Greatest Shakespeare speeches?

Simon Callow reciting his favourite speech from Henry V

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

What a piece of work is a man!

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

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;

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

My father had a daughter loved a man.

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

I have been studying how I may compare …

In prison, and deposed, Richard plays with ideas of rejection, desperation and loss.

 5. Henry V, Act 4 Scene 1

Upon the king! Let us our lives, our souls …

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

Grief fills the room up of my absent child

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

                    There may be in the cup

A spider steeped…

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

Is this a dagger which I see before me?

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

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises

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

Thou know’st the mask of night is on my face …

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!

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6 Responses to Greatest Shakespeare speeches?

  1. Mairi Macdonald says:

    I do so agree about ‘Upon the King’. It’s relatively easy to get away with a less than ideal ‘Once more…’ or the Crispin’s Day speech, but for me ‘Upon the king’ is a true measure of any Henry V (character, not play) and quite a few decent kings have fallen at this hurdle. When they get it right, the sense of isolation and loneliness can be unbearable and, for me, it far exceeds any soliloquy in Hamlet, or Richard II in prison. But I am biased – my favourite play, and character.

    It’s interesting that you have separate lists of Listen and Read speeches as I have to admit that rarely do I get any real satisfaction from reading the great speeches, however superb.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Phew, so glad you approve this choice! It’s brilliantly set up, with the argument with the soldiers immediately preceding it, isn’t it?
      How interesting that you get so much more from watching and listening than reading! I love reading!

  2. Jo Wilding says:

    Just a few, otherwise this comment will be longer than your post, Sylvia!!

    “Upon the king” is definitely on my list too. Plus all the Chorus speeches with perhaps the one at the beginning of Act 4 as first choice – The line “A little touch of Harry in the night” always make my spine tingle.

    In similar vein (kings weighed down by their responsibilities), I love “How many thousand of my poorest subjects are at this hour asleep” from Henry IV Part 2.

    Spoilt for choice in Richard II and I would probably make the same choice as you but I’m going for the sheer rage of Richard in “Yet know my master, God omnipotent….”, the second part of a long speech.

    And Hotspur’s short and fiery outburst “By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap to pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon…” in Henry IV Part 1.

    The power and drama of “Ye elves of hills…” from The Tempest, undiminished by the fact that he pinched it from Ovid!

    I’ll save a Hamlet choice until you do your Listen list!

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Thanks for your reply, I hoped it might get people thinking. I went with pretty well the first ten that came to mind as I knew if I thought about it I’d be sunk! It’s a fun game, isn’t it? I did the listen list at the same time, and I’ll be posting it in a couple of weeks. I’ve just been checking The Essential Shakespeare Live and Encore recordings and I’m pleased to see that three of my faves are there.

  3. Richard Morris says:

    I love all the history plays particularly Henry V which is full of great speeches, not just St. Crispins day speech, what about the chorus at the start.
    My other great favourite is Henry IV pt.1 and especially Falstaff’s “Honour” speech is unbeatable.
    Brilliant stuff Sylvia keep it up.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Thanks. Yes I agree the Honour speech is great. Too many wonderful speeches to include more than a few!

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