The traditional birthdate of William Shakespeare is 23 April 1564; it is also the date on which he died in 1616. It is silly to discuss titles such as “greatest poet in the history of the world,” but if one were of a mind to be silly, Shakespeare has as great a claim as any and better than most. Here is the opening of Twelfth Night; or, What You Will, spoken by Duke Orsino:
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! It had a dying fall;
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odor. Enough, no more!
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity,
Receiveth as the sea. Nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute. So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
This is not only beautiful on its own, it reveals fully, perfectly, and immediately the character of the capricious and self-indulgent Duke. Its decadent hints of the sorrow brought on by self-indulgence are part of the strange sadness of this play; though it is genuinely funny, a remarkable feat in a script several centuries old, there is an air of delicate melancholy about the play that is unlike Shakespeare’s other works. But his inexhaustible and varied invention is just one reason for his greatness.
Twelfth Night is my favorite of the comedies. It’s also the first Shakespeare play I saw performed live (thanks for taking me, Mom!) and the first one I read, so I also have a sentimental attachment to it. Here’s another passage. The Countess Olivia is being wooed by the Duke’s proxy, his pageboy Ganymede (who is really a young shipwrecked woman, Viola, disguised as a youth). I was going to spell out the emotional relationships here, but if you don’t know them already, you should just read the play. The attentive and even semi-attentive reader will soon see why I chose this passage:
If I did love you in my master’s flame,
With such a suff’ring, such a deadly life,
In your denial I would find no sense;
I would not understand it.
Why, what would you?
Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Hallo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out “Olivia!” O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth
But you should pity me.
You might do much. . . .