Whether they be tragedy, comedy, or history, Shakespeare’s plays are often remembered by the strength of the monologues delivered at key moments. Macbeth is a particularly good example.
The most critical scenes are punctuated by unforgettable speeches, dwelling on consequences, fate, and death. The moving monologues found in Romeo and Juliet are also wonderful examples of Shakespeare’s skill with language and his ability to plumb the depths of a character’s mind for their most complex thoughts.
Below, readers will find ten of the best and most enjoyable monologues that Shakespeare ever wrote.
From: Macbeth Act 5, Scene 5
Spoken by: Macbeth
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
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,
These dramatic, harrowing lines appear in Macbeth and are spoken by Macbeth when he finds out that his wife, Lady Macbeth, is dead. “Tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow” is one of the best-known monologues in all of Shakespeare’s dramatic works. Some notable quotes from this speech include “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage” and “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.”
The soliloquy is about the futility of life and how no matter what one does, they’re eventually going to die. It is universally unavoidable. These lines also signify the beginning of the end for Macbeth who will soon find himself facing his death at the hands of Macduff.
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d”
Spoken by: Portia
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
Portia gives this speech in act 4, scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice. She has disguised herself as a male lawyer, Balthazar, to defend Antonio from Shylock. The latter has demanded a “pound of flesh” from Antonio as compensation for an unpaid debt. She attempts and fails to appeal to Shylock’s humanity. He is completely without mercy.
She does her best to convince him though, telling him that mercy is a quality essential to all of humankind and that giving forgiveness is something to be proud of. It is not a weakness—the speech opens with it is “not strained.” This is a characteristically Shakespearean turn of phrase in that it’s suggesting two things at once. It refers to applying it with force as well as its being “unconstrained.” Mercy shouldn’t have limits.
“Is this a dagger which I see before me”
From: Macbeth Act 2, Scene 1
Spoken by: Macbeth
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There’s no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one halfworld
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings, and wither’d murder,
Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.
With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.
[a bell rings]
I go, and it is done; the bell invites me.
Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven or to hell.
Macbeth speaks these lines in the second act of the play. He’s contemplating his future and what he’s going to do to after it. He decides to kill King Duncan, who’s sleeping that night in Macbeth’s castle. The famous opening lines allude to the metaphorical dagger Macbeth sees hanging in front of him. He wonders if it’s really there or if his guilty mind is making him see it. In the last lines, he hears a bell and uses an apostrophe, speaking to Duncan who can’t hear him. He tells Duncan not to hear the ringing, “for it is a knell” that summons him to “heaven or hell.” For those familiar with the play, this speech and Macbeth’s choice to kill Duncan is seen as a turning point. It’s the action that seals his fate.
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend my your ears!”
Spoken by: Marc Antony
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
Marc Antony’s speech from act 3, scene 2 of Julius Caesar is incredibly clever. He’s been given the right to speak at Caesar’s funeral as long as he doesn’t say anything against the men who killed Caesar. He manages to use irony to allude to the conspirators without directly naming them and their actions. In this passage, some of the best-known lines refer to Brutus as an “honourable man,” something Marc Antony quite clearly doesn’t believe.
“What light through yonder window breaks?”
Spoken by: Romeo
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!
She speaks yet she says nothing: what of that?
Her eye discourses; I will answer it.
I am too bold, ’tis not to me she speaks:
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!
Romeo begins this speech when he sees Juliet standing at her window, or perhaps her balcony depending on one’s interpretation of the play. He returns to images he used previously in the play, referring to her warmth and comparing her to “the sun.” Romeo continues this extended metaphor, bringing in the moon and how resentful “she” feels in the sight of Juliet’s beauty. The speech ends with Romeo asserting his desire to be “a glove” on Juliet’s hand so that he might “touch that cheek.”
“This sceptred isle”
Spoken by: John of Gaunt
Methinks I am a prophet new inspir’d,
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed, and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,–
For Christian service and true chivalry,–
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son:
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leas’d out,–I die pronouncing it,–
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots, and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah! would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death.
In these lines from Richard II, John of Gaunt is on his death bed, lamenting the fact that England has lost much of its glory. Under the reign of Richard II, the country is changing. Despite this, it still has much to be respected, from its ability to defend itself and the moat of water surrounding it. Depending on how one reads this passage, it may or may not come across as genuine. Readers interpret Gaunt’s words differently, some believing that he means what he says and others that he’s being sarcastic.
Spoken by: Jacques
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
This incredibly famous speech has become synonymous with Shakespeare’s broader literary oeuvre. At its heart is a metaphor comparing everyday life to the life of an actor playing “many parts” on the stage. Just as this person enters and exits, taking on different roles, so do men and women take on different roles in their lives. They move through seven ages of life from infancy to childhood, lover, soldier, justice, old age, and then finally “childishness” again.
“Now is the winter of our discontent”
Spoken by: Gloucester
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
These striking lines feature prominently in Richard III. They are some of the most commonly quoted from any Shakespeare play. The Duke of Gloucester delivers this speech at the beginning of the play, setting the tone for what’s to come next. He opens by saying that at last the winter, or the darkest times his country has seen, has been transformed into summer, a period of happiness under the reign of his brother, King Edward. He soon changes his tone though, stating that this period of peace bores him. Gloucester, who’s soon going to become Richard III, alludes to his brother’s fate in the final lines.
This speech is also famous for Shakespeare’s depiction of Gloucester’s deformity. It’s so dramatic that dogs bark at him when he walks past.
“To be or not to be”
From: Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1
Spoken by: Prince Hamlet
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
This incredibly famous soliloquy is given by Hamlet soon after the death of his father. He’s thinking about life and death and what value the two have. This leads him to consider his existence and contemplate whether or not he’d be happier dead. Life, he says, is powerless, but in death, one takes that power back and becomes active once more. The latter is desirable, and really, he says, nothing more than sleep.
“St. Crispin’s Day”
From: Henry V Act 4, Scene 3
Spoken by: King Henry
What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
These famous lines appear in the fourth act of Henry V, one of Shakespeare’s most commonly read history plays. The scene takes place before the Battle of Agincourt in Northern France, specifically on October 25th, 1415 (a day known as Saint Crispin’s Day). With these lines, the king tries to motivate his men to stand up as a “band of brothers” and face their enemy bravely despite the fact that they’re outnumbered. He concludes the speech, much of which is written in Shakespeare’s classic iambic pentameter, by telling everyone listening that anyone who is not there with them and is instead lying in bed will think less of themselves for not fighting on Saint Crispin’s day.