A deadly standoff between two men is a dark, dank tower. One man is Richard Gloucester, the tyrant who will live on to become Richard the Third. The other is Henry the Sixth, a meek and gentle God-fearing man who has been imprisoned by the usurping family of York. Henry is defenceless and weak, and Richard has come to end his reign once and for all. All Henry can do is to curse Richard and scar his conscience with his words before he is killed.
A long, bitter and violent war is taking place between two English houses: the house of York and the house of Lancaster. The story of this war is called ‘The War of the Roses’, in reference to the red and white roses standing as symbols for each house. Richard Gloucester is from the house of York, in the same bloodline as Richard the Second, the King from generations ago who was usurped by Henry the Fourth. Henry the fourth, fifth and sixth were all a part of the house of Lancaster.
The war has come to a head in an all out struggle on the battlefield, and Henry the sixth has found himself in prison for the second time in only a few years. Henry does not align himself with warfare, but instead prefers a life of peace and quiet, left alone to praise God. He tells the audience earlier in the play he wishes to be like a shepherd, who’s only concern is the wellbeing of his flock.
But peace and abstinence from powerful reign has left Henry vulnerable. His wife and Lords of his army have grown doubtful of his control and have led his army in his place, and his distance from the battle has resulted in his capture. Henry’s faith in God has not resulted in triumph for him, but instead landed him in some serious trouble. But Henry’s faith is strong, so strong that his last words in his story are:
‘O God forgive my sins, and pardon thee!’
But in this speech Henry spits venom at Richard. Richard, who has caused so much death and destruction and who has killed Henry’s son. Henry does not wish to do ill by God, but he does wish to hurt Richard as best as he can before he meets his fate. Let’s take a look at the speech.
Original Text Henry VI (Act 5 Scene 6)
KING HENRY THE SIXTH:
Hadst thou been kill’d when first thou didst presume,
Thou hadst not liv’d to kill a son of mine.
And thus I prophesy, that many a thousand
Which now mistrust no parcel of my fear,
And many an old man’s sigh and many a widow’s,
And many an orphan’s water-standing eye—
Men for their sons, wives for their husbands,
Orphans for their parents’ timeless death—
Shall rue the hour that ever thou wast born.
The owl shriek’d at thy birth, an evil sign;
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time;
Dogs howl’d, and hideous tempest shook down trees;
The raven rook’d her on the chimney’s top,
And chatt’ring pies in dismal discords sung;
Thy mother felt more than a mother’s pain,
And yet brought forth less than a mother’s hope,
To wit, an indigested and deformed lump,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.
Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born,
To signify thou cam’st to bite the world;
And if the rest be true which I have heard,
Presume: A play on words from Richard’s previous line: “Thy son I killed for his presumption”. Presumption, in this case, refers to the Lancaster’s presumption that they will remain on the throne.
Mistrust no parcel of my fear: People now know of your true nature.
Water-standing: Filled with tears
Aboding: foreboding, ominous
Hideous tempest: a violent storm
Pies: Ravens, crowns and birds of the night
If you had been killed when you first assumed to know anything,
You wouldn’t have lived long enough to kill a son of mine.
This I predict: that thousands who now know the fear I feel now,
many sighing old men, crying widows and orphans
Men crying for their sons, wives for their husbands,
Orphans for their parent’s early death
They will all regret the hour that you were born.
The owl shrieked when you were born which is a dark omen,
The night-crow cried, an omen of bad luck,
Dogs howled and storms ripped down trees
Ravens made their nests in chimneys
And birds of death sang their foreboding songs
Your mother went through more pain than most,
and was rewarded with less than most:
An unfinished and deformed lump,
Not like her family who had come before her.
You had teeth in your mouth when you were born,
To show that you came to bite the world
And if the rest that I’ve heard is true
You came here –
Notes on Performance
Well Henry, any last words?
What a challenge for us actors. How on earth can we begin to feel what Henry must be going through at this moment. He is alone, his son has been killed, and now he is certain he is facing the man who will kill him; and he is right.
Often when we approach acting roles we talk about identifying the separation between ourselves and the character. How are we different? These differences can be useful in figuring out what we need to do to get closer to the character in order to play them. So, how would I react in Henry’s shoes right now? I would be in absolute fight or flight. I would be begging for my life, crying, trying to run away or attack Richard. I would be desperate and manic. Henry, on the other hand, manages to channel all that he is feeling into a careful dissection of Richard’s character. He is unarmed and defenceless, except for his words. All he can do in place of physically scarring Richard is to scar his conscience and hopefully bring about his demise by planting a seed of doubt in Richard’s mind.
To tap into this scene we need to align ourselves with all that Henry has gone through. He has lost his son. He has been locked in the Tower and probably hasn’t eaten for days. How does he muster the energy to say these words? The source of energy I turn to for Henry is always his faith. It is the single most important thing to Henry, even more than his family, and he preserves that right until the end. Richard stops him by stabbing him and and says:
“I’ll hear no more; die, prophet, in thy speech”
Perhaps Henry’s plan has worked? Perhaps him speaking as a prophet is the one way to channel fear into the heart of Richard? As we know now, (Information that poor Henry will never know) Richard is haunted by the ghosts of those he has killed at the end of his play, Richard the Third. Perhaps Henry’s plan works, and the seed of guilt planted in this moment grows to take control of Richard’s soul and lead to his demise.
When acting this speech, it’s important to play the range of experiences Henry is having, without giving all the weight to one aspect of the given circumstances. Henry is grieving, starving, desperate, resentful, faithful and despairing all at once. To play only one of these states is to rob Henry of the complexity of his final moment.
Conclusion: “Hadst thou been kill’d when first thou didst presume”
This monologue is a fantastic example of high stakes in Shakespeare. If you want to dig into some really challenging content from a character in a really dire situation, Henry, in this scene, is a great bet for you. What great practice to play a character on death’s doorstep who is able to still use language to impact Richard? This is a prime example of why we never ‘play the obstacle’ in acting. Even if a character has NOTHING and all hope is lost for them, there is still something they want. Still something they need – an objective which they must pursue. How can you play Henry’s desperate objective amidst all the obstacles he faces? Good luck to you! I hope your objective of tackling this great speech goes better than Henry’s objective of overcoming Richard. Enjoy!