As a BBC contest to find teenagers born to recite the Bard reaches its climax, we ask the experts for their favourite Shakespearean lines…
‘I have been studying how I may compare/This prison where I live unto the world’
Richard II Act V, Scene V
If you’d asked for my favourite play when I was six, I’d have said Love’s Labour’s Lost in a very precocious way. But that’s because I watched my father [Timothy West] in it and he had to fall
over a lot. I was very lucky in that I grew up with Shakespeare [his mother is Prunella Scales]. But my favourite speech is Richard II’s final soliloquy in prison that begins, “I have been studying how I may compare/This prison where I live unto the world…” It’s the longest in Shakespeare — 70 or so lines uncut — and deserves to be better known.
It’s a beautiful evocation of a mind in turmoil, a mind in a restrained body forced to roam. It’s about the thoughts that all of us have about a life badly lived and where it could have gone better. It’s Richard trying to forgive the people and things that have wronged him so he can die in peace.
In the past, it was always considered very much a play of pageantry and spectacle. But I think it’s very modern in its self-criticism, honesty and its concerns about monarchy and republicanism; the way we nominate people to be king and teach them they’re semi-divine only to kill them.
The most important thing is to say it out loud. That’s how you discover the rhythm of the verse, the beauty of the prose, the funniness of the jokes and the fineness of the thoughts. I hope the first thing schools do is push the desks back, stand up and say it, because children know the pleasure of having a beat running through them — and if you’re speaking verse, that’s exactly what you’ve got.
Play a Shakespearean part like Hamlet, and you’re buzzing when you come off stage; you could be in a club at 3am the way that beat goes through you and gives you life; it’s a heartbeat.
‘O! for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention’
Henry V Prologue
The first lines of Shakespeare I ever heard spoken on stage were those of the opening Chorus in Henry V. I was ten and Richard Burton was playing Henry V at the Old Vic. I remember the Chorus wore this spectacular red cape and did a lot of dramatic moustache-twirling. My little ten-year-old heart was in my throat as soon as it started. I’ve loved those words ever since because they’re all about the imagination and the trick drama can play on an audience by putting them somewhere they aren’t.
I adore the bravura quality, the curtains-up, adrenaline throb of that opening speech. I thought I could smell the 16th century, although what I could actually smell was the moth-eaten wardrobe department of the Old Vic in 1955.
I read Shakespeare constantly. I carry around a heavily annotated, ancient copy of the Complete Works that is falling off its spine. It was given to me for my bar mitzvah when I was 13 and has black-and- white photographs of all the great productions of the 1940s and 50s. I often say it out loud: usually not in anyone else’s company, but I’ve been known to do that as well! My father — who was a thespian manqué — made me memorise tracts of Shakespeare: a lot of Henry V, the Seven Ages of Man speech from As You Like It, Falstaff’s speech on honour…
When I was young, he made me get on chairs and pontificate in the living room. My mother used to flee the house. That’s why it was so exhilarating and moving seeing these kids doing exactly that. Reciting it encourages you to roll the richness of the language around your tongue. You feel the full elastic of it, the versatility.
‘Never, never, never, never, never!’
King Lear Act V, Scene III
Shakespeare can be terrifying, especially on the page. I go to Shakespeare sometimes and think: heavens, I don’t know who’s who or what the plot is and I’m finding it really hard to concentrate. I completely understand why young actors would much rather be in Homeland or something funny on telly.
It’s frustrating and it drives you mad: how can I make this sound like it comes from me instead of from a play written hundreds of years ago? But it’s wonderful when you do find the character. I remember playing Desdemona in Othello and suddenly realised I was getting it, the thrill: oh, I know this woman; I can lose myself in the emotions and not worry about how many words I have to say and what a mouthful they are.
But rather than a speech, it’s single lines that get me. I find Leontes’ line in The Winter’s Tale when the statue of his wife Hermione comes alive — “O, she’s warm!” — extremely moving. There’s something about the significance of it, the simplicity. But the line that I find absolutely devastating
is King Lear saying, “Never, never, never, never, never!” upon the death of his daughter Cordelia
I’ve often seen people playing King Lear trying to do a lot with that line; but what’s so heartbreaking is it’s so minimalist, so denuded of any expression. He’s given five words and it says it all.
Shakespeare’s genius is knowing when not to write as well as when to write: that single word over and over conveys the desolation of losing someone better than a huge speech about grief and death ever could.
‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’
Richard III Act I, Scene I
I’m not an actor and have no advice about performing on the stage, which has always struck me as an odd thing to want to do [says the host of Saturday’s Off by Heart final]. But I do believe Shakespeare’s for everyone — just read it aloud yourself.
I adore the opening speech in Richard III, beginning: “Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
I like the play for three reasons. First, it’s the most splendidly black portrayal of political scheming that I know. Secondly, Richard’s such a dark, brooding villain — malevolent, yet slightly to be pitied because of his disability (“Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time/Into this breathing world, scarce half made up”). The dogs, he says, bark at him in the street.
Thirdly, of course, there’s the language. His main pleasure in these boring days of peace, he says, is to watch his shadow in the sunshine, “And descant on mine own deformity”.
Off by Heart Shakespeare is showing on BBC2, Saturday at 9.00pm
This article was first published in the Radio Times, edition 19-25 May