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My Votes for “Shakespeare’s Greatest Lovers and Most Epic Deaths”

The second most common question I get asked when people find out that I taught Shakespeare is, “Did he write the plays?” which is like asking a biology professor if she believes in evolution. I usually respond with the old joke that Shakespeare’s plays weren’t written by Shakespeare, but by a man with the same name. If people are really interested, I provide a short history of authorship conspiracy theories, cribbing from Schoenbaum’s brilliant Shakespeare’s Lives.

A more common question is, “What’s your favorite play?” Choosing a single play is impossible for me, but, on any given day, I can provide a favorite comedy, history, tragedy, and romance. (Today those are Twelfth Night, 1 Henry IV, Hamlet, and The Winter’s Tale—I might have different favorites tomorrow.)

I’m also sometimes asked, “Who’s your favorite character?” which is also an impossible question, but if we can narrow it, I’m willing to give it a go.

One of my tweeps, Andy McLean, is compiling a list of “Shakespeare’s Greatest Lovers and Most Epic Deaths” for Australia’s national theater company, Bell Shakespeare, and has asked me to cast my vote.

For “greatest lovers,” he wants a couple, in the sense of a romantic pair, rather than simply two characters. If he had asked for the latter, I would have suggested the spurned lovers Ophelia and Desdemona. After Ophelia is brutally treated by Hamlet, in the “get thee to a nunnery” scene, she thinks first of Hamlet in the speech beginning, “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” Only then does she think of her own, “deject and wretched” condition. That’s love—you think of your lover, not yourself. Desdemona is even more extreme. After being struck by Othello, she says, “Unkindness may do much, / And his unkindness may defeat my life, / But never taint my love.” She remains a paragon of love to the end, defending Othello, even after he’s smothered her.

But if forced to choose a “greatest lovers” in the sense of a romantic duo, I’m going to have to go with those two crazy teenagers from Verona.

Shakespeare’s “Most Epic Deaths” are probably Antony and Cleopatra’s since they affect not just a kingdom, but also much of the world, by helping to bring about the Roman Empire. Antony’s death is a botch, with Cleopatra interrupting him, but she gets an end that’s both comic (the clown who brings the asps refuses to get off the stage and makes lots of dirty puns) and transcendent: “I am fire and air. My other elements / I give to baser life.”

Comments

Andy said…
Thanks Robert for your nominations. The full lists will be published in August - featuring some of your expert comments.

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