Movie Monologue Monday – Derek Jacobi in Henry V

For this weeks’ Movie Monologue Monday I’m going to look at the great Derek Jacobi in Henry V, the Kenneth Branagh version.

I adore this speech. It serves as a prologue to the play, setting up the story for the audience. And it’s richly theatrical. It asks the audience to suspend their disbelief, to forget that they’re in a theatre (this wooden o) to imagine that the stage can hold vast fields, great armies.

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings

Here’s the speech as performed by Derek Jacobi. A copy of the text follows.

Some observations –

  • Rather than being delivered on an empty stage as it would be in the theatre, the speech is delivered on a mostly-empty soundstage. There are bits of props here and there but there it’s pretty bare otherwise.
  • Notice how he (The Chorus) drives and directs the scene. He doesn’t exist until he lights the match. The set is unlit until he turns on the lights. The camera follows him, not the other way around. No movement happens that he doesn’t initiate.
  • The speech is done in one continuous take.
  • The speech is written in iambic pentameter, yet his delivery is so natural. He speaks poetically without being a slave to the rhythm and the line endings.

Class Exercise

Watch the video and discuss these questions. Don’t worry about whether or not everyone has seen the whole movie. Fill in the missing details using what you see, hear, and imagine.

  • The character’s name is “Chorus.” Why did Shakespeare choose this name?
  • Why do you suppose Shakespeare put this speech before the play? Why didn’t he just jump into the first scene?
  • The Chorus refers to “this wooden O.” What do you think he’s talking about?
  • What technical challenges were present for the actor and the filmmakers when filming this scene?
  • Why are we shown the backs of flats, a camera, and various props, in this scene?
  • [fun question] The piece appears to be one continuous shot. Do you see any spots where edits may have been made?
  • This speech has been edited from the original. Below you’ll find the speech as Shakespeare wrote it, the edits are in italics. Why do you suppose they chose to cut those lines in particular?

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

About the author

Craig Mason

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