Read Shakespeare’s “Oh for a muse of fire” quote from Henry V below, along with a modern English translation:

Spoken by Chorus, Henry V, Prologue

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.

 

Modern Translation of “Oh for a muse of fire”:

Oh for a muse of fire that would reach the uppermost heights of creativity – the stage a kingdom; actors, princes; and monarchs to watch the awe-inspiring spectacle! Then the warlike Harry, just being himself, would assume the role of Mars, the god of war, and at his heels, leashed in like hounds, famine, bloodshed and fire would crouch, waiting to be let loose. But, ladies and gentlemen, forgive the flat uninspiring actors who dare to represent such a great matter on this wretched stage. Can this small theatre accommodate the vast French countryside? Or can we cram all the fighting men who so terrified Agincourt into this small round ? Oh sorry! But since one figure can represent a million on the stage, allow us – insignificant in this great affair – to get to work on your imaginations. Imagine that within the perimeter of these walls two mighty kingdoms whose cliff-lined coasts, separated by a narrow, dangerous sea, are enclosed. Let your imagination compensate for our inadequacies. Imagine that each man is multiplied by a thousand and create an army for yourself. Imagine, when we talk of horses, that you see them stamping their proud hoof-prints in the soft earth, because it’s your imagination that must enrobe our kings. Move them around, jumping over periods of time, turning the events of several years into the span of a single hour. To help you in that let me be the Chorus to this story. As the Chorus, I humbly beg you to listen courteously to our play and judge it kindly.

3 replies
  1. raymond
    raymond says:

    Ben is wrong in his interpretation of the words ‘like himself’. It means what the translation says it means. Harry is acting within his nature, giving birth to his true self.

    Reply
  2. Dave
    Dave says:

    Man! I wish god – but, like a pissed off greek god of war! – could help us make our play as high and awesome as it deserves to be! I wish this screen was the size of a country, and that instead of actors we had real heros and warriors, and we were being watched by the great men of our country’s history! Then king Harry – who in this play is ready to fuck shit up – would become like that pissed-off god of war – which is how he really was back in the day! Troops and Nukes and WMDs would be like dogs at his feet, ready to be let off the chain and wreck shit.

    But ladies and gentlemen, we don’t have all of that. You’ve got to forgive us – we’re just simple people, actors, who dare to step in front of a little camera and try and show you a glimpse of these great events like they were. Can this movie theater contain the sweeping fields of France? Can the screen even fit the *helmets* on all the french troops – that in real life were terrifying to see – at the battles we’re going to show you? No, man.

    So, forgive us. But a one with a couple zeros tacked on can become a hundred, we (who are basically zeros ourselves compared to the people we’re playing) can at least stimulate your imagination. But you’ve got to buy in. You’ve got to imagine two of history’s greatest kingdoms, divided by a tiny, perilous ocean, right here in the theater with you. Make up for what we’re lacking with your imagination. For every guy on stage, imagine there are a thousand, an army. When we talk about horses, picture them: planting their proud hooves in the soft dirt. Because we need your imagination to put robes on our kings, and take us from city to city, and take a story that takes place over many years into a two hour movie.

    I’m going to be your guide, like the choruses in old greek plays, here to help tell the story. And like anyone giving an intro, I just ask you to listen, and don’t judge us too harshly.

    Reply
  3. Ben
    Ben says:

    It’s a great idea to have translations of Shakespeare into modern English, but this isn’t a great translation.

    “The warlike Harry, just being himself” — what’s that supposed to mean. Surely the original means that in the ideal world envisioned by the Chorus, King Henry himself would be playing the part of Hal.

    “Since one figure can represent a million on the stage” — no, the reference is to the crooked figure, the digit 1, which can in its proper place (i.e. if followed by six zeroes) represent a million. “Let us, ciphers to this great accompt” is a Shakespearian pun. The actors are ciphers, codes, because they portray reality without actually being reality. But “cipher” is also another word for the digit 0 — exactly what is needed to turn a humble 1 into 1,000,000.

    The text is so much richer than portrayed by this translation. Translate and explain by all means, but it would be great if the translation did justice to the original.

    Reply

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