Posts filed under ‘William Shakespeare’

Sonnet XVIII

William Shakespeare

Listen (to Peter O’Toole read)

Listen (version 1)

Listen (version2)

Listen (version3)

Listen (version4)

Shall I compare thee to a Summers day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough windes do shake the darling buds of Maie,
And Sommers lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d,
And every faire from faire some-time declines,
By chance, or natures changing course untrim’d:
But thy eternal Sommer shall not fade,
Nor loose possession of that faire thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wandr’st in his shade,
When in eternall lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breath or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

So it’s Valentine’s Day, and Shakespearan sonnets seem called for. And what better reading of it than this version doing the rounds in Peter O’Toole’s glorious voice.

The thing I really love about Shakespeare though, is the way his words lend themselves so magically to a variety of interpretations, so that with every reading of the text you discover new meanings, see how the whole thing could be played differently. This effect is strongest in the plays, of course, but it plays out even in his poems, where startlingly different versions can all sound compelling and true. It’s this malleability of Shakespeare that I love, the changing flavour of his words in your mouth as you chew on them, twisting them this way and that.

So I thought we’d try something different with this one. Up above are four different readings of the same sonnet (all unfortunately, by me – how I wish I could have convinced O’Toole to participate). Just for the heck of it.


Note: The text above is taken from the 1956 edition of The Penguin Book of English Verse.

February 13, 2007 at 7:00 pm 6 comments


William Shakespeare

Listen (to Hatshepsut read)

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor'd youth,
Unlearned in the world's false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress'd.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love's best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter'd be.

 She writes,

Ok. Simple premise. The dark mistress and Will here have a neat deal going. A deal based on mutual flattery and unadulterated lust. They lie to and lie with each other.  Straightforward punning and a fun poem. 


June 16, 2006 at 5:34 pm Leave a comment

Epilogue from Midsummer Night’s Dream

William Shakespeare


If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

When I was first casting around for a blog name, my final list of candidates came down to Falstaff and Robin Goodfellow. I picked Falstaff because it was less of a mouthful and because on the whole I like Plump Jack more, but as favourite Shakespeare characters go, Puck comes in a close second. There’s something so soaring and weightless about Puck, something playful and leaping and entirely magical.

Of all the epilogues Shakespeare ever wrote, this one is probably my favourite. So it’s fitting that two weeks of Shakespeare posts should be brought to a close with Puck’s words. Other Shakespeare pieces will follow, no doubt (some have already been promised) but the exclusive focus on Shakespeare, this ‘weak and idle theme’ ends here.

May 11, 2006 at 10:02 pm Leave a comment

Falstaff’s ‘Honour’ Speech

William Shakespeare


(Henry IV Part 1 Act V Scene 1)

Why, thou owest God a death.


‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

I couldn’t resist this one. This is an amazing speech – a direct and mocking attack of everything that could be considered heroic or honourable, a speech against every war-monger, terrorist and martyr, against anyone who would kill and die for honour.

May 9, 2006 at 1:14 pm 8 comments

Hath not a Jew eyes?

William Shakespeare

Listen (to the Mystery Cat read)

To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

A guest post from Mystery Cat. He writes, “Portia’s speech got me thinking about Merchant of Venice. In spite of fond memories of elocution contests in school, it’s not a play I was never very fond of. I never bought into the anit-Semitic theory butI found Shylock to be an unreasonably vindictive villain, something of a caricature. So it’s kind of sad that his mildly incoherent defence of vengeance doesn’t seem terribly unfamiliar today.”


May 9, 2006 at 11:31 am 5 comments

The Quality of Mercy is not Strain’d

William Shakespeare


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. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

The Merchant of Venice, (and so, Portia’s Quality of Mercy). And commentary from the minstrels.


May 7, 2006 at 11:39 am 1 comment

Plump Jack

William Shakespeare


(Henry IV Act II Scene 4)

Henry V
Well, here I am set.

And here I stand: judge, my masters.

Henry V
Now, Harry, whence come you?

My noble lord, from Eastcheap.

Henry V
The complaints I hear of thee are grievous.

‘Sblood, my lord, they are false: nay, I’ll tickle
ye for a young prince, i’ faith.

Henry V
Swearest thou, ungracious boy? henceforth ne’er look
on me. Thou art violently carried away from grace:
there is a devil haunts thee in the likeness of an
old fat man; a tun of man is thy companion. Why
dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that
bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel
of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed
cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with
the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that
grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in
years? Wherein is he good, but to taste sack and
drink it? wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a
capon and eat it? wherein cunning, but in craft?
wherein crafty, but in villany? wherein villanous,
but in all things? wherein worthy, but in nothing?

I would your grace would take me with you: whom
means your grace?

Henry V
That villanous abominable misleader of youth,
Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.

My lord, the man I know.

Henry V
I know thou dost.

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

You knew this was coming didn’t you? You didn’t seriously think I was going to do a whole week of Shakespeare without getting in at least a few plugs for that greatest of all Shakespeare’s characters – my namesake, Falstaff.

This dialogue is as good an illustration as any of just why Falstaff is such a favourite of mine – it’s a delightful exchange, featuring the Bard at his most playful. Prince Hal has been summoned to the court of his father, and Falstaff and Hal are acting out, in jest, the scene that shall ensue when Hal appears before his father and is roundly scolded. At first Falstaff plays the King, while Hal plays himself, and Falstaff proceeds to admonish Hal for keeping company with a bunch of villians and thieves (they have just, as a trick stolen money from Falstaff), condemning all of Hal’s companions save one, one only, a man of cheerful look, pleasing eye and most noble carriage, one Falstaff, who alone among Hal’s friends bears the mark of true virtue. At this point Hal, accusing Falstaff of not being royal enough, takes over the role of his father and makes Falstaff stand in for himself, after which the scene above is played out.

It’s a glorious, glorious scene, full of bombast and wit, mined with clever little asides that are guaranteed to make the audience laugh as much as the two characters playing out the scene, but the ultimate effect is as tender as it is hilarious – you can feel the warmth between these two people, the easy-going nature of the friendship between this fat, aging knight, and this prince of the realm.

Taken outside the context of the play though, the speech says much more (isn’t it amazing how Shakespeare can do this – even the silliest speeches he writes turn out to have such a wealth of meaning and beauty). Falstaff is craven and ridiculous, he is a person who cannot be taken seriously, he is a man to be laughed at, to be scorned, a man with little merit save the fact that he is mostly harmless. And yet without Falstaff, without the spirit of folly and jest that he represents, this would be a poorer play. Without Falstaff the world would be unbearably dry, suffocatingly serious. Without Falstaff, we would have no one to laugh at, and reality would overwhelm us.

Falstaff is more than just a brilliant character in a memorable play. Falstaff is a reminder to all of us that we must not take ourselves too seriously, that we must remember to laugh, must be prepared to make ourselves ridiculous. Falstaff speaks for the fool in all of us, and his is a merry yet human voice.

May 6, 2006 at 3:11 pm 1 comment

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves

William Shakespeare


(The Tempest, Act V)

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

I’ve already blogged about The Tempest elsewhere, so I won’t bother to go over it again. Suffice it to say that I love how much distance this speech covers – going from the gently wondering, to the roaringly proud, to the surrender of the self. Absolute power corrupts, we are told, and certainly in many ways Prospero is a true tyrant. Yet here he is abjuring the very power he has spent so long attaining. And for that alone it is impossible not to be in awe of him.

May 5, 2006 at 7:24 am 2 comments

Come Away, Come Away, Death

William Shakespeare


(Twelfth Night Act II Scene 4)

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away, breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O prepare it;
My part of death no one so true
Did share it.

Not a flower, not a flower sweet,
On my black coffin let there be strown:
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse where my bones shall be thrown:
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
To weep there.

Twelfth Night was the first Shakespeare play I ever read. I was 14 and very bored and Twelfth Night was all I could get my hands on. How bad could it be, I figured, and settled in to read.

It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

There’s something very special about your first Shakespeare. No matter what follows, or how many ‘better’ plays you read, you always keep a soft corner in your heart for the play that started it all [1]. So perhaps it’s only that which makes Viola one of my favourites among Shakespeare’s heroines, and makes me think that Twelfth Night is a play especially rich in secondary characters. It really is an ensemble play – Orsino, Olivia, Malvolio, Feste, Sir Toby, Andrew Aguecheek. Such a truly delightful cast, that.

Today’s poem is the one piece in the series that has almost nothing to do with the actual action of the play it is taken from. It is a stand alone poem, a song that the Clown sings at Orsino’s bidding, a set piece. Yet it is a beautiful lyric for all that, yearning and sorrowful, it’s music evident even when it is simply spoken aloud.

Orsino, asking for the song to be played, describes it as:

“that piece of song,
That old and antique song we heard last night:
Methought it did relieve my passion much,
More than light airs and recollected terms
Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times”

But for me the truer description is on page 1 of the play: “that strain again! it had a dying fall”.

[1] At least so I’ve found and so some of my friends have told me. What happens if the first Shakespeare play you read is Merry Wives of Windsor I can’t say.

May 4, 2006 at 6:00 pm Leave a comment

Brutus’s speech to the people

William Shakespeare


Julius Caesar Act III Scene 2

Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my
cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me
for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that
you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and
awake your senses, that you may the better judge.
If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of
Caesar's, to him I say, that Brutus' love to Caesar
was no less than his. If then that friend demand
why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:
Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and
die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live
all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;
as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I
slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his
ambition. Who is here so base that would be a
bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended.
Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If
any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so
vile that will not love his country? If any, speak;
for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.

For sheer eloquence, for oratory on the grandest scale, Act III of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is hard to match. This particular speech comes sandwiched between Antony's 'bleeding piece of earth' speech and the magnificient "Friends, Romans, Countrymen' oration. But there are other fine speeches here – in fact the entire act has this declamatory quality, as though the speakers, being greater than mortal men, spoke a language higher than that of the common tongue.

Because it is so swiftly outdone by Antony's, Brutus's speech at Caesar's funeral is, I feel, somewhat underrated. It is a marvellous speech, starting off with an appeal to reason and order, but ending on an exhortative, almost indignant note, and playing on the Roman people's regard for their civic freedoms. The only flaw in it, is that Brutus simply asserts that Caesar was ambitious without ever offering any evidence of this, and it is this weakness that Antony exploits to full advantage in his oration.

That said, a large part of the glory of Antony's speech comes from the fact that it must successfully follow this one. Brutus is more than a worthy opponent for Antony to be taking on, and Antony has the incredibly difficult task of changing the mind of a crowd that has been soundly convinced by Brutus's speech before him. Watching him pull that off is like watching a great tennis player come back with a stunning response to an almost impossible smash.

As someone who's always loved debating, and who spent long years in college on the debating circuit, I've always loved this interplay of arguments – it's always represented to me a magnificent and sublime ideal of what a great debate should be like. This speech, and the one that follows it, is part of the reason I became a debater.

May 3, 2006 at 9:26 am 205 comments

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