Week Two Summer/Autumn: A Muse of Fire

At the start of our tutorials this week we looked long and hard at that amazing speech written as the Prologue or Chorus to Henry V. This speech is like the key that unlocks so much of Shakespeare’s purpose and magic and puts his audience (and us as readers) in the hot-seat: in order to follow him on the amazing journey that he offers us, we have to deeply engage our imaginations to bridge the gap between his ancient words -played out on a small timber stage (“this unworthy scaffold”) and his intention to show us the world (mirrored in “this wooden O” of the Globe Theatre) in all its miraculous majesty and chaos. What amazing words these are:

  • 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! 5
    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 10
    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? 15
    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 20
    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, 25
    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, 30
    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.35

The words I like best in this whole speech are lines 27-28 where he asks us to see the horses “Printing their proud hoofs i’the receiving earth”. This is one powerful instance of where  the chiming, alliterative repetition of pr… pr…. captures the impact and the texture of those hoofs pushing their weight into an earth unable to resist their power and force: “i’the receiving earth”. Shakespeare just knew how to PUSH language to make it really DO ITS WORK.

Enjoy! And please watch this video clip of the Olivier Film production of the Prologue made in 1944, before the new Globe Theatre was even constructed! This film clip gives a real taste of what a Shakespearean Theatre performance would have been like. Click on the image below to bring it to life: 


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