The 23rd of April–yesterday– was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. As an English and Literature teacher I’m a believer in the power of reading and writing. And I’m a Shakespeare nerd. I loved teaching Shakespeare for the three years I lived in London. There it all was! The Globe Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, the streets and boards upon which Shakespeare lived and on which his work breathed. Two weeks ago I visited the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, which houses the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare’s works and artefacts, including 160,000 books, 60,000 manuscripts and 90,000 works of art. It’s Shakespeare nerd heaven.
Why are the Bard’s plays taught ubiquitously in English language and literature classrooms around the world, 400 years after his death? Because his work is considered to be universal and relevant across time and space. His plays and sonnets have influenced the very formation of the English language: the words we use and how we use them. He writes about things which resonate deep in the core of humanity: love, jealousy, history, ambition, rage, war, passion, flesh, and being a flawed person in the world.
So, today I thought I’d share a few of my favourite quotes from Shakespeare’s plays, along with some of my photos of the wonderful Folger Shakespeare Library.
What’s in a name? ~ Juliet, Romeo and Juliet
Juliet’s famous line draws into question notions of identity. What does it matter what we’re called? Does a name or a title change who we are, or who we are perceived to be? I kept my maiden name when I got married, embedded as it was in my sense of who I am. Recently I got to change my title from ‘Ms’ to ‘Dr’ which has come with its own inner identity wrangling. This question is still relevant today, as the language we use to define and describe (ourselves, the world, anything, everything) shapes the meanings we make and the realities we create.
This above all: To thine own self be true. ~ Polonius, Hamlet
An oft-cited line, here’s a case of art speaking a universal truth: the importance of being true to oneself. Shakespeare reminds us to live authentically and purposefully.
If you prick us, do we not bleed? ~ Shylock, Merchant of Venice
While Shylock’s speech ends in vengeance, it begins with a powerful, emotive plea for social justice and equality. This plea can be seen (from a particular angle) to challenge the beliefs of Shakespeare’s time. It also challenges modern audiences to consider their own prejudices and kindnesses. Who in our contemporary world is treated with a lack of empathy or humanity? Who is voiceless or powerless? Who is willing to stand up for justice and fair treatment of all? What is fair?
Shylock’s character is complex and open to different interpretations. Is he villain, victim or man of integrity? He challenges viewers to reflect on themselves, the world in which they live, the way they treat others and the way they conduct themselves.
Screw your courage to the sticking place. ~ Lady Macbeth, Macbeth
Lady Macbeth is initially the backbone in her relationship with Macbeth, although she later goes mad. Here she is at the beginning of the play, strong, resolute and convincing. She calls on spirits to “unsex me” in her drive to take on the strong masculine role alongside her then-weak husband. The actions of Lady Macbeth and her husband are murderous, driven by ambition. The complexities of their relationship explore still-relevant themes of power, gender and love.
Macbeth, like Shylock, is a complex and flawed character open to interpretation. The play encourages us to reflect upon to the extent to which we are each responsible for our own actions and on our own “black and deep desires.”
What angel wakes me from my flowery bed? ~ Titania, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
I love this line. Titania is enchanted as she wakes, but who wouldn’t want to have these words sleepily uttered to them as soon as a lover opened their eyes?