Skip to main content

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.”


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

Popular posts from this blog

Shakespeare-Movie Soliloquies and Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight

Directors usually handle Shakespearean soliloquies in three ways: (1) they have actors speak directly to the audience, as they would have on the Elizabethan stage; (2) they have actors speak to the air, as if yammering on cellphones; or (3) they use a voice-over, as if we were wire-tapping the characters' brains.
Each strategy has its advantages.
Speaking directly to the audience works well for villains, who share their nasty schemes, preparing us to watch with horror as they dupe unknowing victims. The technique also allows for dark comedy: for example, Ian McKellan's Richard III and Harry J. Lennix's Aaron (in Julie Taymor's Titus) act as satanic stand-up comedians, terrifying us and making us laugh with the same speech.
Having actors talk to themselves produces a different effect, allowing us to pretend we're hearing a character's inward thoughts. This works in both comedies and tragedies. In a comedy, we laugh—or chuckle inwardly—when we hear Emma Thompson'…

Accurate List of Hamlet's Soliloquies

Though Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech is his fourth soliloquy, many websites call it his third. They're skipping the twenty-line speech that follows his interview with the Ghost, which in my view is a particularly bad mistake since Hamlet's monomaniacal vow there is at the heart of his tragedy.

The internet's cosmic sinkhole of misinformation will never be filled, but it's worth throwing some dirt in when we can, so here's an accurate list of Hamlet's soliloquies, with a short description of where they occur and what they say, along with a few observations.

Advice for Reading Richard III and a Summary of the First Two Scenes

Richard III seems complicated because, as the last of a group of four plays, its characters share a bloody past that is unfamiliar to most readers.

But the play isn't as complicated as it seems. In the first half, Richard does everything he can to get the crown. In the second, he does everything he can to keep it. Stay focused on Richard and you won't get lost.
Here's a detailed summary of the first two scenes to help get you started.