Characters fully fleshed out, exquisite language and a wide range of tales and adventures might’ve been enough to ensure Shakespeare’s immortality. But one other facet–in my humble estimation–seals the deal, placing him at the forefront of human literature: The great morality of Shakespeare’s works. Take, for example, Paulina’s scathing speech from one of Shakespeare’s last plays, The Winter’s Tale:
What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?
What wheels? racks? fires? what flaying? boiling?
In leads or oils? what old or newer torture
Must I receive, whose every word deserves
To taste of thy most worst? Thy tyranny
Together working with thy jealousies,
Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle
For girls of nine, O, think what they have done
And then run mad indeed, stark mad! for all
Thy by-gone fooleries were but spices of it.
That thou betray’dst Polixenes,’twas nothing;
That did but show thee, of a fool, inconstant
And damnable ingrateful: nor was’t much,
Thou wouldst have poison’d good Camillo’s honour,
To have him kill a king: poor trespasses,
More monstrous standing by: whereof I reckon
The casting forth to crows thy baby-daughter
To be or none or little; though a devil
Would have shed water out of fire ere done’t:
Nor is’t directly laid to thee, the death
Of the young prince, whose honourable thoughts,
Thoughts high for one so tender, cleft the heart
That could conceive a gross and foolish sire
Blemish’d his gracious dam: this is not, no,
Laid to thy answer: but the last,—O lords,
When I have said, cry ‘woe!’ the queen, the queen,
The sweet’st, dear’st creature’s dead,
and vengeance for’t
Not dropp’d down yet.
—The Winter’s Tale, Act III Scene ii
King Leontes has spent much of the play as a tyrant. Shakespeare places Paulina’s grand condemnation and take down in the mouth a woman (which means when it first played in Shakespeare’s day, it was spoken by a boy). By this point in his career, Shakespeare was doing what no other playwright had done since the Ancient Greeks: empower a woman’s voice on a grand scale–the judgment of a tyrannical male ruler’s acts of cruelty, torture, while lauding the integrity and virtue of the servant he destroyed–you guessed it, also a woman.
In addition to all this, there’s a lot to love in this speech: beyond the list of tortures (an Elizabethan mainstay in Shakespeare’s world), Paulina treats us to searing language that in the hands of an accomplished actor, ignites the stage:
“More monstrous standing by: whereof I reckon
The casting forth to crows thy baby-daughter–”
“–cleft the heart
That could conceive a gross and foolish sire–”
The image comes from a 2010 production of The Winter’s Tale at Boston’s Shakespeare and Company, with Corinna May as Paulina. There is no great movie edition of The Winter’s Tale. It’s always been a difficult play to produce, what with its elements of romance, tragedy and comedy intertwined; and its plot, at first approach, seems derivative. But this play, when produced with care, craft and nuance, becomes a stunning morality tale about sin, grace and redemption. A 400 year old masterpiece that still defies convention to this very day.