilt the King will carry for all the dismembered bodies that will lay on the battlefield come sunset on that very day.  

This discussion with the troops is so unsuccessful for Henry, and his pride is so affronted that an argument breaks out between Henry and Williams. The only reason the argument doesn’t come to psychical violence is the fact that they will both most likely be killed by the French in mere hours.  They resolve to continue their quarrel if they are somehow victorious.  

All these circumstances, the oncoming battle, the cold dawn, the disguise Henry wears, the disillusioned soldiers and the argument which erupts between Henry and his men all contribute to Henry’s emotional state at the top of this soliloquy. Let’s take a closer look at the speech itself:

Original Text

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idle ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer’st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? what are thy comings in?
O ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?
Wherein thou art less happy being fear’d
Than they in fearing.
What drink’st thou oft, instead of homage sweet,
But poison’d flattery? O, be sick, great greatness,
And bid thy ceremony give thee cure!
Think’st thou the fiery fever will go out
With titles blown from adulation?
Will it give place to flexure and low bending?
Canst thou, when thou command’st the beggar’s knee,
Command the health of it? No, thou proud dream,
That play’st so subtly with a king’s repose;
I am a king that find thee, and I know
‘Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running ‘fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world,
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who with a body fill’d and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, cramm’d with distressful bread;
Never sees horrid night, the child of hell,
But, like a lackey, from the rise to set
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus and all night
Sleeps in Elysium; next day after dawn,
Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse,
And follows so the ever-running year,
With profitable labour, to his grave:
And, but for ceremony, such a wretch,
Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,
Had the fore-hand and vantage of a king.
The slave, a member of the country’s peace,
Enjoys it; but in gross brain little wots
What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.

Unfamiliar Words/Phrases

‘subject to the breath of every fool’
to be subjected to the criticism of even the most foolish of  people. 

Private men
Common people with their ‘normal’ (non royal) lives.  

Ceremony
The ritual observances and procedures required or performed at grand and formal  occasions. Think: The crown jewels. 

Homage
Special honour or respect shown publicly.  

Adulation
Excessive admiration or praise 

Flexure and low bending
The bowing and penitence of a King’s subjects. Repose: In a state of rest, sleep or tranquility 

Phoebus
The Greek God Apollo, tasked with driving the sun chariot across the sky each day.

Elysium
Paradise of the afterlife from Greek myth.

Hyperion
The Titan who came before Apollo, the “God of heavenly light”

Modern Translation

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all.

On the shoulders of the King rest the common people’s lives, souls, debts, family and sins.  The king must bear all this weight.

O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?

What a difficult position, though it comes with greatness, to be subjected to the voices and  demands of all the most base of society. What peaceful lives must Kings refuse that  common people get to enjoy! What do Kings have that common people don’t have, except  formality and rituals?

And what art thou, thou idle ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer’st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? what are thy comings in?
O ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?
Wherein thou art less happy being fear’d
Than they in fearing. 

And what are these rituals which Kings have that common people have not? What kind of  ‘God’ suffers more than its subjects? What does ceremony give me in return? What  income? Ceremony show me your worth! Or are you just useless systems made only to  make others fearful and subservient – even if in doing so I am less happy that those beneath  me?

What drink’st thou oft, instead of homage sweet,
But poison’d flattery? O, be sick, great greatness,
And bid thy ceremony give thee cure!
Think’st thou the fiery fever will go out
With titles blown from adulation?
Will it give place to flexure and low bending?
Canst thou, when thou command’st the beggar’s knee,
Command the health of it? 

What drink does ‘ceremony’ get to enjoy except for forced respect? Nothing but fake  flattery. Make a King sick with a disease- then cure him with this ‘ceremony’. See what  happens. Do you think you will cure a fever with a fancy title? Will a fever run away because  of penitence and the bowing of the King’s subjects? Can ceremony command a servant to  kneel before him and also cure the servant of any ailment – like a God?

No, thou proud dream,
That play’st so subtly with a king’s repose;
I am a king that find thee, and I know
‘Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running ‘fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world,
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who with a body fill’d and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, cramm’d with distressful bread;
Never sees horrid night, the child of hell,
But, like a lackey, from the rise to set
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus and all night
Sleeps in Elysium; next day after dawn,
Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse,
And follows so the ever-running year,
With profitable labour, to his grave: 

No. This power is nothing but a dream that makes me restless. I am a King and I understand  you, ceremony, and I know that none of the Royal apparel: the ball, sceptre, sword, mace or  crown, none of the decorations of Regality can help a King sleep as soundly as the most  base slave. He has a full stomach and an empty mind, and he never fears the night. The  slave is like the servant to a God who gets to sleep in heaven to then repeat his simple  servitude day after day until his death.

And, but for ceremony, such a wretch,
Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,
Had the fore-hand and vantage of a king.

Were it not for ceremony, this slave I speak of, being able to end his days of work with  peaceful sleep, is luckier than a King will ever be.

Notes on Performance

The key to effectively performing any soliloquy is understanding the argument that is being made.  For Henry, his argument is clear and unfaltering: The supposed ‘benefits’ of being a King are not  better than being a common person without responsibility. Henry gives many points to support his  argument. To deliver this soliloquy we need to empathise with and understand the situation he is  in. Once we understand and can feel the difficulty of the position he is in, (He is about to send  thousands of men to their deaths in a few hours, remember?) we can start to truly perform the  soliloquy.  

Henry has a deep yearning to be relived of the burden and responsibility of leadership. He feels a  tremendous weight upon his shoulders, all the lives, fears and resentment of his subjects are  within his as he is speaking these words. It is important then for us as actors to be propelled  forward by this inner conflict. Henry wants to be free from responsibility, yet he knows he will  never be.  

Declan Donnellan, director and author of ‘The Actor and the Target’ tells us that we need a clear  target to direct our objectives and actions towards. Henry in this speech has a number of  ‘target’s’, the most prominent being this idea of ‘Ceremony’. It’s important for us to understand  exactly what this ‘ceremony’ is to him. This image needs to be clear to us as actors. We need to  understand our relationship to it and what it ignites within us.  

‘Ceremony’, to Henry, could be comparable to manure for the everyday person. Ceremony clearly  does not hold the same mysticism, awe and wonder for Henry as it would for most observing the  ornaments and jewellery of royalty. Henry is personifying ‘Ceremony’ in this speech, giving it life  and putting it on trial, testing it for its true worth. In performing this the actor must clearly know  what the image of ceremony is to them and where it is in space to direct their thoughts towards it. 

Specificity is key. Beware the list in this speech! Detailed work is required from the actor in  generating specific images and feelings about each object Henry mentions. The sceptre and the  ball are two very different and individual objects. The sword and the mace cannot be grouped  together in how we reference them because they are both categorised as ‘weapons’. The actor  must have a specific robe in their mind when they reference it in this speech. Henry knows each  of these objects individually and specifically. Generalisation about this list is dangerous – it’s a  sure fire way to turn off the audience’s imagination.

Conclusion

In performing this soliloquy we need to firstly understand the circumstances around it and what  has immediately preceded it – Henry’s emotional state is drastically impacted by these factors. Next, we must understand what is being said and the argument which is being made. This speech  has a ‘venting’ quality to it – Henry has no confidant but the audience for these controversial  thoughts, and this gives them an explosive and desperate nature. In dissecting this speech we  must ask, “Does Henry truly feel this way about Ceremony?” Would Henry actually substitute his  life and privilege for that of someone from the lower class? That is for the individual actor to  decide. Regardless, Henry has an intimate knowledge about ‘Ceremony’ and therefore has very  strong opinions about it. The actor must be as clear as Henry is about what this pomp and circumstance is, what it looks  like, how it feels and how it makes us feel. Only then can we achieve specificity in performance  and evoke detailed images in the minds of the audience.

About the Author

StageMilk Team

is made up of young professional actors and writers from around the world. This team includes Andrew Hearle, Luke McMahon, Indiana Kwong, Patrick Cullen and many more. We all work together to contribute useful articles and resources for actors at all stages in their careers.

About the Author

StageMilk Team

is made up of young professional actors and writers from around the world. This team includes Andrew Hearle, Luke McMahon, Indiana Kwong, Patrick Cullen and many more. We all work together to contribute useful articles and resources for actors at all stages in their careers.

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