April 23rd 2016 marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, the man many would agree is the English language’s greatest poet and playwright. Throughout Shakespeare’s many plays there are countless poignant and timeless speeches; however, there are three I consider to be the greatest, purely as a result of their perpetual relevance and of the meaning behind them. Shakespeare repeatedly captures significant aspects of the human condition and in turn teaches us something far beyond what is being discussed on the surface.
1) Hamlet, “To Be or Not To Be”: human indecisiveness in the face of a horrible situation.
Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be” speech is probably one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s, and certainly one of the greatest. Put simply, through his famous soliloquy, Hamlet explores the potential for suicide, weighing up the inevitable pain of life with the unknowability of death. Whilst Hamlet knows the misfortune and horror of life all too well, he is questioning whether death would actually provide relief into something better. He suggests that death is like sleep, and would therefore allow him to avoid the “heart ache and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir too…”. However, in opposition to the welcome numbing of sleep, Hamlet postulates that through the “perchance to dream”, there is potential to suffer in death worse than he does in life. I see this speech as not just poignant and heart breaking in the context of Hamlet the play, but also in its moving evocation of the whole human condition. Hamlet powerfully acknowledges how once a judgement call has been made, there is no going back. Hamlet likens death to an “undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns”, and this idea – whether or not to take a risk and leap into the unknown – is an idea which can be applied to so many aspects of the human condition.
2) Romeo and Juliet, “Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face”: all -encompassing love.
Romeo and Juliet is a story which is universally well-known, exploring two of the most famous lovers in history. Juliet’s poignant admittance of her love for Romeo – “Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face, / Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek / For that which thou hast heard me speak tonight” – is one of Shakespeare’s greatest speeches as he expertly and effortlessly seems to capture a completely different age, gender, and context to his own. He perfectly executes the passionate soliloquy of a young girl in love with timeless eloquence and relevance. Juliet is embarrassed by her admittance, highlighting her innocence and youth, yet goes on to question Romeo – “Dost thou love me?” – only to confidently exclaim “I know thou wilt say ‘Ay’”. Her naïve confidence and assurance of their relationship and her feelings exemplify those initial, optimistic attitudes intrinsic to anyone in love, perfectly exemplifying Shakespeare’s gift of capturing the essence of the human condition.
3) The Tempest, “Be not afeard the isle is full of noises”: colonial experiences.
The Tempest is thought by many critics to be Shakespeare’s last play. One of the great comedies, it also explores themes of forgiveness, redemption, power, and politics, and is all set on a remote, microcosmic island. Shakespeare was writing at a time when the New World was opening up and Caliban, the native island dweller, can be seen as a character who embodies the experiences of the natives of many of the newly discovered countries. He is a complex character, speaking in a way which quite contrasts what one would expect of a cannibal. My favourite speech in Act 3 Scene 2 begins with the softly poetic “Be not afeard the isle is full of noises,/ Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. / Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments / Will hum about mine ears…”. The beautiful imagery evoked by the poetic language of this supposedly savage creature as he explains his home has been seen to be suggestive of Caliban’s noble character, ignored by Prospero and the other ‘civilised’ characters. This has been seen to signify the unjust nature of Caliban’s enslavement, suggesting that his status within The Tempest can be interpreted as a symbol of colonialism. Through this beautiful speech, I interpret Shakespeare to be highlighting the unjust nature of colonialism, and also on a more unequivocal level, the idea that one should not be judged solely on initial images or perceptions. Ultimately, this is one of the most important things a human can be taught.
Despite being just a fragment of Shakespeare’s extensive catalogue of work, these three speeches portray not only great writing but also an insight into Shakespeare’s greatness at perfectly pinpointing aspects of the human condition we may not even be aware of ourselves. These speeches epitomise the fact that Shakespeare’s plays and the great speeches they contain are not merely pieces for entertainment; they teach humanity something about themselves time and time again.