Henry VI Part 3 Monologue (Act 2 Scene 5) | Monologues Unpacked
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Henry VI Part 3 Monologue (Act 2 Scene 5)

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Ah, the woes of those who wear the crown, particularly in Shakespeare’s canon. Here is yet  another speech given by a dejected monarch who wishes to unburden themselves of the  responsibility of being King. 

Henry VI 

Before we dive into this beautiful speech, let’s talk a little bit about the sorry figure of Henry the Sixth. Unlike his father before him, (Henry the Fifth, the ‘Warlike Harry’) and his father before him, (Henry the Fourth, self described as ‘mighty, and to be feared’), Henry the Sixth is a timid, God fearing man who was never made to sit on the throne. Ascending to the throne at a very young age, Henry’s luck stopped short very early on. It was prophesied that Henry would lose the much  contended lands his father won, leading to an inability to command respect from his subjects and  advisors.  

His story is put down by Shakespeare towards the conclusion of the great ‘War of the Roses’  saga; a series of plays ranging from Richard the Second right through to Richard the Third. In Henry the Sixth, parts one to three, a full scale battle is raging between two competing royal families: the house of  York and Lancaster. The two families are fighting over the legitimacy of the crown and its rightful owner. Henry VI was in the house of Lancaster, the same house which usurped the throne from Richard the second, House of York, generations earlier.  

Context

At the point in the play where we find Henry now, a battle is raging all around him. He has extracted himself from the fray, (or rather he has been sent away by his hot-blooded wife and bloodthirsty comrade) to find peace and solitude in nature and look to the heavens for guidance and relief. Following this soliloquy, we see a scene often depicted in Shakespeare’s plays, of a King experiencing a rare moment of enlightenment as they witness the plight of the common and innocent man.  

As Henry sits on a hill overlooking the battlefield, he turns his eyes to the sky and comments on the morning’s battle over darkness. He is not a man of war, he is a man of poetry, and his only offering to this situation is not one of command or leadership, morale or valour, but of metaphor and a hope for peace. 

I cannot help but empathise with this peaceful man in his dire situation. This soliloquy is truly a joy to speak and exist within, and the characters situation, like many of Shakespeare’s settings, is grand and high stakes. A lot of fun for us as actors to perform.

Original Text

This battle fares like to the morning’s war,
When dying clouds contend with growing light,
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,
Can neither call it perfect day nor night.
Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea
Forced by the tide to combat with the wind;
Now sways it that way, like the selfsame sea
Forced to retire by fury of the wind:
Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better, then another best;
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,
Yet neither conqueror nor conquered:
So is the equal of this fell war.
Here on this molehill will I sit me down.
To whom God will, there be the victory!
For Margaret my queen, and Clifford too,
Have chid me from the battle; swearing both
They prosper best of all when I am thence.
Would I were dead! if God’s good will were so;
For what is in this world but grief and woe?
O God! methinks it were a happy life,
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run,
How many make the hour full complete;
How many hours bring about the day;
How many days will finish up the year;
How many years a mortal man may live.
When this is known, then to divide the times:
So many hours must I tend my flock;
So many hours must I take my rest;
So many hours must I contemplate;
So many hours must I sport myself;
So many days my ewes have been with young;
So many weeks ere the poor fools will ean:
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece:
So minutes, hours, days, months, and years,
Pass’d over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.
Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!
Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,
Than doth a rich embroider’d canopy
To kings that fear their subjects’ treachery?
O, yes, it doth; a thousand-fold it doth.

Uncommon Language/Phrases

Blowing of his nails: Warming ones hands with their breath 

Selfsame: The exact same 

Molehill: A small mound of earth thrown up by a mole burrowing near the surface. (Henry’s hill  may just be a small natural hill which he is calling a molehill. The image of a King sitting on a tiny  hill is a comical and piteous one.) 

Quaintly: In an attractively unusual or old-fashioned manner. 

Homely swain: A country youth 

Ean: ‘Yean’ – (of a sheep of goat) give birth to (a lamb or kid).

Modern Translation

This battle fares like to the morning’s war,
When dying clouds contend with growing light,
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,
Can neither call it perfect day nor night.
Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea
Forced by the tide to combat with the wind;
Now sways it that way, like the selfsame sea
Forced to retire by fury of the wind:
Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better, then another best;
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,
Yet neither conqueror nor conquered:
So is the equal of this fell war.

The battle I see before me is like the morning battle in the sky, as the sun burns off the  clouds with its light. This time of morning a shepherd, warming his hands with his breath,  could not call it day or night. Now the battle sways this way, like the sea fighting with the  wind. The one with the upper hand is always switching side, sometimes its the sea,  sometimes it’s the wind, like a match of tug-of-war. Neither side is victorious. It’s the same  situation with this war. 

Here on this molehill will I sit me down.
To whom God will, there be the victory!
For Margaret my queen, and Clifford too,
Have chid me from the battle; swearing both
They prosper best of all when I am thence.
Would I were dead! if God’s good will were so;
For what is in this world but grief and woe?

Here on this small hill I’ll sit down. Whoever God wishes to win, that is who will win. I can’t do anything about it; both my wife and Lord Clifford want me gone from the battle, saying that they fare better when I’m not there. I wish I was dead, and that God wished me dead too. What is there in this world but grief and sadness?

O God! methinks it were a happy life,
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run,
How many make the hour full complete;
How many hours bring about the day;
How many days will finish up the year;
How many years a mortal man may live.
When this is known, then to divide the times:
So many hours must I tend my flock;
So many hours must I take my rest;
So many hours must I contemplate;
So many hours must I sport myself;

God, I think it would be a really nice life to be nothing but a simple youth. To sit upon a hill, as I do now, and watch the hours drifting along and get to know the time. Then you would truly understand the value of a minute, hour, day and year, and you’d be able to divide them appropriately: this many hours must I dedicate to shepherding, this many hours must I sleep. This many hours can I spend thinking, meditating and in prayer, and this many hours can I relax and enjoy myself.

So many days my ewes have been with young;
So many weeks ere the poor fools will ean:
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece:
So minutes, hours, days, months, and years,
Pass’d over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.

My sheep would follow the same structure: they will be be pregnant for a time, then with their young for a time, and it will be a time before they are ready for me to shear their fleece. This division of minutes, hours, days, months and years would be so simple and peaceful, that one may rest with ease at their death.

Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!
Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,
Than doth a rich embroider’d canopy
To kings that fear their subjects’ treachery?
O, yes, it doth; a thousand-fold it doth.

This would be such a beautiful life! Doesn’t the Hawthorne bush give a nicer shade to the shepherd sitting beneath it looking at their sheep than a fancy tent for a King who fears the people around him? Yes it does. A thousand-fold it does.

Notes on Performance

Henry the Sixth in this moment is in a position of utter helplessness and vulnerability. He has been sent away from battle by the people supposed to be on his side! He feels completely helpless.  There’s a key to us accessing this helplessness in performance. 

The physical positioning of this soliloquy, with Henry isolated and sitting on a small hill, is useful  for us as actors. Imagine how one might sit on a small hill: your knees would be high and you’d  most likely be cradling your legs in your arms. It’s a cold dawn, too. Henry’s status in this scene is  low. And that’s an intentional factor Shakespeare is adding into the mix. Shakespeare’s audience  was fascinated by royalty and the idea of them being just like common people – so seeing a King  stripped of all pomp and circumstance and alone in a field would be exciting and interesting for  them to see.  

Physicality as an actor can be a tremendous access point for us to gain insight into the inner  world of a character. If we were to do nothing else but assume the position Henry is in and speak  these words, I guarantee you that a lot of the work will be achieved for us. Once we have  physically cultivated this feeling of vulnerability Henry is experiencing, then we may dive deeper  into the text. 

Henry is helpless and powerless. He cannot influence the result of the battle unfolding before his  eyes, even though he is a king and should be in the fray with his subjects, (and his wife!) He is  also a deeply pious and religious man, hence his immediate action at the start of this scene being  to turn his eyes skyward and to the heavens. It’s important to take our time at the top of the  speech. Why was Henry looking skywards? Did he perhaps intend to pray, then the sunrise before  him inspired him to speak? All these choices made by the actor will add detail to the performance.  

Henry is referencing some very specific things in this soliloquy: the sky, an ocean, wind, a  shepherd, sheep, a Hawthorne bush ect. Our images need to be just as specific. We need to  know where in space these images are for us. Is the sunrise we are looking at directly above our  head? Perhaps, for the audience’s sake, we’re better off to place it just above their heads. Where  is the battle? Are there actually sheep milling about around him? As with all work on imagery, the  more specific the actor is, the more evocative the words will be for the audience’s imagination. If  you see it, we see it.  

This specificity too is required in his relationship to the characters mentioned in the soliloquy. Who  is Margaret and who is Clifford? (In short, Margaret is his wife – much more powerful and warlike  than he. Clifford is a vengeful Lord who seeks the death of The Duke of York and who despises  henry for his timid nature and incompetence.) Much detail is required from us as actors when we  reference these people. How does Margaret make Henry feel? When he references her, he  imagines her. When he imagines her, his body responds instinctively to her in a specific way. The  same goes for Clifford. Take care in building a specific image of these characters in your mind so  that when you mention their names, you react accordingly. 

As with all soliloquy’s, there is an argument being made. There is always conflict, never victory or  defeat. It would be risky for the actor to play this scene with complete despondency. Though  Henry may be beaten down and hopeless, his heart is still beating within him. Though he may  wish for death, he is still alive. There needs to be a struggle at hand for Henry – what does he  want and what is stopping him from achieving it? Acknowledging this conflict will allow the actor  to keep the soliloquy energised and engaging for the audience.

Conclusion

This is a beautiful soliloquy from a wonderfully unique and delicate character. It’s not often that  Shakespeare writes a vulnerable character in a position of power, and that dichotomy is great for  us to perform. The soliloquy comes at a time of great despair and helplessness for Henry, so it is crucial we  understand the circumstances surrounding it. We also must be specific about what Henry is  referencing: both the people in his life, the world around him and the imagined lives of the figures  he envies. Henry is a man of peace trapped in a world of violence. Enjoy the conflict that  juxtaposition brings!

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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