William Shakespeare was undoubtedly a genius. His plays are a linguistic treasure trove that enriched the English language with at least 491 new words and a wealth of idiomatic phrases in common use today. In Hamlet alone, one finds these examples, among many others.
“Brevity is the soul of wit.” – Polonius, Act 2 Scene II
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” – Polonius, Act 2 Scene II
“To thine own self be true” – Polonius, Act 1 Scene III
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” – Queen Gertrude, Act 3 Scene 1
“I must be cruel only to be kind;” – Hamlet, Act 4 Scene IV
“…what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause…” – Hamlet, Act 3 Scene I
Beyond their exquisite verse, Shakespeare’s plays offer trenchant insights into human nature, especially into human weaknesses and the natural consequences thereof. Particularly rich in lessons about human nature are Shakespeare’s histories, which, unlike the comedies and some of the tragedies (e.g., Othello and Romeo and Juliet), do not rely upon such plot devices as disguise, missed communication, and mistaken identity.
Although Shakespeare distorts some timelines for narrative effect, his history plays are with two exceptions (Richard III and Henry VIII) faithful to historical events. Henry VIII glosses over or avoids the title character’s most egregious behavior. Richard III may actually be a falsehood from beginning to end. The misrepresentations in Richard III and Henry VIII can be understood as pro-Tudor propaganda contrived to enable Shakespeare, writing in the time of Elizabeth I, to keep both his job and his head.
The BBC’s An Age of Kings (1960), which presents abridged versions of Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1 – 3, and Richard III in 15 hour-long black-and-white segments is excellent, early-TV production values notwithstanding.
But the BBC Television Shakespeare productions of the history plays from the 1980s are outstanding, and I recommend them highly. The series stars Derek Jacobi as Richard II, Jon Finch as Henry IV, David Gwillim as Henry V, Peter Benson as Henry VI, and Ron Cook (a.k.a. Mr. Crabb in ITV’s Mr. Selfridge) as Richard III.
(Ron Cook is the best Richard III I have ever seen, bar none!)
Especially fascinating to me in the history plays are the poignant lamentations on the burdens of kingship delivered by four Plantagenet kings in remarkably similar speeches.
Richard II speaks thus upon learning after his return to Britain that his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, has usurped his crown in his absence.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
Henry IV, formerly Henry Bolingbroke, paces his bed chamber, tormented by his own treachery and by burdens of state:
How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
Henry V, eldest son of Henry IV, walks the plains of Agincourt among the tents and campfires of his soldiers late on the eve of battle against an overwhelming force and muses thus:
Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idle ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer’st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? what are thy comings in?
O ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?
Wherein thou art less happy being fear’d
Than they in fearing.
What drink’st thou oft, instead of homage sweet,
But poison’d flattery? O, be sick, great greatness,
And bid thy ceremony give thee cure!
Think’st thou the fiery fever will go out
With titles blown from adulation?
Will it give place to flexure and low bending?
Canst thou, when thou command’st the beggar’s knee,
Command the health of it? No, thou proud dream,
That play’st so subtly with a king’s repose;
I am a king that find thee, and I know
‘Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running ‘fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world,
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who with a body fill’d and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, cramm’d with distressful bread;
Never sees horrid night, the child of hell,
But, like a lackey, from the rise to set
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus and all night
Sleeps in Elysium; next day after dawn,
Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse,
And follows so the ever-running year,
With profitable labour, to his grave:
And, but for ceremony, such a wretch,
Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,
Had the fore-hand and vantage of a king.
The slave, a member of the country’s peace,
Enjoys it; but in gross brain little wots
What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.
In one of the most beautiful scenes Shakespeare ever wrote, Henry VI – effete intellectual, inept ruler, and son of the hero of Agincourt – voices his yearnings for a simpler life.
O God! methinks it were a happy life,
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run,
How many make the hour full complete;
How many hours bring about the day;
How many days will finish up the year;
How many years a mortal man may live.
When this is known, then to divide the times:
So many hours must I tend my flock;
So many hours must I take my rest;
So many hours must I contemplate;
So many hours must I sport myself;
So many days my ewes have been with young;
So many weeks ere the poor fools will ean:
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece:
So minutes, hours, days, months, and years,
Pass’d over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.
Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!
Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,
Than doth a rich embroider’d canopy
To kings that fear their subjects’ treachery?
O, yes, it doth; a thousand-fold it doth.
And to conclude, the shepherd’s homely curds,
His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle.
His wonted sleep under a fresh tree’s shade,
All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,
Is far beyond a prince’s delicates,
His viands sparkling in a golden cup,
His body couched in a curious bed,
When care, mistrust, and treason waits on him.
I find it interesting that Shakespeare did not write a burden-of-kingship speech for either Richard III or Henry VIII.
Quote for Today
“Oh God, but I do love being king!” — Peter O’Toole as Henry II, first Plantagenet king (1133 – 1189, r. 1154 – 1189) in James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter