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 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.
Hamlet, ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy. 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.) 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. He 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. 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.
Jaques, ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech from As You Like It. 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. 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…