Three Quotes by Shakespeare to Think About
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.” — As You Like It, Act II Scene 7
Sadly, William Shakespeare is one of those writer’s lost to time. His plays are forgotten, if not outshined by his contemporaries. Ben Johnson, John Webster, and the incorrigible Christopher Marlowe have all outlived this lesser know playwright.
What would the world be like without The Alchemist, The Duchess of Malfi, or Edward the Second and instead replaced with Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear? If the English language was established by a playwright? Western culture based upon drama?
For most people, Shakespeare is a footnote in their English Literature class, a relic whose verse seems more like a puzzle than prose. Students are introduced to him and his work in thick textbooks and told his writing is brilliant, yet they never fully grasp why. Sure, a few eager goth students pretend to like Macbeth, praising the nihilistic musing of “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” but no one really understands it.
It’s all so, pretentious right? The thees and thous, thy rhyming couplets, and the pompous speeches all add up to be the literary equivalent of kombucha. Everyone says they like it, but do they really?
Yet, for the first time in decades, hundreds of Shakespeare festivals around the world are closed. Thousands of actors are out of work and parks, parking lots, and prosceniums are empty. The light has gone out.
So what makes the Bard so great? Neil Gaiman suggested Morpheus, King of Dreams, gave the playwright a touch of genius to inspire the great stories, and while I wish I could come up with a more beautiful metaphor, I cannot.
Shakespeare’s plays are an actor’s delight, a professors wet dream, and an audiences glimpse into the drama of life. Again and again we go back to his plays, amazed by their depth and brilliance. His words, his turns of phrase, his speeches touch a nerve in the collective subconscious, and when we see it how it was intended, performed by an actor who has complete mastery of the language and performance, these plays are as vibrant as ever.
Below, are three quotes which strike a chord. Shakespeare quotes litter the internet and classrooms, therefore you will not be hardpressed to find them. And while the phrases can stand alone, each is deeply connected to the context of the play.
For example, Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech quoted below comes right after he learns of his wife’s death. It is in Act 5 of 5, after Macbeth has pontificated, debated, screamed, and murdered his way through two hours of text. Therefore, the character is exhausted, the actor on his last bottle of water, and the audience on the edge of their seat.
The point? See the play. Read it, watch it, listen to it, but experience the entire text.
“Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” — Macbeth Act V Scene 5
Macbeth is possibly Shakespeare’s most produced play. The supernatural element and horror-like setting gives the play a unique feeling amongst historical dramas, making this tale about the lust for power all the more terrifying.
Irony is a strong theme in the play. Most notably, after several predictions by the Weird Sisters Macbeth believes himself indestructible; however, when it is revealed that Macduff was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped” and thus not of woman born, as was the prediction, Macbeth realizes he has played the fool.
The poetry of this line is astounding, going so far as to inspire one of the great American novels by William Faulkner. This nihilistic line uttered years before Nietzsche envelops the despair we all feel when at the mercy of the fates.
We are fools, all. All of our victories, all of our triumphs, all of our failures, all of our loves, all of our hates, all of our actions will be forgotten and mean nothing.
In his analysis of the speech, Ian McKellan talks about the idea of a “Walking Gentleman,” or a lowly actor who can step in at a moments notice and play a petty part. Yet, life is not even a Walking Gentleman, he’s a walking shadow, and man is nothing more than a fool who believes himself a king.
We are all bad actors trying to steal a scene, Instagram influencers who cannot change a thing, or writers writing words that will disappear into the internet in a matter of minutes.
Every choice matters in the Bard’s plays. Choices come with consequences. Macbeth knew what would happen if he made a move for the crown, and despite all arguments to the contrary he did it anyway, leaving a wake of bodies in his path.
As Macbeth stares into the abyss, Shakespeare gives us a glimpse at what he sees, and inspired Hot Topic shoppers everywhere.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” King Henry the IV, Part Two, Act III Scene 2
Power is a recurring motif for the Bard. He loves stories of power, the quest for power, the loss of power, what it takes to get and keep power. Shakespeare understood the game of thrones long before The Game of Thrones.
King Henry, who is actually Harry, spends most of Part 1 and Part 2 an annoying prick and does not yet assume the port of Mars. The play is mostly dominated by the lovable Falstaff.
The legend of this great King is humanized in Shakespeare’s. While Henry V gives us The Saint Crispin Day’s speech as well as the rallying cry “Once more unto the breech dear friends,” Henry IV lays the foundation for the war epic that is to come.
This classic line reminds us all the weight of power. We love to fantasize about what our lives would be like if we got what we wanted whether that be money, fame, or power. What we rarely consider is the cost of that fate.
A King may get what he wants but only at the cost of something else. As Richard II said, “Let us sit upon the ground and tell said stories of the death of Kings.”
Rene Girard quantified it as mimetic theory, the idea that humans need to know what to want. We imitate what others want and then fight to the death over it. Shakespeare realized this with a crown. Using Plutarch’s work and other historical texts, Shakespeare saw the repeating pattern or power, how the lust for the crown ruins all.
Richard III lusted for the crown and found the ghosts of all those his deposed waiting in his dreams. Macbeth’s sins weighed upon his waking life. King Hamlet was betrayed by his brother. Caesar murdered by his friends.
Every king must watch his back. Someone is always coming for their crown.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — Hamlet, Act II Scene 2
Hamlet is perhaps the most philosophical of Shakespeare’s plays, although Richard II has the distinction for being “The Philosopher King.” The entire play is full of sayings that have become part of our vernacular, which is no surprise since the character Hamlet has as many lines as the entire play Macbeth.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”
“He was a man of infinite jest.”
“To thine own self be true.”
“To be or not to be.”
Since “Brevity is the soul of wit” I will be brief. This musing of Hamlet’s reframes our viewing of the world. What is right? What is wrong?
What took Nietzsche and entire book to nail down in “Beyond Good and Evil,” Hamlet shakes down in one line.
All actions are framed by our perceptions. While we may argue of moral truths there is nothing in life that is inherently anything.
This line comes very early in the play, yet the Prince of Denmark is already thrust into a world of drama by this point. He is conflicted on all sides, a man searching for answers.
Again and again, Shakespeare gives us a glimpse into the human psyche. He reframes phrases and changes perceptions, challenges world views with a turn of phrase.
What is more, this line would have been written during a time when the Church absoultely represented absolute good. There was, according to doctrine, a definitive right and wrong.
While we don’t know how many priests frequented the theatre at the time Hamlet was being performed, we can safely say it was a rather low number.
Every choice, every action can only be judged by the doer. The world may deem something right or wrong, good or bad, but those are all opinions.
“If we shadows have offended,Think but this, and all is mended,That you have but slumber’d here While these visions did appear.” Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Epilogue