I have quite recently – as in: moments ago – come to the conclusion that my “desert island book” would be a “complete works” of William Shakespeare. Hardly, I know, the most original choice. Any edition, I suppose, would do. But I’d be more than content to stick with the one I have now; a paperback – and if I am only allowed one book, it simply must be paperback – “Oxford Shakespeare, 2nd Edition”. I love it, I love just looking at it to say nothing of actually reading it.
I would never presume to tell someone what they ought to have on their bookshelves but – considering the amount and quality of the works contained in a “complete Shakespeare” and the relative inexpensiveness (my copy is going for £12.35 right now, and I paid £11.87, for example) – I really do consider a “complete Shakespeare” indispensable. So-called “bang for your buck” isn’t necessarily the most important consideration in building your own personal library, but there’s certainly no harm in taking it into account.
Anyway, Shakespeare does not need any help from me in hawking his wares – and you already clicked into a post with “Shakespeare” in the title, so you either like his work or are at least bard-curious. My favourite speech in Shakespeare is what you came for, and since brevity is the soul of wit and tedi– no, no, I won’t do that. Too obvious. I will, however, get to the point.
My favourite speech in Shakespeare is the one usually referred to as “Of comfort no man speak” – though I personally call it “Let’s talk of graves” – from Act 3, Scene 2 of Richard II.
Richard II dramatises the deposing of the titular king of England – who reigned from 1377 to 1399 – by Henry Bollingbroke, who, taking over from Richard, became Henry IV (reign: 1399 – 1413). The ‘Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’ says this of Act 3:
“Richard arrives back after the Irish war that his Welsh allies have dispersed. Furthermore, his cousin, Duke of York, unable to prevent Henry’s triumphant return [Henry is exiled by Richard at the start of the play], has joined him instead. Some more of Richard’s friends have betrayed the King’s cause. Others have been executed on Henry’s orders.”
Kingship made gods of men. Though, of course, it didn’t. All the men that were kings, despite being kings, remained subject to the law of nature expounded by Hobbes:
“Nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of the body, and mind; as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind than another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he. For as to the strength of the body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger himself.” (Leviathan, Part I, Ch. XIII, 1)
Whatever pretensions of superiority a king had, or was thought to, they were, in the end, only pretensions. To paraphrase Shakespeare, any man can the quietus of any other make with a bare bodkin. If kingship did make gods of men, then Shakespeare made men of gods. That is wholly apparent in the speech I’ve chosen. Richard’s kingly facade crumbles in consideration of his end, both as king – his realm is not his, he merely borrowed it – and man – like you and me, Richard can, and will, die.
RICHARD: Of comfort no man speak. Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs, Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth. Let’s choose executors and talk of wills– And yet not so, for what can we bequeath Save our deposed bodies to the ground? Our lands, our lives, and all are Bollingbroke’s; And nothing can we call our own but death, And that small model of the barren earth Which serves as paste and cover to our bones. [Sitting] 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 poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed, All murdered. 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 monarchy, be feared, and kill with looks, Infusing him with self and vain conceit, As if this flesh which walls about our life Were brass impregnable; and humoured 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?
Of course, one needn’t read Shakespeare. You can hear the words spoken by a wealth of brilliant thespians. Here are a few:
Compilation of David William (1960), Derek Jacobi (1978), Richard Pasco (1982) and Mark Rylance (2003) – only from “For God’s sake” onwards, still good though.
Ben Whishaw in The Hollow Crown (2012)
David Tennant in RSC’s Richard II (2013)
Thanks for reading. What do you think of this speech? Do you have a different favourite? I’d love to know.