Will Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I: 5.4.76-85


O Harry, thou has robbed me of my youth.
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me.
They wound my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh.
But thoughts, the slaves of life, and life, time’s fool,
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy,
But that the earthly and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue. No, Percy, thou art dust
And food for – [He dies.]


For worms, brave Percy.


~ by ohkrapp on November 21, 2008.

4 Responses to “Will Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I: 5.4.76-85”

  1. this is an unlikely passage to cite, but it’s one of my favorite shakespeare speeches. rare for shakespeare, the stage action is crucial to its full appreciation.

    prince henry (later henry v) has just fought hotspur/percy (one of my favorites shakespeare characters) and dealt a fatal blow. these are his dying words.

    i first saw this scene performed in a recording of a Royal Shakespeare Company rehearsal from the 80s under the direction of john barton. i don’t think the series is available on DVD, but it contains some of the best shakespeare performances on film: patrick stewart, ben kingsley, judi dench, ian mckellan and so on working through their scenes and speaking eloquently about their process. there are about a dozen installments. if you’re interested, your library should have them on VHS.

    i think that michael pennington (the actor who plays moff jerjerrod in return of the jedi!) was performing hotspur here. i can’t recall the scene in detail, only that i was extremely moved by its execution.

    death monologues are notoriously difficult to pull off. the characters are conscious of the imminence of their death, so their words – confessions, curses – demand a supreme, pathetic lucidity: this is their final act.

    in these ten lines, hotspur oscillates between utter recognition, resolution and regret:

    ‘Oh Harry, thou has robbed me of my youth.’

    i’m not sure how old hotspur was when he was killed, but there’s a fascinating ambiguity in this line; he does not say, ‘thou hast robbed me of my old age,’ the years he would otherwise have lived. harry robs him of his youth, it seems, retroactively.

    ‘I better brook the loss of brittle life’ .. the alliteration almost overwhelms this line, but the words are so well chosen (better, brook(!), brittle) that it prevails. and what better consonant for a dying man? you can hear the life bubbling out of him.

    one of the motifs here is the opposition of the physical and metaphysical. hotspur is at first shocked by his physical death, but then renounces the flesh: ‘they wound my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh.’ this escape route is incrementally shown to be futile: ‘but thoughts, the slaves of life’ |caesura: oh no| ‘and life, time’s fool’ |line break: oh no!| ‘and time, that takes survey of all the world’ |line break: the horror, the horror!| ‘must have stop!’

    his fleeing thoughts (‘prophesies’) are then dragged back to earth and dust… was shakespeare a materialist?

    then comes the bruce willis line, ‘Food for worms!’ – i think that in the RSC rehearsal, hotspur performed the entire monologue impaled on the sword, and then the actor playing harry yanked it out right before he said this line. it has to be spoken with love.


    the punctuation here comes from david scott kasdan’s arden edition of the play.

  2. Let me read this aloud, for you.

  3. I wonder how much S was aware of early Scandinavian alliterative verse. There’s a line in one of the Eddas which in Swedish and from my memory is “Bättre börde böra man inget än lite mannevett” (probably incorrect) which means something like “Better burden bears man not than a little wit” which is unimportant but phonetically similar to line 77. If he is referencing the sagas Percy could be here acknowledging the horror of post-epic death where the victim is not simply erased (the sagas frequently put an end to a character’s input by saying “so-and-so is now out of this saga” and one sense almost relief) but is able to reflect on the world that will continue after the character is removed from it.

  4. i read this list once that some shakespeare scholar had compiled detailing all the subjects s-peare must have been familiar with to have written his plays: allusions to literature and language, mythology and geography. we know that he was a great poet and dramatist, but we forget (at least, i forget) the breadth (albeit lacking in depth) of his knowledge. (so it wouldn’t surprise me if he had cribbed some scandinavian verse.)

    this is the evidence touted by people who think the plays were authored not by a single person but by a diverse group.. actually, there’s even some fringe group who thinks s-peare was a german immigrant, given that (so i’m told?) his syntax consistently matches the ‘satzklammer’….. i’m trying to think of examples that would but i can’t think of any. german translations are known to be excellent, though.

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