A Sprinkling of Shakespeare

I have only a few days left of my Shakespeare course (if one ignores the final exam, that is), and so I here present you with a far from comprehensive (and perhaps at times a tongue-in-cheek) summary of the eight plays I’ve been studying, along with some comments and favourite quotes. (The quotes, by the by, are generally only extracts from longer speeches—I thought you’d appreciate brevity!) Even if Shakespeare isn’t normally your thing, do take a moment to enjoy the beauty of some well-crafted lines!

Hamlet

Young Hamlet is sick of life, and even sicker of his uncle (whom he learns murdered his father), and after agonising over his problems for most of the play, he kills and is killed in a bloody final scene.

Being a happy endings sort of girl (as you may have already gathered), Hamlet isn’t the sort of play I’d choose to read, but I ended up becoming somewhat attached to it, perhaps because it was my first play and I spent more time on it that I have done on later ones and also because watching various actors on Youtube perform the famous “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy was a lot of fun. Also, there are some memorable speeches in this play.

O that this too too solid flesh would melt, 
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! 
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d 
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!

Hamlet is of course most famous for his despairing “To Be or Not to Be”, but this passage was new to me, and the anguish of it struck me. Flesh melting into dew is such a striking metaphor.

Henry IV Part I

Prince Hal initially acts the part of a scoundrel in order to make his later good behaviour more impressive. (Hmmm….)

I will redeem all this on Percy’s head 
And in the closing of some glorious day 
Be bold to tell you that I am your son; 
When I will wear a garment all of blood 
And stain my favours in a bloody mask, 
Which, wash’d away, shall scour my shame with it: 

Again, I like the vivid imagery here. This speech is one of the things that makes me want to believe in the reformed Hal, but because I know what he was up to, I just can’t completely do so in this play.

King Lear

Self-centred Lear spurns the one daughter who loves him for the sake of the two who only pretend to, and realises his mistake too late. Another death-filled ending.

This is a rather depressing play, and the eye-gouging scene was horrid. I think it’s one of my least favourite plays to have studied, although there are some noteworthy passages in there, such as this one….

Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor; 
Most choice, forsaken; and most lov’d, despis’d! 
Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon. 
Be it lawful I take up what’s cast away. 

I love the rhythm and the contrasts in the first and second lines, and it’s also a sweet expression of love.

Henry V

The former Prince Hal, now King Henry, wages war on France, wins a glorious victory, and marries the French princess.

It’s unfortunate that Henry doesn’t appear to have a more valid reason for waging war on the French, but it’s hard to resist his stirring call to arms, the triumph of the underdog, and Henry’s humility in victory. A romantic ending is an added bonus!

God, the best maker of all marriages, 
Combine your hearts in one, your realms in one! 

I love the idea expressed here of two hearts becoming one. (Of course, two realms becoming one is nice too, but few of us are kings and princesses….)

Othello

Vicious Iago convinces the noble but naive Othello that the latter’s wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful to him. You know what’s going to happen next. He kills Desdemona, and then realises the truth. And then he kills himself….

Ooh, but Othello’s naivety and jealously is frustrating! There are, however, some wonderful speeches.

Put out the light, and then put out the light: 
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, 
I can again thy former light restore, 
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light, 
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature, 
I know not where is that Promethean heat 
That can thy light relume.

This is the tragic, utterly wrong part just before Othello murders his wife. But “Put out the light, and then put out the light” is a hauntingly beautiful image as he describes Desdemona as a light that will be quenched for ever.

The Merchant of Venice

Bassanio borrows money from Antonio (who borrow money from Shylock) in order to make his fortune by winning the hand of the beautiful Portia. After choosing the right casket (long story), he hears that Shylock is threatening to take the pound of flesh which Antonio had promised should he default on his debt. (Dude, don’t make promises like that. Just don’t.) Bassanio runs to the rescue, but really it’s Portia who saves the day.

A happily-ever-after! It makes a nice change!

You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand, 
Such as I am: though for myself alone 
I would not be ambitious in my wish, 
To wish myself much better; yet, for you 
I would be trebled twenty times myself; 
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more rich; 
That only to stand high in your account, 
I might in virtue, beauties, livings, friends, 
Exceed account; but the full sum of me 
Is sum of something, which, to term in gross, 
Is an unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpractised; 
Happy in this, she is not yet so old 
But she may learn; happier than this, 
She is not bred so dull but she can learn; 
Happiest of all is that her gentle spirit 
Commits itself to yours to be directed, 
As from her lord, her governor, her king. 

I’ve liked the famous “The quality of mercy” speech for a long time, but this one was new to me, and I can resonate with Portia’s wish that she could be a better woman for the sake of the man she loves as well as with her desire to be taught by him. (Though, really, that girl had a lot going for her as it was!)

The Winter’s Tale

Leontes’ misguided jealousy and bitter desire for revenge causes havoc amongst his nearest and dearest, but what was lost is partially restored at the end.

I didn’t like this one….

Not so: 
I am as ignorant in that as you 
In so entitling me, and no less honest 
Than you are mad; which is enough, I’ll warrant, 
As this world goes, to pass for honest.

Little stood out to me in this play in terms of noteworthy speeches, but I did like this piece of frankness from Paulina to the enraged Leontes.

The Tempest

Propero and Miranda’s island exile comes to a glorious end when Prospero forgives those who have wronged them.

An ending of grace and reconciliation. Perfect.

(But what’s with Ferdinand and Miranda getting engaged after apparently knowing each other for less than three hours?!)

O, wonder! 
How many goodly creatures are there here! 
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, 
That has such people in’t!

I love this innocent and full-of-wonder exclamation for Miranda. She’s spent most of her life on a secluded island and up until this point has only ever seen three other human beings (apart from when she was a very little child). Now, she sees a group of men, and this is her amazed exclamation.

(And I now know where someone got the title of their book from….)

Obviously, there’s a huge amount more that could be said not only about these plays but about the extracts that I’ve chosen—and believe me, I have written a lot on Shakespeare over the last couple of months—but this is a sprinkling of Shakespeare, not an assignment! All I’ll say in closing is that while I have certainly encountered things that I’ve disliked while studying  Shakespeare, he’s famous for a reason….

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