Greg Doran on why Shakespeare is so quotable

As we celebrate Shakespeare's 450th birthday, Gregory Doran explores why he is so quotable. 'Nowadays we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognise the quotations' said Orson Welles.

I'm in the Sunday School Hall of The Union Chapel on Upper Street in Islington rehearsing Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I, and I am trying to remember where I have heard one of the lines before.

Trevor White, playing Hotspur, is exploring the speech where the furious young rebel argues with a letter. It is from one of the Percys' potential allies, who has refused to commit to their insurrection against the King, on the grounds that the enterprise is too dangerous. Hotspur declares 'Why that's certain: 'tis dangerous to take a cold, to sleep, to drink, but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle danger we pluck this flower safety'.Trevor hurtles on at breath-taking speed, (Hotspur is a real motor-mouth) but I stop him and ask him to repeat the line. The image is so familiar, it is almost a cliche, but this character is inventing it for the very first time. It takes longer to discover such an image, to fresh-mint it,  and then to allow it to land on the audience.

'Out of this nettle danger, we pluck this flower safety'. And of course I keep thinking, where have I heard that before?

And then it hits me. In 1938, the crisis in Sudetenland provoked the peace-loving British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain to write to Adolf Hitler. He asked for a face to face meeting, to try and find a peaceful solution. On a rainy Thursday in September, Chamberlain flew from Heston aerodrome to Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps to meet the German Chancellor. It was the first of three trips.

Despite Chamberlain's efforts, Hitler was determined that his army would occupy Czechoslovakia. As the Prime Minister set off for his third and final flight to Germany, this time to Munich, he declared: "When I come back I hope I may be able to say, as Hotspur says in Henry IV, 'Out of this nettle, danger, we plucked this flower, safety.' Safety was not achieved, and his return to Heston, waving the piece of paper carrying Hitler's worthless signature, was the occasion for his infamously inaccurate promise of 'Peace for our time'.

At the end of the War, during the Nuremburg Trials in July 1946, Shakespeare was quoted again. In his eloquent closing statement, the chief United States prosecutor, Robert H Jackson summed up the evidence against the Nazi officers in the dock, and illustrated his point by quoting Richard III.

'They stand before the record of this trial as blood-stained Gloucester stood by the body of his slain King. He begged of the widow, as they beg of you: Say I slew them not'. And the Queen replied, 'Then say they were not slain. But dead they are. . . . If you were to say of these men that they are not guilty, it would be as true to say there has been no war, there are no slain, there has been no crime'.

As we approach Shakespeare's 450th birthday, I am aware of just how often he is quoted at moments of extremity, when words are sought to articulate moments of stress, whether personal or international. Sometimes the occasions of those quotations seem inappropriate.

Perhaps the most disturbing appropriation of Shakespeare recently emerged in the trial of a royal marine last December, convicted of murdering an Afghan insurgent in Helmand Province in September 2011. The commando, known as Marine A, shot the wounded man, a member of the Taliban, in the chest at close range with a 9mm pistol; and as he convulsed and died, the soldier quoted Hamlet, saying 'There you are. Shuffle off this mortal coil, you c***. It's nothing you wouldn't do to us'. The execution was filmed by a camera mounted on the helmet of Marine B. The court martial board found the soldier guilty of murder and sentenced him to life in prison.

In the same month, at Nelson Mandela's funeral, in Qunu in the Eastern Cape, Presiding Bishop Siwa looked to Shakespeare to find words to capture the profundity of the loss felt at Madiba's departure. He picked Macbeth's despairing words at the death of his wife: 'Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more.' But Bishop Siwa then chose to contradict that despair by describing Tata Madiba's life as neither brief, nor a tale told by an idiot, with 'no sound and fury, but oozing with dignity, integrity and focus'.

But as if to prove that Shakespeare somehow manages to have a quote for every single occasion, I had an urgent phone call about 18 months ago. It was in the run up to the London Paralympics, and they were about to hold the opening ceremony. Sir Ian Mckellen was to pronounce the opening words, and had chosen a piece of Tolkien, but inexplicably, at the last minute, the Tolkien estate had refused permission.

My desperate caller asked if I could think of any passage from Shakespeare which might fit the bill. I wracked my brains. There was a matinee of our RSC African production of Julius Caesar which I had directed, at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End, that afternoon, and I slipped in to give a few notes.

At the end of the orchard scene, Caius Ligarius has risen from his sick bed and come to proffer Brutus his support in the conspiracy against the dictator Caesar. What he says could be the manifesto of the Paralympic movement: 'Now bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible, yea, get the better of them. What's to do?'

I scrambled to text the quotation to Ian, but was too late.

Dr Johnson said that anyone wanting to persuade someone of the real power and 'splendour' of Shakespeare, who tries to recommend him 'by select quotations', would succeed 'like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen'.

I suspect Shakespeare needs few salesmen these days when his popularity is at such a high point. But it is worth remembering that he was not in the business of writing quotations. He entered the mind of each character, and animated their desires, their needs and their feelings. He articulated thoughts that we all understand, and, in performance, hear with a startling shock of recognition. It is as if Shakespeare managed to put into words that which, privately, we thought only we had felt.

Shakespeare says 'what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed', Alexander Pope's definition of true wit. And that is why 450 years after he was born, we still read him, perform him, teach him and love him. Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

Gregory Doran is Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, an Honorary Fellow of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, an Honorary Research Fellow of The Shakespeare Institute and the 2012 recipient of the Globe's Sam Wanamaker Award.

Contact us & FAQs

Ticket Hotline

0844 800 1110
Mon-Sat, 10am-6pm

Email newsletter

Sign up to email updates for the latest RSC news:

RSC Members

Already an RSC Member or Supporter? Sign in here.