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ClassicsOnline Home » SHAKESPEARE: Great Speeches and Soliloquies
To be or not to be…Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…O for a Muse of Fire…The quality of mercy is not strained…This sceptred isle…Once more unto the breach dear friends…Many of Shakespeare’s greatest and best-loved speeches are brought together in this superb collection, performed by outstanding artists who bring to vivid life words which are an integral part of our language, our culture and our everyday lives.
Great Speeches and Soliloquies
The plays of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) have become a
part of all of us, whether we know it or not, and especially (though not
exclusively) within the English-speaking world. Even our everyday speech is
shot through with half-remembered or unconscious snatches: ‘To be or not to be’
… ‘The hollow crown’… ‘All the world’s a stage’…‘The quality of mercy is not
strained’… ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’… ‘Is this a dagger which I see
This collection of speeches gives the listener a chance to
enjoy the sources of many of these quotations — to put them in a context and,
perhaps, to explore more fully the plays from which they come.
Shakespeare’s plays may be roughly divided into Histories,
Comedies and Tragedies. They are written in blank verse (unrhymed ten-syllable
line-iambic pentameter), with excursions into prose for more ‘down to earth’
scenes or characters, and occasional rhyming songs (especially in the
Many of the speeches included here are soliloquies —
delivered by a character alone on stage and, as it were, shared with or
overheard by the audience. Thus Shakespeare enables his characters to express
the inmost workings of their minds and hearts — vowing vengeance (Antony in
Julius Caesar, Act 3 Scene 2), agonizing over the problem of existence itself
(Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1), or wrestling with guilt (Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 7).
Other speeches are essentially ‘public’ in their intention —
speeches of exhortation, like Henry V’s before Agincourt (Henry V, Act 4 Scene
3) or of clever manipulation, like Antony’s to the Roman crowd (Julius Caesar,
Act 3 Scene 2). Others again address a more private audience, such as Polonius’
advice to his son Laertes (Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 3) or Clarence’s painfully vivid
recollection of a nightmare, which indirectly foretells his imminent murder
(Richard III, Act 1 Scene 4).
It may be noticed that Shakespeare’s comedies are less well
represented in the collection: this is because such plays offer fewer
opportunities for a character to muse intensely over his or her plight, or for
grand public address.
In the History plays, however, we (typically) find the theme
of kingship recurring, in private reflections on the monarch’s particular
plight. And in the Tragedies, it is natural for the protagonists to be heard
taking stock of their circumstances and feelings as the action moves towards
some dramatic resolution of private and public destiny.
Some of the characteristic themes developed in these
speeches have been touched on above (kingship, exhortation, introspection,
advice) but we also find expressions of love well represented, especially among
the female roles — adolescent love in Romeo and Juliet or, for example, the
articulation of a woman’s right to be part of all her
husband’s concerns in Portia’s speech (Julius Caesar, Act 2 Scene 1). A speech,
which combines great tenderness with richly evocative language, is Othello’s
account of his wooing of Desdemona (Act 1 Scene 3).
It can be seen throughout this collection that what
distinguishes Shakespeare’s genius is not only his deep understanding of human
nature but also the extraordinary power of his language, through which the
external, concrete world of everyday things is joined with the abstract inner
world of reason, imagination and feeling.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside.
About the Readers
In his first five years with the Royal Shakespeare Company,
Simon Russell Beale has played many of the leading Shakespeare roles ranging
widely from Richard III to Ariel in The Tempest, though his dramatic range extends
to Samuel Beckett. He also frequently appears on TV and Radio.
In his extended career Clifford Rose has divided his time
between the stage and TV. His theater work has included many Shakespeare roles
as well as Marat/Sade and The Thebans for the RSC. His TV work has encompassed
The Roads to Freedom, Fortunes of War, Secret Army and Inspector Morse.
As an Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company,
Estelle Kohler’s long career as a Stratford leading lady began with her famous
Juliet to Ian Holm’s Romeo, for which she won the London Critics’ Award. She
has won other awards and nominations for a great range of work on stage, film
Sarah Woodward joined the RSC after leaving RADA and has
since appeared in many Shakespearean roles, including Juliet directed by Declan
Donnelan. She played Rose in The Sea by Edward Bond and Anne Danby in Kean,
both directed by Sam Mendes. She is seen regularly on UK TV in programs as
varied as Poirot and Casualty.
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SHAKESPEARE: Great Speeches and Soliloquies