A lot of people overlook Prince Hal as a character, and over the Henriad as a group of plays. They’re revered, but perhaps only in small circles. Just like the very character we’ll be looking at today, Prince Hal. Richard II through to Henry V otherwise known as the Henriad is a remarkable group of plays with love, betrayal, ambition and everything else we love Shakespeare for. Prince Hal goes on a journey from essentially juvenile delinquent to the revered King Henry the Fifth of England. And in this speech he tells us exactly how he plans to do that.
King Henry the IV is a few years into his rein and it is not a quiet one. You see King Henry did not come to the throne quietly, he usurped his predecessor King Richard the II and there’s some folks who aren’t too happy about that. He also grows increasingly annoyed at his son and heir apparent, Prince Hal. Speaking of, meanwhile we find Hal and his closest friend Falstaff, an old and flamboyant rogue, at the pub, joking and talking with each other. Falstaff looks forward to the day when Hal will be King. A friend of theirs named Poins enters and tells them about a group of Pilgrims who will be travelling down the highway the next night, and of his plans to rob them, inviting the two to help him on his escapade. Hal is initially reluctant, but when Poins tell hims of his real plan, to wait for Falstaff to do the robbing, only for them to rob Falstraff himself, Hal agrees, looking forward to hearing the tall tales Falstaf will spin of the event. And so they part ways, and when left alone, Hal ponders and speaks to the audience saying…
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behaviour I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
fancy, whim, inclination, caprice
old form: vnyoak’d
unbridled, unrestrained, rampant
pestilential, harmful, noxious
poor, wretched, of low quality
lack, need, be without
quench, eclipse, stifle
make merry, take pleasure (in)
unusual, striking, exceptional
occurrence, event, happening
background, surface, setting
dull, drab, sombre
old form: foyle
setting, background which sets something off to advantage
[of time lost] get back, buy back, make amends for
I understand all of you
And for now I will uphold this rowdy persona that you all have seen
I’ll be just like the sun, who allows the dark and gloomy clouds to hide his beauty from the world
Then when he wants to show the world his true self once again, he reemerges from behind the dull and disgusting clouds that strangled him.
If every day was a day of relaxation then relaxing would be just as tedious as working
When things don’t come that often, they’re longed for, people wish for them to come
And nothing is more loved than surprises
So when I finally get rid of this rowdy facade that I’m playing and take my place as King, something I never asked for
I’ll seem like such a better man
By doing this people will expect the worst of me
And like a piece of gold in the dark and dirty soil
My reformation, my new persona will outshine anything I’ve done in the past
I’ll be so offensive and so wild that I will make it into an artform
And then I’ll redeem myself when they least expect it
Notes on Performance
Firstly, always read the play. I know we harp on about this but I promise it’s for good reason. Most importantly because even if you donlt actively mine the text for them, your subconscious mind will identify the given circumstances of whatever you’re doing and you’ll have context for whatever world, moment, or situation your character finds themself. So as always, do your most basic work.
This speech is a great chance to work on what Stanislavski called the ‘inner life’ of a character. And the best way I can explain it is to turn the camera on you, dear reader. Ponder this. We’ve all been in situations in life where we’ve encountered a moment, maybe our friend has told us something that we didn’t want to hear, or we’ve been in a situation we really didn’t want, like a party or a work meeting, or we’ve had a tough conversation with our partner. In all of these moments there is what we present to the world around us, and how we really feel inside. In this speech we see the inner life manifested into speech, so in order to bring that to life it’s important to understand exactly what the persona that Hal is putting on, as well as connecting to how that character really feels inside. And what’s great about this speech is that Hal tells us how he feels! We just have to pay attention, connect to that, and bring it to life.