My daughter has been invited to read at a friend’s wedding, so she asked me if I could suggest an appropriate passage from Shakespeare. This set me thinking about the use of Shakespeare for public occasions. The most surprising choice I remember for a wedding was when the best man chose to read Hamlet’s verses to Ophelia: ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire, / Doubt that the sun doth move, / Doubt truth to be a liar, / But never doubt I love’. (Hamlet, 2.2.116-119) In the play they are spoken by Polonius, quoting from a private letter that Ophelia has surrendered to him. Although there is an element of parody in the style of the verses, their sentiment is unexceptionable, but they are brief enough for Polonius to have regarded them as the soul of wit. It took the best man longer to get in and out of the pulpit than to read them. He could not have been accused of hogging the limelight.
I suppose the Shakespeare poem that is most frequently quoted at weddings is Sonnet 116, the one beginning ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments’, which has clear echoes of the marriage service itself. Its idealized vision of love is indeed appropriate for occasions celebrating partnerships, even though there is a possible ironic twist to its closing lines: ‘If this be error and upon me proved, / I never lived, nor no man ever loved.’ I have known the sonnet to be used on an occasion of mourning, too. This was at the burial in the churchyard at Charlecote, close to Stratford-upon-Avon, of Michael Williams, Dame Judi Dench’s husband, when it was read tremulously by a young actor friend of his who broke down as he came to the end. The poem’s expression of love was as fitting for a farewell as it would have been for a celebration of the initiation of a relationship.
National occasions too are sometimes supposed to call for a benediction from Shakespeare. Top among these – for English listeners – is John of Gaunt’s great speech from Richard II , especially the lines:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred 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 …..’
And so on. It’s all wonderfully eloquent, but the speech takes a nasty turn as it comes to its conclusion. What has seemed like a panegyric becomes a lament as Gaunt complains that ‘this dear, dear land …. Is now leased out’, and that ‘that England that was wont to conquer others / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.’ (Richard II, 2.2.40-66) The final lines of King John too can come in handy as a bit of Churchillian rhetoric:
This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these three princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms
And we shall shock them. Naught shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true.
But there again a bit of editing is called for to remove the reference to the princes.
Funerals and memorial services are easy. There’s nothing to beat the dirge from Cymbeline, ‘Fear no more the heat o’th’sun’ (4.2.259-282), even though in context it’s spoken – or sung – for someone who is not actually dead. There’s a fine musical setting by Gerald Finzi; but I’ve never known it to be more moving that when Tim Pigott-Smith read it, with total simplicity, at a service for a dear friend in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.
As for that wedding, it’ll probably be back to Sonnet 116: ‘the star to every wand’ring barque…’ And blessings be upon them.