One of my favorite Shakespearean speeches isn’t very famous.
Thou art not holy to belie me so;
I am not mad: this hair I tear is mine;
My name is Constance; I was Geffrey’s wife;
Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost:
I am not mad: I would to heaven I were!
For then, ’tis like I should forget myself:
O, if I could, what grief should I forget!
Preach some philosophy to make me mad,
And thou shalt be canonized, cardinal;
For being not mad but sensible of grief,
My reasonable part produces reason
How I may be deliver’d of these woes,
And teaches me to kill or hang myself:
If I were mad, I should forget my son,
Or madly think a babe of clouts were he:
I am not mad; too well, too well I feel
The different plague of each calamity.
–from King John, Act III Scene iv
King John’s an early play, when the Bard had not fully perfected the soliloquy, and when his ideas and notions on women had not yet fully matured. Shakespeare was writing in a very patriarchal society where women couldn’t own property and certainly couldn’t perform on stage.
Despite all that, Shakespeare breaths a realistic and searing grief into the character of Constance–the heartbreaking despair over the loss of her child.
How did Shakespeare understand all this? His own son, Hamnet, who did at the age of 11, we’re pretty sure was still alive when this play was written. Beyond Shakespeare’s genius with language and craft, he exhibited a deep empathy and emotive power on the page, showing he would imagine the hearts of beings–that is, females–who some Elizabethans believed did not even have souls.
The image comes from a Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of King John, with Melinda Pfundstein as the beleaguered Constance.