Thinking about my favourite Shakespeare speeches has been a pleasant diversion for a damp and blowy bank holiday weekend. It started when a neighbour kindly gave me a press cutting about Simon Callow’s new TV series on Sky Arts 1 and 2. You can watch extracts from the show here.
Well, what are my favourite speeches? I soon realised I was building two different lists, one of speeches which I enjoy reading, and another of speeches linked in my mind to a particular performance. It’s the first of these that I’m looking at today. I’ve giving just the first line of the speech, and if you want to read the whole thing I’m including a link to the scene, taken from the MIT’s online text.
1. Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2
I remember loving this speech when I had to study it at school, but Hamlet is so full of big soliloquies that this speech, part of a scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, is often overshadowed. This speech features in both the lists I mentioned, Simon Russell Beale’s masterly performance of it seen on a National Theatre tour.
2. Julius Caesar, Act 3 Scene 2
A brilliantly constructed speech in which Shakespeare builds up the argument using rhetorical devices he would have learned at school. Wily Marc Antony damns Brutus and the other conspirators while appearing to praise them, eventually whipping the populace into a frenzy.
3. Twelfth Night, Act 2 Scene 4
I love the rhythm of that first line, and the subtlety of the way Viola tries to tell Orsino that she’s in love with him.
4. Richard II, Act 5 Scene 5
In prison, and deposed, Richard plays with ideas of rejection, desperation and loss.
5. Henry V, Act 4 Scene 1
We all know the rousing speeches in Henry V, but this much quieter one is made on the night before the Battle of Agincourt. The king admits to feeling the heavy weight of his responsibilities.
6. King John, Act 3 Scene 4
This speech, expressing a mother’s grief on the loss of a child is one of the most intense expressions of emotion in Shakespeare.
7. The Winter’s Tale, Act 2 Scene 1
The image of the spider, unseen in the cup, could be said to argue that what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you.
8. Macbeth, Act 2 Scene 1
This bloodcurdling speech is made just before Macbeth commits the murder of his king. The imaginary dagger Macbeth sees shows that he is not simply a villain, but a man whose ambition overwhelms his conscience.
9. The Tempest, Act 3 Scene 2
Shakespeare gives some of the most beautiful lines in the play to the least civilised person on the island. In the past Caliban has been portrayed as a monster or a figure of fun, but nowadays there is much more sympathy for him not least because of this speech.
10. Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2
The whole of the balcony scene is beautiful, but here Juliet speaks with complete honesty about her feelings for Romeo
This is just my personal list. I’d love to hear about your favourites!