Nobody knows precisely when William Shakespeare was born. It was in 1564, probably a few days before April 26, which definitely was the date of his baptism, as recorded in the parish church at Stratford-upon-Avon. The Bard’s birthday is traditionally observed on April 23, which is also the date on which he died, in 1616.
To celebrate his life, we’ve asked a few NRO contributors to pick their favorite play by Shakespeare and explain why they love it.
If there’s one play by Shakespeare on the high-school reading list, it’s Romeo and Juliet. I have a proposal for English teachers: Ditch it and offer your students Macbeth. R&J is a wonderful play, but it’s a play for girls. “Swear not by the moon” sounded swoonily tragic to me when I was 13 and had a crush on a boy a class ahead of me. Macbeth, by contrast, deals with themes bound to fire up young people of both sexes (Lady Macbeth is as formidable as her husband): thirst for power, a supernatural world of witches and ghosts that calls to mind anime and video games, and the evil that feeds upon desire for advancement and power. Macbeth contemplates murder in order to take the step that will make him king of Scotland “hereafter.” In the end, he is “in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” In religious terms, Macbeth is about the python-like entanglement of sin; in secular terms, it is about the dark and destructive underside of human nature. And here’s the best thing: Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, with a production time of less than two hours. English teachers, dump sappy Romeo and have your students not just read the meatier Macbeth but “strut and fret” it upon your classroom stage. They’ll get it, and they’ll never forget their immersion into the potential for evil that resides inside every one of us.
– Charlotte Allen is the author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.
blew me over when I was 20 years old. Not because it’s a monument of Western literature, or because it imparts the pathos of old age stripped of power. No, it worked for a bare adolescent reason. I identified with an attitude of one character, Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester. He’s a scheming villain. Early in the play, after Lear has banished Kent and renounced his daughter Cordelia, Edmund dupes his father into thinking that the other son, Edgar, is contemplating patricide. Gloucester sputters and rages, then blames the troubles on starry influences: “These late eclipses of the sun and moon portend no good to us.” He exits, and Edmund grades him accordingly: “This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune — often the surfeits of our own behavior — we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion.” That to me was wisdom. Edmund supplied an unforgiving judgment of elders who took the easy way out, who passed their guilt along to others, who rationalized their vices as the product of circumstance. What youth doesn’t feel the same way about adults now and then?
– Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.
King Lear is the obvious choice. Nothing comes close, not in Shakespeare, not anywhere. But if it is a question of love rather than admiration, the choice is harder. Having once played Leontes on the college stage, I still hold The Winter’s Tale very dear. The Henry IV plays, Henry V, Hamlet, and Coriolanus are all about honor, my hobby-horse, and I love them all. Antony and Cleopatra is also about honor, but love as well, which gives it a more contemporary dimension. Honor there is not what it is to Hotspur or Hal or Coriolanus or even Hamlet, but is seen with a more mature eye — neither with Falstaffian dismissal nor with Henry V’s covetousness. It gets a juster, more even-handed appreciation as a part of one of the world’s great love stories, between two of the greatest characters ever created. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is unrivaled in literature as a portrait of womanhood. She is the truth of what we can only take on faith with Homer’s (or Yeats’s) Helen of Troy: the woman for whom the world is, as Dryden later said, “well lost.” There is nothing like her anywhere else, and her transformative effect on traditional honor looks centuries ahead.
– James Bowman is the author of Honor: A History.