How Shakespeare describes post-traumatic stress disorder

Lady Percy and Hotspur
Ellen Adair as Lady Percy and David Graham Jones as Hotspur, Henry IV, Part I, Folger Theatre, 2008. Photo by Carol Pratt.

Shakespeare’s plays are full of battles dominated by men, but one of his most compelling speeches about the life of a soldier comes from a woman: Lady Percy in Henry IV, Part 1, speaking to her husband, Hotspur.

U.S. Army veteran and actor Stephan Wolfert uses this speech in his one-man show, Cry Havoc! which draws together lines in Shakespeare’s plays spoken by soldiers and former soldiers, including Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III. The performance evokes and explains the psychological toll that war can take on those who serve in the armed forces.

“Hotspur, who has just come from combat, is about to leave the next morning,” Wolfert says. “She comes in and gives the best description of post-traumatic stress disorder in the English language, and it was written 400 years ago.”

“O my good lord, why are you thus alone?
For what offense have I this fortnight been
A banished woman from my Harry’s bed?
Tell me, sweet lord, what is ‘t that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure, and thy golden sleep?
Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth,
And start so often when thou sit’st alone?
Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks
And given my treasures and my rights of thee
To thick-eyed musing and curst melancholy?
In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watched,
And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars,
Speak terms of manage to thy bounding steed,
Cry “Courage! To the field!” And thou hast talk’d
Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,
Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoners’ ransom and of soldiers slain,
And all the currents of a heady fight.
Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war
And thus hath so bestirred thee in thy sleep,
That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow
Like bubbles in a late-disturbèd stream;
And in thy face strange motions have appeared,
Such as we see when men restrain their breath
On some great sudden hest. O, what portents are these?
Some heavy business hath my lord in hand,
And I must know it, else he loves me not.”
Henry IV, Part 1 (2.3.39-67)

“In fact, Jonathan Shay in his book Achilles in Vietnam takes a line of Shakespeare’s verse from Lady Percy’s speech and next to it puts symptoms out of the diagnostic manual on post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Wolfert. “New line of verse, new symptom, new line of verse, new symptom, right to the speech.”

Wolfert offers free weekly acting classes aimed at helping veterans readjust to life as civilians. Hear more about these classes and Cry Havoc! in this interview with Wolfert on the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast.

One Comment

  • One of the things that really struck me – when I first read, and then came to blog about, Titus Andronicus, was how it dealt with the treatment of soldiers come home from the wars. The public service of Titus – and indeed his family – received such scant reward or recognition, in the end. That was part o the tragic aspect of the play, for me.

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