Performing the Queen's Men

Famous Victories : The Sick Chair

Clue 4: The King Dieth


...KING HENRY IV: Well, my lords, I know not whether it be for sleep or drawing near of drowsy summer of death, but I am very much given to sleep. Therefore, good my lords and my son, draw the curtains, depart my chamber, and cause some music to rock me asleep.

Exeunt omnes.

The King dieth.

Like "He goeth" in the previous exercise this is a very curious stage direction. It too could be read as a narrative rather than a theatrical device. If you read on, you will see that it becomes quickly apparent that the king is dead because the characters all tell us so. Strictly speaking therefore it is not necessary to stage the king’s death. Perhaps this line was added to the printed text to make matters clear to the reader, an argument that is strengthened by the fact that the stage direction is preceded by “Exeunt Omnes”. This direction usually indicates that all characters leave the stage and in this case that would include the king. However, the king has just given clear instructions that everyone should “depart [his] chamber” and it would seem odd if they took him with them.

In our production we took this anomaly as an indicator that the king's death was staged. Stage directions in Queen’s Men plays are sparse in comparison to modern plays but, in comparison to other plays, Queen's Men texts contain relatively elaborate stage directions which has led scholars to the conclusion that stage spectacle was a specialty of the company. Later in the play there is another such curious stage direction when the text simply reads: “The Battle". We can be pretty sure that the company exploited their relatively large numbers to develop an extensive and exciting battle scene. Even though the stage direction “The king dieth” is bare, such an important event in the story could hardly be treated lightly and we decided that it presented an opportunity to increase the spectacle of the play.

The implication of the evidence therefore is that the king dies on the stage and this has important consequences for the staging of the scene. As the king was to die on stage, we had to find a way to get him off stage and in a manner suited to the dignity and the majesty of his person. If we had pursued the bed option, this would have been relatively easy, since once he was dead the curtains around the bed could have been drawn and the actor exited into the tiring house. But as we have seen already, the bed option fails to account for the king’s line: "But good my lords take off my crown, remove my chair a little back, and set me right."