Are these Shakespeare’s best speeches from his plays?
The plays of William Shakespeare are crammed full of memorable lines, influential phrases, and striking images. There are dozens of classic speeches, soliloquies, addresses and the like. In this post, we’ve aimed to pick the seven greatest speeches from Shakespeare’s plays, although there were many we had to leave out. What’s your favourite bit from a Shakespeare play? Is it a soliloquy, a formal address, an exchange between multiple characters?
John of Gaunt, ‘This sceptred isle’ speech from Richard II.
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands, –
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…
This speech, probably the most famous from Shakespeare’s 1590s history play about the fall of the Plantagenet king, has become known in the popular consciousness as a paean to England as a great nation, and certainly John of Gaunt comes out with a string of memorable epithets to describe England here. But the context of the speech is very different: John of Gaunt is lamenting the fact that England is being ‘leased out’ under King Richard II. As he lies dying, John of Gaunt pronounces the death of England. Nevertheless, it’s Gaunt’s devotion to the great nation of England which makes his fears for its future so very poignant, and the lines stand as one of the greatest hymns to England’s island status in all of English literature.
Hamlet, ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy.
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life…
One of the great meditations on suicide in English literature, this speech has become so well-known that its meaning and power have become less clear: as T. S. Eliot observed of Hamlet, it is the Mona Lisa of literature. (We discuss Shakespeare’s play in more detail here.) Read variously as a meditation on suicide and as in the broader context of Hamlet’s supposed vacillation over whether to avenge his father’s death, this speech is powerful in part because it combines these and other themes: Hamlet is thinking about how death would relieve him of all of these troubles, such as whether to take revenge for his father’s murder, but where will he go if he takes his own life? What happens when we die? This question is relevant not just for Young Hamlet’s future but Old Hamlet’s fate, too: Hamlet doesn’t know whether the Ghost, purporting to be his father, was really Old Hamlet in Purgatory or whether it was some demon assuming his father’s form, sent from hell to tempt him to commit murder. To recover the importance and power of Hamlet’s soliloquy, we need to hear a good actor recite the lines. We recommend Paul Scofield’s version, which you can listen to here.
Macbeth, ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech.
Spoken upon hearing of the death of his wife, Macbeth’s speech from towards the end of this play, Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, has become famous for its phrases ‘full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing’ and ‘Out, out, brief candle!’ Macbeth’s speech is about the futility and illusoriness of all life and everything we do: we are all bound for the grave, and life doesn’t seem to mean anything, ultimately. As so often, Shakespeare reaches for the actor or ‘player’ as a metaphor for life more widely. Macbeth, of course, is responding to the news that Lady Macbeth is dead here; it’s the beginning of the end for him.
Mark Antony, ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech from Julius Caesar.
A masterclass of irony and the way rhetoric can be used to say one thing but imply something quite different without ever naming it. Mark Antony delivers a funeral speech for Julius Caesar following Caesar’s assassination at the hands of Brutus and the conspirators, but he is only allowed to do so as long as he does not badmouth the conspirators for their role in Caesar’s death. Antony’s references to Brutus as an honourable man subtly and ingeniously show that Brutus is anything but honourable, while also serving to show that Caesar was not the ambitious man Brutus has painted him to be.
Henry V, ‘St Crispin’s Day’ speech.
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.
We could have gone for Henry’s other great speech from Henry V here, from the Siege of Harfleur, where Henry famously urges his troops, ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’. But this speech, given on the occasion of the Battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415, captures the sense of comradeship and patriotism which binds the men together on the field of battle. And yes, ‘hold their manhoods cheap’ in the penultimate line does contain a bit of bawdy wordplay, suggesting not only masculinity but the male genitals.
Jaques, ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech 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 lined,
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 saved, 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.
How to reduce the whole span of an average human life into just a few lines of verse? Shakespeare managed it, in this famous speech from As You Like It, which begins with the famous declaration that ‘All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players’. Jaques begins by describing our infancy and schooldays: ‘the infant, / Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms’ grows into ‘the whining schoolboy, with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like snail / Unwillingly to school’. He then takes us through the other five stages, culminating in our second childhood, old age: ‘Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’ There are several precedents, or likely influences for this famous Shakespeare speech: the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote that ‘All of Greece is a stage, and every Greek’s an actor’, while Richard Edward, in his 1560s play Damon and Pythias, wrote, ‘Pythagoras said that this world was like a stage / Whereon many play their parts; the lookers-on, the sage’.
Portia, ‘The quality of mercy is not strained’ speech 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.
This memorable speech, spoken by Portia when she is disguised as a male lawyer, is directed at Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who has demanded a ‘pound of flesh’ from Antonio, the merchant of the play’s title, in exchange for an unpaid debt. ‘The quality of mercy is not strained: / 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.’ The play also contains Shylock’s famous lines about the humanity of a Jewish person, who bleeds if he is pricked, just like anyone else…