Yesterday, the Globe Theatre in London asked its Twitter followers which words from Shakespeare had always stuck with them and which quotes inspired them. It’s the sort of question that lights a gleam in my eye – a speculative, ruminative, reminiscent gleam – as I mull over the possibilities. It seems I am far from being the only one to be thus affected: the answers poured in all morning and I had great fun reading through them.
In the pantheon of literary gods that I revere, Shakespeare undoubtedly occupies the highest of high thrones. His words have surrounded me since childhood; I loved other authors for their storylines and characters, but it is to Shakespeare’s cadences that I owe my love of the English language itself. To (mis)quote what his Anthony says of Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither [him], nor custom stale / [His] infinite variety”.
To be obliged to choose among so many beloved lines has cost me a pang or two, but here, then, are the ones that probably mean most to me:
- “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; / I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” – Julius Caesar, Act III, scene 2. I never remember the rest of Marc Antony’s speech (apart from the oft-repeated variants of “they are all, all honourable men”), nor even recall the plot of the play, despite having seen it twice; but my mother made me memorise it as a child, and the famous first line has stayed with me to this day.
- “Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day / Stands tiptoe on the misty mountaintops.” – Romeo and Juliet, Act III, scene 5. Shakespeare’s portrayal of the intensity of teenage love was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the favourite play of my own adolescence. I read and re-read it, and I knew whole passages by heart. Its star has since waned a little in my firmament, but the beauty of this line still makes me catch my breath.
- “There was a star danced and under that was I born.” – Much Ado About Nothing, Act II, scene 1. I will be eternally grateful to Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson for bringing this play alive for me and showing me just how funny Shakespeare could be. Amid all the quips exchanged by Benedick and merry, sharp-tongued Beatrice, this line (spoken to the Prince, before Benedick returns to annoy her once more) stands out for me because of its unexpected gentleness and poetry.
- “Halloo your name to the reverberate hills / And make the babbling gossip of the air / Cry out ‘Olivia!'” – Twelfth Night, Act I, scene 5. This play has, for many years now, supplanted Romeo and Juliet in my affections and held absolute sway over my heart. To me, it is almost perfect, and I could quote it ad infinitum. However, since one must choose… Cesario’s willow cabin speech is one of my favourite parts, and for some reason, these two lines really resonate (forgive the pun) with me.
- “A witchcraft drew me hither.” –Twelfth Night, Act V, scene 1. I think this is one of the saddest lines in the play. Antonio, the sea-captain who rescued Sebastian and has been travelling with him, has been caught by Orsino’s men and must justify his presence on enemy land. Amid all the hostility and the insults that ensue, we are suddenly given a glimpse of unrequited love and loneliness.
- “Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love.” – Hamlet, Act II, scene 2. I have never much cared for the Danish prince, his paranoia, his jealous love for his mother, or his suicidal tendencies, but I do think his words to Ophelia constitute one of the most beautiful declarations of love ever.
- “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past” – sonnet 30. Last but not least… Naturally, sonnets 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) and 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments”) rank high on my list of favourites, and the fact that I can still recite them, word for word, is a source of some pride to me; but this is the sonnet that moves me most. To me, it speaks not so much of love as of friendship, and it is the text that best sums up what I feel when I think of my best friend.
© Florence Berlioz 2018