Shakespeare Readings for Lockdown

Whatever we’re doing in life Shakespeare has something to say about it. Here Allie Esiri, poetry curator behind the wonderful anthologies, A Poem for Every Day (/Night) of the Year and Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year selects three readings that might be useful for current times. Sonnet 18 is the most famous of all and it’s familiar – there’s great comfort in that, she says, whilst Feste’s song is sweet with a note of melancholy, perhaps reflecting our mood. There’s also Polonius’ speech to his son, a relationship we might draw strength from now – and even if he goes on a bit too long, it comes from a good place. Reading Shakespeare concentrates the mind which we are all in need of, lending both a challenge and a reward. We’re helped along a little here, having them read aloud by the greatest Shakespeare actor of our times, Sir Simon Russell Beale:

Sonnet 18

The Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described Shakespeare as ‘myriad-minded’ for his ability to hold several ideas in play at once. His fellow poet John Keats later described a similar ability of the dramatist to surrender any opinions of his own to his vision of the world as it is, even to the point of uncertainty and confusion, which he called ‘negative capability’. Both of these virtues are present throughout Sonnet 18, in which the speaker declares that the charm of a beautiful day pales in comparison to the almost unimaginable magnificence of his beloved. It has become one of the most well-known love poems in the English language.


Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3

Polonius gives his son Laertes a long lecture of advice as he leaves Elsinore. As with most parents keen to impart their words of wisdom, just as you think they have finished, there is yet more to come.


Give thy thoughts no tongue, Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatched, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel. But being in,
Bear’t that th’opposèd may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment. Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that. Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

From Twelfth Night, ‘When that I was but a little tiny boy’

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night ends, as many of his comedies do, with a lively song from a comical character.



When that I was and a little tiny boy, With hey-ho, the wind and the rain;
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey-ho, the wind and the rain;
’Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came, alas, to wive, With hey-ho, the wind and the rain; By swaggering could I never thrive, For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came unto my beds,
With hey-ho, the wind and the rain; With tosspots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun, With hey-ho, the wind and the rain; But that’s all one, our play

And we’ll strive to please you every day.

These extracts are taken from Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year by Allie Esiri, £18.99 The audio book with narrators Sir Simon Russell Beale, Helen McRory, Damian Lewis etc. is available via Audible here.

And finally, a tip that Hay Festival (18-30 May 2020) has moved many of this year’s events online. You’ll need to register – and it’s a good idea to do so pronto. Allie Esiri, Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West will be taking you on A Journey Through a Year of Shakespeare on Saturday 30 May 5.30-6.20pm, register here.

Shakespeare Readings for Lockdown
— Daisy Allsup
7th May 2020