You didn’t think I was done posting about Shakespeare, did you?!
Roughly one year ago, Project Shakespeare was formed, and as a group we’re celebrating our anniversary tomorrow, by performing snippets of different scenes and each performing a monologue that we’ve done at some point over the past year. Everyone in the group voted for which monologue everybody was going to do, and I was voted to do Edmund in King Lear, because of course I was.
But this whole thing, preparing for the Anniversary Extravaganza and looking through monologues I’ve done over the past year, led me to compiling this list of my favorite Shakespeare monologues because damn, are there some good ones. One thing about Shakespeare is that he invented very few of his stories; the reason we still value his works isn’t for their artistic innovation so much as for their language, so that’s what I really wanted to celebrate in this post by going through a few of my favorites. I say ‘a few’ — it’s my top 15. Let’s do this.
Also, this order is kind of arbitrary. I saved my favorite one for last but otherwise I’m grouping plays together where there are multiples from the same play for contextual consistency. Also including some video links when there’s a good video version or one I particularly like.
15. Macbeth in Macbeth 2.1, “Is this a dagger”
Context: Macbeth has just resolved to kill the king Duncan in order to crown himself.
Video: Patrick Stewart
This one’s not that deep (my reasoning for it making this list, that is, not the monologue itself) — I’ve had it memorized for years so it’s the one Macbeth monologue I still gravitate toward the most, although there are plenty of great ones to choose from.
14. Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1.1, “How happy some o’er other some can be”
Context: Helena is in love with Demetrius, who’s in love with Hermia, who’s in love (mutually) with Lysander; those two are about to run off into the woods together. Demetrius used to love Helena and here she’s lamenting that his affections turned to Hermia, and she decides that she’s going to tell Demetrius that Hermia and Lysander are running off together, thinking it will bring Demetrius closer to her. Helena’s a mess, basically.
Video: Sarah MacRae @ 14:22
I think this is the only monologue from a comedy that made this list. I’m not so adamantly anti-comedy as I was at the beginning of my Shakespeare journey, but it is true that they tend to not hit me quite as hard. This Helena monologue isn’t even that special, objectively; I’d simply wanted to play Helena since I was 11, so I rehearsed the heck out of this monologue when I finally got the chance last month and it’s one of the ones that I most enjoyed spending time with. (Helena is incidentally also the character I’d most like to play on stage, so if you’re casting Midsummer in Vermont post-pandemic… call me.)
13. Constance in King John 3.4, “Thou art not holy to belie me so”
Context: Constance’s son Arthur, a claimant to the throne and a threat to King John, has been captured by John’s forces. Here Constance mourns Arthur’s death and dies of grief herself shortly after, though interestingly, Arthur hasn’t actually yet died in the play when Constance gives these speeches — it’s one of those weird Shakespearean puzzles.
Video: Camille O’Sullivan
Slightly less famous than a different monologue that follows (“Grief fills the room up of my absent child”), but if I had to choose just one for Constance, this wins hands down. I LOVE the language in this one: I love the visual imagery Shakespeare weaves in of Constance tearing her hair down while she’s giving this speech about grief and sanity, and “Preach some philosophy to make me mad,/ And thou shalt be canonized, cardinal” is one of my favorite lines full stop.
12. Lady Percy in Henry IV Part 2 2.3, “O, yet, for God’s sake, go not to these wars!”
Context: Kate Percy’s father in law, Northumberland, is talking about bringing his troops into battle. Kate reprimands him and reminds him that his son Hotspur needed backup from his father, which he neglected to send, resulting in Hotspur’s death at the hands of Prince Hal (here referred to as Monmouth), and now that Hotspur’s dead there’s no point in going back into the war now. Northumberland agrees.
Video: random talented YouTuber named Elin Alexander (I ended up playing this character with a British accent because I watched this girl’s video so many times while preparing this monologue)
THE POWER OF THIS MONOLOGUE, I mean, imo the second best piece of rhetoric in all of Shakespeare?! Northumberland being STRUCK DOWN by his daughter in law and changing his military tactic because she just spends two minutes roasting his ass… incredible.
11. Hamlet in Hamlet 2.2, “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I”
Context: Hamlet was told by his father’s ghost that his uncle Claudius is guilty of his father’s murder, and here he resolves to set a trap for Claudius by putting on a play which mirrors Hamlet’s father’s murder, hoping to evoke a reaction in Claudius that will confirm his guilt.
Video: Andrew Scott @ 6:30
I mean… it’s famous for a reason and I’m not sure what I can possibly say about it. This whole monologue is a ride from start to finish and the simple admission of weakness in “Am I a coward?” just GETS ME.
10. Claudius in Hamlet 3.3, “O my offense is rank”
Context: After the play has been performed, Claudius storms off and confesses in this monologue that he’s plagued with guilt over his brother’s murder, and he attempts to pray but is unable to.
Video: Patrick Stewart
Such a moment of vulnerability from such a detestable character — that Shakespeare goes to such lengths to humanize even terrible people is one of my favorite things about his works; you’re never spoon-fed a moral as you never see a conflict from only one side. We spend most of this play inside Hamlet’s head and still we get this tender, intimate moment of grief and guilt from the chief antagonist; it’s brilliant.
9. Romeo in Romeo & Juliet 3.3, “‘Tis torture, and not mercy”
Context: Immediately after his marriage to Juliet, Romeo murders Tybalt Capulet while avenging his friend Mercutio’s death. He finds out here that his punishment is banishment from Verona.
One of my most unpopular Shakespeare opinions is that I am far more drawn to Romeo than to Juliet — reconciling his passion and his tender heart with the violence he’s forced to commit is just devastating and that comes to a head in this monologue, full of both gentle and violent imagery. The only thing I can fault the Zeffirelli film for is cutting this.
8. Romeo in Romeo & Juliet 5.3, “In faith, I will”
Context: Romeo has just killed Paris in Juliet’s tomb, and Paris’s final words were pleading that Romeo buries him with Juliet, which he promises to do here before killing himself.
This monologue is just so unbearably sad and weighty and lovely; after I read this for the first time I decided that I would die if I couldn’t play Romeo, I just wanted the excuse to sit with these words.
7. Edmund in King Lear 1.2, “Thou, Nature, art my goddess”
Context: Edmund is the bastard son of Gloucester, and here he’s lamenting that his bastardy prevents him from receiving his full inheritance, so he’s coming up with a plan to frame his brother Edgar to cheat him out of his inheritance.
Video: Riz Ahmed
MY BOY. This is the one I’m doing in PS tomorrow, which I haven’t practiced, lol, but I have it memorized so… that should get the job done. Anyway this is just SO GOOD, Edmund raging against the social customs that prevent him from inheriting, and then the terrible turn it takes when he decides to frame his unwitting brother. “Now, gods, stand up for bastards” is a god tier villain mantra.
6. Edmund in King Lear 1.2, “This is the excellent foppery of the world”
Context: Edmund thinks astrology is bullshit.
Basically I adore every single word out of Edmund’s mouth and this deliciously sarcastic soliloquy about human nature is just hard to beat.
5. Cleopatra in Antony & Cleopatra 5.2, “Give me my robe, put on my crown”
Context: Antony has been defeated and Cleopatra has been captured by Octavian; she kills herself and her maids to spare them being paraded before Rome as a part of Caesar’s victory.
“Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have/ Immortal longings in me” is like… almost too good of a line to be real. This whole thing is just exceptional. She’s such a vibrant character meeting such a hollow end, it’s devastating.
4. Queen Margaret in Henry VI Part 3 1.4, “Brave warriors, Clifford and Northumberland”
Context: We’re in the Wars of the Roses now — Richard, Duke of York has been captured by the Lancastrian Queen Margaret and here she mocks him before having him executed, offering him a handkerchief with his dead son’s blood to dry his tears and putting a paper crown on his head.
Pretty much the most savage scene in all of Shakespeare. The way most people stan Lady Macbeth, I stan Margaret of Anjou.
3. Richard in Richard II 3.2, “No matter where; of comfort no man speak”
Context: Richard has just received word that his army has deserted him and that the people have accepted Bolingbroke (his successor, Henry IV) as ruler and he kind of has a breakdown about it.
Video: David Tennant
Richard II is the gorgeous writing play and that’s best encapsulated here. “Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;/ Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes/ Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,” “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings,” “I live with bread like you, feel want/ Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus/ How can you say to me, I am a king” yes I’m just quoting the entire thing but COME ON!!! This monologue is one of the best pieces of writing ever penned in the English language.
2. Brutus in Julius Caesar 3.2, “Be patient till the last.”
Context: Brutus and the other conspirators have just killed Caesar; Brutus delivers this speech at Caesar’s funeral saying that they killed Caesar for the good of the Roman republic, and that Antony, who is about to speak, will corroborate this.
I played Brutus in PS, and when I was rehearsing, reading the lines alone in my room, I was more drawn to his soliloquies (namely 2.1, “It must be by his death”), but while I was in the moment, this is the speech that really stuck with me. Brutus is just such a brilliantly crafted character; one of the most notorious traitors in history defined here by honor is just navigated with such finesse throughout the play; I love the passion and sincerity here, especially contrasted with what’s about to follow.
- Mark Antony in Julius Caesar 3.2, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”
Context: And then Antony takes the stage and things do not go to plan.
Video: James Corrigan
How fucking cliché for this to be your favorite Shakespeare monologue, but unfortunately it can’t be beat. Just an absolute masterclass in rhetoric and manipulation while still being able to withstand performances that vary wildly in their degree of sincerity. I just love everything about this speech.
I also became uquiz famous with this Which Shakespearean monologue should you memorize quiz, so, obviously you should all take that and tell me what you got. And then memorize the monologue… haha jk unless…
Anyway, what’s your favorite monologue? Comment and let me know and make me feel bad about all of the brilliant ones I had to cut from this blog post!