This page is an invitation to choose a passage from Shakespeare for which you have a special affection and to give a brief account of why it is important to you. It might, perhaps, remind you of a particularly memorable performance, contain ideas that seem profound, be written in a particularly effective way - or any other personal reason.... The page was suggested by Stella (Warwick) and inspired by Nelson Mandela's experiences when imprisoned on Robben Island. A copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare was concealed between the covers of Hindu Holy images and passed between the political prisoners during the 1970s, 32 of whom marked, initialed and dated a passage that held a special significance for themselves. Mandela's choice (below) from Julius Caesar was signed and dated 16th December, 1977.
Once, long ago, I spent an evening in a theatre listening to a selection of readings - poetry, prose extracts - I cannot now remember the theme which linked them. What I do recall is the shock I received when, one piece having ended, another actor rose and began to speak the next, without preamble. Before my mind made the connection to name the extract, I recognised instinctively that we were in the presence of language rarer and more precious than anything which had gone before. Time has not robbed me of this thrill. The piece I heard was the prologue, spoken by Chorus to introduce the play Henry V. The words precede the action on stage and are complete in themselves, usually written in a different typeface. I also recall that in 1964, when an exhibition was mounted on the grounds in front of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, it contained a model of the original Globe and within it a recording of this speech that mentions the theatre itself, ‘this wooden O’ (see image below). I choose it in memory of these experiences and also because it describes that miracle of the human imagination, which enables us to suspend our disbelief and engage with the characters and events invented by the writer.
O! for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention; A kingdom for a stage, princes to act And monarchs to behold the swelling scene. Then should the war-like Harry, like himself, Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels, Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all, The flat unraised spirits that hath dar'd On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth So great an object; can this cockpit hold The vasty fields of France? or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt? O, pardon! since a crooked figure may Attest in little place a million; And let us, ciphers to this great accompt, On your imaginary forces work, Suppose within the girdle of these walls Are now confin'd two mighty monarchies, Whose high upreared and abutting fronts The perilious narrow ocean parts asunder: Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts: Into a thousand parts divide one man, And make imaginary puissance; Think when we talk of horses that you see them Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth; For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, Carry them here and there, jumping o'er times, Turning the accomplishment of many years Into an hour-glass: for the which supply Admit me Chorus to this history; Who prologue-like your humble patience pray, Gently to hear, kindly to judge our play.