Shakespeare and me: Irish writers on the Bard's best bits
Some admirers celebrate the playwright’s work on the 400th anniversary of his death
Favourite play: Hamlet gave me permission to put an antic disposition on whenever the notion took me, to go all melancholy any time I wanted, and to show disrespect for my betters at regular intervals. I don’t know what I would have done without it.
Favourite villain: Leontes in The Winter’s Tale is my favourite villain – irascible, unreasonable, paranoid, and then all sorry.
Favourite quote: “This music crept by me upon the waters,” from The Tempest, which is also quoted by Eliot in The Waste Land. I don’t know why the line is so haunting, but it remains for me oddly mysterious, powerful, strange.
Play: The Winter’s Tale. No other writer understands so precisely the sorrow and ecstasy of sexual passion the way Shakespeare does. I admire this play above all for the ambiguous way it connects love and hatred. And then, having covered every possible twist and turn of its story, it dares to defy all expectation by ending with a miracle of forgiveness. But does it? You’re left wanting the happy ending but guessing it might not be, and so the heart breaks again.
Villain: Shylock, perhaps, yet I would like to say I am almost entirely on his side against the shits of Venice and their poisonous ilk, Portia, in Belmont.
Quote: “To be, or not to be.” Hamlet’s soliloquy is still the strangest, most elusive, most contradictory, maddening, addictive testimony to the power of doubt in the human mind, as political as it is poetic, as practical as it is philosophical, the speech that is at the core of Shakespeare’s theatre, everything before leading to it, everything after leading from it. Its essence reveals as no one ever had or has since the brilliance of the actor’s imagination, its magical shifts of light and logic, in debate with its own reasoning.
Éilis Ní Dhuibhne
Play: The Merchant of Venice is particularly coherent and logical, among the so-called comedies. And, of all his plays, it has the most brilliant female character, Portia. It’s a controversial play – I believe that it is anti-Semitic and that Shakespeare was prejudiced against Jews just as he occasionally demonstrates prejudice against the Irish. Although, unless I am very much mistaken, he never created a substantial Irish character, not even as a villain. What a pity. But even as far as Shylock is concerned there is ambiguity: he can be portrayed, and interpreted, sympathetically, thanks to the way in which his complexity as a character is written. He is one of Shakespeare’s most interesting creations.
Villain: Lady Macbeth, for all the wrong reasons. He makes her so utterly hateful, letting Macbeth suck up sympathy which he ill deserves. As a dramatic character Lady Macbeth is fabulous: you want to murder her.
Quote: “There is a tide in the affairs of men / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” Shakespeare was extremely interested in the question of time and our relationship to it. Days are where we live, as Philip Larkin wrote – time is perhaps the most significant dimension, but of course we have to take it entirely for granted most of the time. I like the lines quoted from Julius Caesar because they are so simple, and so spot on.
Play: Macbeth. Always Macbeth. I honestly think it’s a black comedy. The first time I read it I roared. I’ve no wish to direct for theatre; the thought of watching the same play over and over makes me want to gouge my eyes out in a Jacobean way (and I include my own work in that). I’d love to tackle Macbeth, though. There’s just something inherently funny about the idea of a ghost appearing at a banquet. And only one person can see it. Come on! And there’s a wonderful plasticity to Lord and Lady Macbeth. I bet they like Demis Roussos. I said that once at an audition. I didn’t get the part.
Villain: Although technically Edmund is the antagonist in Lear, I’d choose Lear’s stubbornness as my favourite villain. We’ve all had that dad: impervious to change even when faced with losing his own daughter, which is probably Freudian or something. He’s the ultimate sulk. I always wonder what Mrs Lear was like. Not the Queen Lear that Vanessa Redgrave is doing later in the year but Mrs Lear. I’d imagine she’d have told him to catch himself on. I’d say there was a fair bit of eye rolling going on when she was alive.
Quote: If I can use a scene instead of a line, I love the graveyard scene from Hamlet. “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio . . . ” is, after all, a fairly unremarkable line in a play full of wonderful and prettier lines. It’s the concept. I know it’s been the victim of too many bad comedy sketches from the 1970s, and has lost its impact, but this is a man holding the skull of a dead man and realising that he knew him. And that he was a funny guy. And now he’s a grinning skull. That’s mind-blowing. I hate Shakespeare for that. It’s just so bloody good. Where be your jibes now? Indeed.
Play: As a teenager I loved Hamlet for its tragic love story, for Hamlet’s grief and his moral dilemma, his procrastination, his madness. I also loved the sounds of particular words and what they evoked: “Elsinore”, “Ophelia”, “nunnery”, “usurp”. I hadn’t known back then that Shakespeare had beaten Freud to the inner life. Years later I came across something Harold Bloom said: that Shakespeare was the first writer to have characters speak aloud their thoughts, ponder their actions, mull over their own natures. We take this “representation of inwardness”, as Bloom calls it, entirely for granted nowadays, but it was groundbreaking in 1600.
Villain: No matter how awful Shakespeare’s villains are, no matter how terrible their deeds, it’s nearly always possible to feel sympathy for them. Shylock’s plea for mercy in The Merchant of Venice cannot but move us: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” And Edmund’s belief in King Lear, just before he dies, that although Goneril and Regan were monsters they did love him: “Yet Edmund was beloved.” This causes him to ponder aloud, and suddenly he undergoes a change. In one of his final breaths he tries to lift the order to kill Lear and Cordelia: “Send in time.” But it is too late.
Quote: “To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub.” I like the poetry and ethereal tone of the first part, the dreaminess inherent in that word “perchance”. And then there’s the shock and sarcasm of the next part. Although Hamlet speaks these lines in a moment of anguish and desperation, there is, when taken out of context, something soft and almost wistful in the tone. Versatile Shakespeare.
Play: I don't really have favourite plays. I like to take each work on its merits. But I have a deep love of Twelfth Night because of the time I spent working on it for the Abbey Theatre. It’s so full of longing and regret and so ridiculous all at once, like life. It is full of the most extraordinary language about the transformative nature of love, and it holds such strong faith with the possibility of change. But it understands how painful change is. A man who came to my production was overheard to call it a pornographic disco romp. I don’t think he liked it, but it’s the best review I’ve ever had.
Villain: Edmund in King Lear. I love how hard done by, sexy and amoral he is. There is a kind of charismatic nihilism to him that I find recognisable, terrifying and terribly attractive all at once.
Quote: “Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dress’d yourself?” which Lady Macbeth says to her husband, is my favourite line of Shakespeare. I didn’t know the play that well, and somebody spoke it out of context to me in a rehearsal one time. I was instantly arrested by the thought, the image. I repeat it to myself sometimes when I feel I’ve fallen off course, or I doubt myself. I think it’s brilliantly concise, poetic and bitchy. It’s handy.
Henry James professor of English and American letters at New York University
Play: King Lear, and I find myself reciting the lines that Lear, now half out of his wits, meeting the blinded Gloucester near Dover, says: “They flattered me like a dog and told me I had white hairs in my beard ere the black ones were there . . . Go to, they are not men o’their words: they told me I was everything; ’tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.”
Villain: Lady Macbeth, if only for her strength in scourging her husband when he is wavering in the plan to kill Duncan. Her logic is specious, but the violence is irresistible.
Quote: The lines from Twelfth Night where Sir Toby rounds yet again on the hapless Malvolio and says: “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” And I recall reading a once-popular novel by W Somerset Maugham called Cakes and Ale.
Play: My favourite Shakespeare play is Coriolanus, mainly because it’s the one I’m most familiar with. I studied it at school, learned the speeches off by heart, and that very old-fashioned schooling allowed me to really enter the play. Coriolanus, a decorated general who is running for election as consul, is fearless and irascible and totally politically incorrect. He’s the Roy Keane of ancient Rome. Unable to hold his tongue and incapable of flattery, deception or diplomacy, his very virtues lead him eventually to betray his country. (I’m not going to draw Saipan analogies here.) He’s patrician to his core, having no time for courting the crowd, whom he refers to as “dissentious rogues”, “boils and plagues” and “souls of geese”.
Villain: I see Coriolanus’s mother, Volumnia, as one of the creepiest of Shakespeare’s monstrous women, although she does save Rome in the end – by getting Coriolanus to surrender and thus ensuring his death. But she’s the mother-in-law from hell, berating Coriolanus’s wife, Virgilia, for being wimpy about her husband going off to war, with warmongering declarations. Blood, she tells Virgilia, more becomes a man than gilt on a trophy – and with recriminations that smack to us of incestuous desire: “If my son were my husband I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour, than in the embracements of his bed, where he would show most love.”
Quote: Here’s a stump speech of Coriolanus’s: “What would you have, you curs, / That like not peace nor war? The one affrights you, / The other makes you proud./ He that trusts to you / Where he should find you lions, finds you hares; / Where foxes, geese; you are no surer, no / Than is the coal of fire upon the ice / Or hailstone in the sun.”
Play: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is my favourite to see in the theatre, because it’s so much fun, but Macbeth will always be my first choice. That’s due entirely to my abiding love and affection for Lady Macbeth, one of the greatest characters ever created. Her subversion of traditional gender norms is still astonishingly brave, so I can’t imagine what it must have been like for contemporary audiences. Her rejection of motherhood to satisfy her ambition resonated with me as a teenager, and I’ve never quite recovered from my crush on her.
Villain: Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is the ideal antagonist, as I could never make up my mind if he was the villain or the victim. He is the original anti-hero in many ways. He behaves in a manner that is unsympathetic, but we can understand why he does so. We can see that his behaviour is borne out of pain and frustration with the anti-Semitism that he is faced with on a daily basis.
Quote: “I have given suck, and know / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me: / I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, / And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn / As you have done to this.” I could have chosen a quote from any of Lady Macbeth’s speeches, but this one always gives me goosebumps. We are not used to hearing women speak like this, of acting in such a ruthless way.
Irish Times Literary Editor
Play: I’ve been haunted by King Lear since I first read it. It is the great enactment of the hollowness of power. It strips away pretence, shred by shred, and leaves us with the “poor, bare, forked animal” in all its terrible and beautiful vulnerability.
Villain: The greatest of all villains is Iago, because he takes us so fully into his confidence and makes us complicit in his evil. He’s horrible, but we’re always happy to see him on stage.
Quote: Cleopatra sees the embattled Antony again and asks: “Com’st thou smiling from / The world’s great snare uncaught?” I adopted that as my mission in life.
Play: It’s almost impossible to choose, but, with a pikestaff to my chest, I’d probably say A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I think it’s quite a complex allegory about storymaking, sexuality and empathy, at once the most artificial and yet, in a sense, the most credible of all the plays. Shakespeare is brilliant with otherworlds, hidden places of the heart. Whenever he writes a forest something freeing crackles through the lines.
Villain: Top villain is, of course, Iago, the cruellest baddie in all of world literature. But the most magnetic, for me, is Edmund from King Lear, who has the most important thing for any villain: a tiny grain of being sympathetic. Faced with prejudice and unfairness, he decides not to accept it but to outplay the world using everything he’s got. I put a touch of him into Pius Mulvey, the anti-hero of my own novel Star of the Sea. Another reason I am going to vote for Edmund is because I spent two years with this play as a Leaving Cert student, and my wonderful English teacher, the late John Burns, used to enjoy declaiming the great line from act I, scene ii: “Now Gods, stand up for bastards!”
Quote: There are so many remarkable soliloquies and corruscatingly powerful lines, but I love the human simplicity and yearning at the heart of the exchange from Romeo and Juliet in act III, scene v. Anyone who was ever in love will recognise the longing of the couple not to part after spending the night together. And the way he uses the birds as part of the storytelling is brilliant.
Play: My favourite Shakespeare play gives us both my favourite villain and favourite quote: Othello. I came across it first in Leaving Cert, as many of us did, but unlike many of my schoolmates, who found the tragedy dull or obscure or futile, I was rapt, and although I went on to read more of Shakespeare’s work nothing has yet gotten to me as Othello did. What struck me – and continues to – is the (almost anachronistic, to my 15-year-old mind) colour and energy of the language. Othello isn’t simply eloquent, as befitting its themes of racism, jealousy, spite, regret; it is playful, nimble, frequently riotous. It is deft and it is manipulative.
Villain: And it fits the deft, manipulative nature of its antagonist, Iago, whose name has become shorthand for that most villainous of character types: the devious, blisteringly intelligent wolf in sheep’s clothing, the smiling madman. Here’s a bad guy who you admire and hate yourself for admiring; when he is offstage you wait for his return in the way you wait for delicious scares in a horror movie. And he is human in humanity’s wildest sense: driven by hatred and envy, corrosive, and distressingly familiar.
Quote: Othello himself is more a sad symbol, a man-shaped morality tale. Is it any wonder that the quote that sticks still in my mind is his own words to Iago, on discovering how he has been tricked and led to wrath and murder: “I look down towards his feet, but that’s a fable. If that thou be’st a devil, / I cannot kill thee.”
Author and professor emeritus of English at Georgetown University, Washington, DC
Play: Macbeth. One of the few good experiences of boarding school was seeing Anew McMaster in the title role. He really hammed it up, no doubt, as only he could, but it was the first time I’d seen a Shakespeare play and found that theatre could be really exhilarating. Plus the whole class took away a line that proved highly useful for the rest of our school careers: “Is this a shagger I see before me?”
Villain: Richard III. He’s a terror, and that’s what he aims to be from the word go. Often it’s the object of villainy that’s in the forefront. But Richard makes no bones, as it were, about what he is. He acts like ruling a country is the same as getting his way. Other grotesques have also tried this on: they’re in the paper every day.
Quote: This is impossible, of course. I’m as big a sucker as anyone for the epigrammatic ones, and on another day might well choose one of those. But what springs to mind is the Hostess’s account of Falstaff’s death in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “After I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with / Flowers, and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew / There was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as / A pen, and ’a babbled of green fields.” It’s the simplicity that is so affecting, how the common words convey the quality of attention the speaker was paying at the crucial moment, and that she was not only witnessing but was impressed enough to be able to remember the nose, the fingers, the rambling voice, the pure and simple final image.
Play: Hamlet, but that’s too obvious, so I’m going to pretend it’s Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare always had a vivid sense of the sacred, ecstatic dimension of extreme violence, and in this early play he cranks it up beyond all reason. I once saw a production in the Project which imagined Titus Andronicus as a dystopian, militaristic future scenario. It was thrilling: a visceral, brutal, ecstatic descent into hell.
Villain: Shylock. I always identify more with villains. If the whole world is spitting in someone’s face, that person automatically becomes lovable to me. Shylock – the scorned, humiliated, tormented Jewish moneylender – has always had more humanity and wounded dignity for me than Antonio and his upright, well-loved, square-jawed friends.
Quote: “Get thee to a nunnery.” As a gloomy teenager with misogynist leanings, disappointed by women because they did not live up to my impossible standards, I was in the habit of quoting this as I broke up with them.
Play: Ever since King Lear I am an enthusiast of tragedies. Who can resist a mad king in a thunderstorm, a fool skittering around his beard tails? And then the Earl of Gloucester, after his eyes have been gouged from his head, begging his estranged, disguised son to lead him to a cliff in Dover in order that he might jump. At 17 it taught me that happy endings are so boring.
Villain: Shylock is without doubt my mad king of Shakespearean villains. Studying The Merchant of Venice for Junior Cert, I immediately sided with the money-lending Jew. I didn’t like Bassanio and Portia and all their prissy, popular friends, and I was gruesomely fascinated by precisely how an even pound of Antonio’s flesh might be extracted from him body, and crushingly disappointed when Shylock never got his chance.
Quote: The opening lines of sonnet 60 have always stuck in my mind, I suppose because they are so constantly, achingly relevant: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, / So do our minutes hasten to their end”.
Play: King Lear. Even the Leaving Cert couldn’t ruin this ultimate family drama. The scene on the heath when he rages against the elements is a harrowing portrayal of madness. For all his failings, Lear is a man “more sinned against than sinning”, and the character that lives most fully in my mind from all English literature.
Villain: Malvolio, in Twelfth Night, a Puritan party-pooper and comedy villain who gets his comeuppance courtesy of a pair of yellow stockings.
Quote: “Full fathom five thy father lies, / Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes, / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.” From Ariel’s song in The Tempest, a moving meditation on mortality and the afterlife. It’s the inscription on a tomb at the sea-battered ancient church ruins of Courtaparteen, in west Cork – a sailor’s grave, no doubt.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir
Play: There is so much charm and (welcome) darkness in all of Shakespeare, but the plays I studied at school in the 1980s are the ones that stay with me: The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth. They were also the ones my older sister, Nessa, had studied, and she was always a huge influence on me, so she helped me love and understand both plays better. Of the two, Macbeth is my favourite; I love all that witchy madness and violence set in Scotland. “Make thick my blood,” Lady Macbeth calls to the spirits. Stirring stuff for a young Curehead.
Villain: Lady Macbeth, who is forever the actor Jane Lapotaire in my mind; at school we watched the film version she starred in. Lapotaire was a convincingly melodramatic and ruthless Lady Macbeth. She remained resolutely two-faced and single-minded as she drove both herself and her husband mad. (A travelling production of Macbeth also came to our local parish hall, but Banquo’s ghost had a fit of the giggles, which burst the atmospheric bubble a bit.)
Quote: There are so many great quotes, and lots of them are stuck in my head from exam prep. Here’s a typically crazed one from Lady Macbeth that my sister and I used to recite à la Lapotaire: “I have given suck, and know/How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me: / I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums / And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn/ As you have done to this.”
Irish Times theatre critic
Play: I’d like to persuade myself that it isn’t Hamlet. It’s such an obvious choice. The astonishing howl of King Lear is more devastating. The indirections and disguises of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Twelfth Night are more subversive, and somehow more us. Macbeth is leaner, keener, shorter. The Comedy of Errors is certainly funnier. Titus Andronicus is wilder, with almost double the body count. But Hamlet has it all. You could spend your life inside it. And, for a theatre critic, that’s probably just as well.
Villain: Lady Macbeth. There’s a special place for her in the annals of stone-cold psychopathy. Her motivational speeches, in which she encourages her politically climbing but conscience-hobbled husband towards murder by speaking of dashing out her infant’s brains, always sound pretty shocking, as are her regrets that she didn’t slay the king herself. It’s unsatisfying that she fades away in the latter half, tormented by visions and dying offstage. A production I saw years ago suggested that she faked madness to escape her comeuppance. That sounds about right.
Quote: It’s between: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep,” from Prospero in The Tempest, or from Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more: it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”