James Konicek performs our reader’s winning speech here.
Tim stated that the Crispian Day speech in Henry V is, perhaps, the greatest in all of Shakespeare. Is he right?
We asked some of the Washington Area’s most fervent, and most expert, Shakespeareans to join Tim in selecting their three favorite speeches in the canon. See what actor and critic Jenn Larsen (WeLoveDC.com); actor and director Christopher Henley, Artistic Director of Washington Shakespeare Company; Folger Shakespeare Library Director Dr. Gail Kern Paster; director and Shakespeare Theatre Company Literary Associate Akiva Fox; and actor and dramaturg Cam Magee nominate as the Bard’s greatest speeches.
So join with us now in reading their choices, and vote your favorite in the poll to your right, or leave comments below, or both!
From As You Like It:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything
Christopher Henley — Jacques’ speech is at once brilliantly Shakespearean (in the way it breathtakingly changes the tone of a play, the way he would put ribald comedy in the midst of a tense moment of tragedy, or, as here, a wistful contemplation of mortality in the middle of a comedy) and one of those rare parts of a play that is so fully realized that it can stand alone as a beautiful work of art even outside the context of its play.
From Henry V
King Henry speaks:
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Tim Treanor — Two years ago, John McCain was holding a town hall meeting while campaigning for President. There was a fellow prisoner of war in the audience, who mentioned their shared experience in a Viet Nam prison. The presidential campaign, the rest of the audience, all of the great issues of the day dropped off as the two men – a candidate for President and, I believe, a retired steamfitter – talked and joked about the horrible events they shared. “Semper Fi” McCain said softly, ending the conversation, and I thought about the Crispian Day speech
From Julius Caesar
Marc Antony speaks:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
Christopher Henley — Even Shakespeare’s connivers (like Richard III & Iago) are skilled at using language and emotion to their advantage, and in the best of productions, we feel ourselves moved or convinced even as we are aware of the manipulation. This speech has always stood out for me as a prime example, perhaps because it is the first i had a deep encounter with; i had seen but never read his plays before this one. i guess you never forget your first…
Lady Macbeth speaks:
The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’
Gail Kern Paster — “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.” So cries Lady Macbeth in one of the most truly terrifying, deeply imaginative speeches in all of Shakespeare, invoking unnamed spirits to empty her body of its natural capacity for pity and tenderness and exchange it for bloodthirstiness. For a woman to ask for such remorselessness must have seemed shocking in 1607—and still does!
Her father loved me; oft invited me;
Still question’d me the story of my life,
From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes,
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days,
To the very moment that he bade me tell it;
Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field
Of hair-breadth scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence
And portance in my travels’ history:
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak,–such was the process;
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline:
But still the house-affairs would draw her thence:
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch,
She’ld come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse: which I observing,
Took once a pliant hour, and found good means
To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart
That I would all my pilgrimage dilate,
Whereof by parcels she had something heard,
But not intentively: I did consent,
And often did beguile her of her tears,
When I did speak of some distressful stroke
That my youth suffer’d. My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs:
She swore, in faith, twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful:
She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d
That heaven had made her such a man: she thank’d me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story.
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake:
She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used:
Here comes the lady; let her witness it.
Gail Kern Paster — “Her father loved me, oft invited me, / Still questioned me the story of my life.” In this long, eloquent speech, Othello defends himself before the Venetian Senate against charges that he must have kidnapped Desdemona and made her marry him. On the contrary, he says, his autobiographical story of a wandering life full of dangers and wonders earned her heart: “She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.”
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul, –
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars! –
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.
Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and this the last:
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears: this sorrow’s heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love.
Akiva Fox — Somehow, this speech manages to mix love and hate in the same breath. It’s a speech that contains every contradiction of those strong emotions: devotion, disgust, righteous anger, idealization, regret, foolishness. We get to watch a man overpowered by unnamable feeling, to the point of killing the person he loves most.
From Richard II
King Richard speaks:
No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humor’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
Akiva Fox — Henry V may have more famous speeches, but I think this is better than anything in that play. It has all of the features that distinguish Richard II – ornate language, vivid imagery, Richard’s relentless self-dramatizing – but it also shows the genuine terror of a person realizing the truth about himself for the first time. After all the rhetorical fireworks, the last four lines are shockingly simple.
from Richard III
King Richard speaks:
Give me another horse! Bind up my wounds!
Have mercy, Jesu! ––Soft, I did but dream.
O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!
The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What, do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself!
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no. Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain. Yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree;
Murder, stern murder, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all “Guilty! guilty!”
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die no soul will pity me.
And wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
Methought the souls of all that I had murdered
Came to my tent; and every one did threat
Tomorrow’s vengeance on the head of Richard.
Cam Magee — I cannot think of a speech where Shakespeare is so overtly working for the actor playing the role. Everything the actor needs to play this speech is found in the speech’s structure. It is a thirty line speech made up of thirty-four separate thoughts and those thirty-four thoughts take this ruthless killing-machine from terror to despair. Shakespeare humanizes Richard just before he’s killed off, so that the audience will care that he dies.
From Richard III
Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.
What! I, that kill’d her husband and his father,
To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,
With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,
The bleeding witness of her hatred by;
Having God, her conscience, and these bars
And I nothing to back my suit at all,
But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!
Hath she forgot already that brave prince,
Edward, her lord, whom I, some three months since,
Stabb’d in my angry mood at Tewksbury?
A sweeter and a lovelier gentleman,
Framed in the prodigality of nature,
Young, valiant, wise, and, no doubt, right royal,
The spacious world cannot again afford
And will she yet debase her eyes on me,
That cropp’d the golden prime of this sweet prince,
And made her widow to a woful bed?
On me, whose all not equals Edward’s moiety?
On me, that halt and am unshapen thus?
My dukedom to a beggarly denier,
I do mistake my person all this while:
Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
Myself to be a marvellous proper man.
I’ll be at charges for a looking-glass,
And entertain some score or two of tailors,
To study fashions to adorn my body:
Since I am crept in favour with myself,
Will maintain it with some little cost.
But first I’ll turn yon fellow in his grave;
And then return lamenting to my love.
Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass.
Jenn Larsen — I know it’s wrong to love a bad boy, but I love Richard. The embodiment of the Merry Vice, he pulls us along on a wild ride through ever-increasing horrors until finally we have to abandon him and turn away. But in the beginning, he’s got us in the palm of his hand – and in this soliloquy, he revels in the knowledge of that power. He can hardly believe it. For one moment, he can love! Too bad it’s just himself.
From Romeo and Juliet
Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus’ lodging: such a wagoner
As Phaethon would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaway’s eyes may wink and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk’d of and unseen.
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties; or, if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Play’d for a pair of stainless maidenhoods:
Hood my unmann’d blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle; till strange love, grown bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.
Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven’s back.
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
O, I have bought the mansion of a love,
But not possess’d it, and, though I am sold,
Not yet enjoy’d: so tedious is this day
As is the night before some festival
To an impatient child that hath new robes
And may not wear them. O, here comes my nurse,
And she brings news; and every tongue that speaks
But Romeo’s name speaks heavenly eloquence.
To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as.
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.
Jenn Larsen — This is such an extraordinary speech for its time. I sometimes wonder if Shakespeare took it from something he witnessed in real life. The cadence of the prose and its devastating building of tension to the final line reverberates strongly today. Sadly, our persecution of the other still exists.
From The Merchant of Venice
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
Gail Kern Paster — “The quality of mercy is not strained,” says Portia in reply to Shylock’s call for Antonio’s pound of flesh. Shylock has relied on the law, in demanding that his “merry bond” with Antonio be honored. Portia invokes a higher morality in defining mercy and how it must operate to mitigate law’s harshness. This perfectly-phrased plea for compassion has proved particularly popular with politicians; former President Bill Clinton quoted Portia extensively in his remarks on the death of Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin.
Christopher Henley — “The Invention of the Human” is the subtitle of Harold Bloom’s seminal work on Shakespeare and what more illustrative passage (maybe Lear’s “reason not the need”) than Portia’s speech here of the way he will pull us toward the graceful, the compassionate, the civilizing, the selfless impulse, voiced by a character who is, like we all are, otherwise flawed.
Tim Treanor — I would also nominate Portia’s “Quality of Mercy” speech. I understand others have also nominated this speech, and I yield to their description of it.
From The Tempest
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have ‘s mine own,
Which is most faint. Let me not,
In this bare island dwell by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
Cam Magee — It’s such a beautiful blending of two realities: Prospero’s own story and the actor playing him speaking to his audience.
From Titus Andronicus
Aaron the Moore speaks
Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day–and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse,–
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man, or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it,
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends,
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.
Tim Treanor — In an era awash with hypocritical apologies, it is a pleasure to hear a speech from a man who revels in his own evil. Four hundred years before Heath Ledger’s Joker became the contemporary patron Saint of Chaos, Shakespeare – in the play most popular during his lifetime – created this unforgettable character answering the question whether he repented of his deeds.
From Troilus and Cressida
Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes:
Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devour’d
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done: perseverance, dear my lord,
Keeps honor bright: to have done is to hang
Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail
In monumental mockery. Take the instant way;
For honor travels in a strait so narrow,
Where one but goes abreast: keep then the path;
For emulation hath a thousand sons
That one by one pursue: if you give way,
Or hedge aside from the direct forthright,
Like to an enter’d tide, they all rush by
And leave you hindmost;
Or like a gallant horse fall’n in first rank,
Lie there for pavement to the abject rear,
O’er-run and trampled on: then what they do in present,
Though less than yours in past, must o’ertop yours;
For time is like a fashionable host
That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand,
And with his arms outstretch’d, as he would fly,
Grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing. O, let not virtue seek
Remuneration for the thing it was;
For beauty, wit,
High birth, vigor of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating time.
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,
That all with one consent praise new-born gawds,
Though they are made and molded of things past,
And give to dust that is a little gilt
More laud than gilt o’er-dusted.
The present eye praises the present object.
Then marvel not, thou great and complete man,
That all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax;
Since things in motion sooner catch the eye
Than what not stirs. The cry went once on thee,
And still it might, and yet it may again,
If thou wouldst not entomb thyself alive
And case thy reputation in thy tent;
Whose glorious deeds, but in these fields of late,
Made emulous missions ‘mongst the gods themselves
And drave great Mars to faction.
Akiva Fox — Troilus and Cressida is a wildly inconsistent and sometimes maddening play, but this speech is as good as anything Shakespeare wrote; it deals with his favorite subject, the great and terrible power of time. In trying to coax the reluctant warrior Achilles out of his tent, Ulysses employs every truth and trick in his considerable arsenal. I don’t know if anyone has ever set forth the problems of fame in such a clear-eyed statement.
from Twelfth Night
Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house,
Write loyal cantons of contemnèd love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night,
Hallow your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling Gossip of the Air
Cry out “Olivia!” O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me.
Cam Magee — It’s such a seductive combination of images and sounds accumulating in that beautiful O.
– Exeunt –