Betrayal. Revenge. Conspiracy. Murdering your way up the ladder of power. People usually associate these plot elements with Shakespeare’s tragedies, but I see them operate most strongly in his histories. That’s one reason why those tend to be my favorite of his works.
Besides just being The Sopranos on an Elizabethan stage, the language here is where Shakespeare gets the most deliciously vicious.
Consider some of the lesser history plays. Even there, the dialogue tends to be enough to make one’s blood boil.
Henry VI, Part II takes us into the War of the Roses, which was also the historical basis for Game of Thrones, so you know this’ll be full of politically venomous mayhem:
And even now my burthen’d heart would break,
Should I not curse them. Poison be their drink!
Gall, worse than gall, the daintiest that they taste!
Their sweetest shade a grove of cypress trees!
Their chiefest prospect murdering basilisks!
Their softest touch as smart as lizards’ sting!
Their music frightful as the serpent’s hiss,
And boding screech-owls make the concert full!
All the foul terrors in dark-seated hell— (III.2.320-328)
And this one has my favorite lines of all in Shakespeare’s early plays:
Upon thy eye-balls murderous tyranny
Sits in grim majesty, to fright the world. (III.2.49-50)
Henry VI, Part III has some humdingers, too:
Had thy brethren here, their lives and thine
Were not revenge sufficient for me;
No, if I digg’d up thy forefathers’ graves
And hung their rotten coffins up in chains,
It could not slake mine ire, nor ease my heart.
The sight of any of the house of York
Is as a fury to torment my soul;
And till I root out their accursed line
And leave not one alive, I live in hell. (I.3.25-33)
Woah there, buddy! Chill! But, alas, chilling was not to be:
I had rather chop this hand off at a blow,
And with the other fling it at thy face,
Than bear so low a sail, to strike to thee. (V.1.50-52)
Instead of shaking hands, you’d rather chop off your hand and use the other one to throw it at him? Dude, tell us how you really feel.
And in the masterpiece Richard III, we learn that Queen Margaret didn’t like Richard:
Stay, dog, for thou shalt hear me.
If heaven have any grievous plague in store
Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee,
O, let them keep it till thy sins be ripe,
And then hurl down their indignation
On thee, the troubler of the poor world’s peace!
The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!
Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou livest,
And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends!
No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be whilst some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils!
Thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog!
Thou that wast seal’d in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell!
Thou slander of thy mother’s heavy womb!
Thou loathed issue of thy father’s loins!
Thou rag of honour! thou detested— (I.3.226-244)
No, I mean, she really didn’t like Richard (here complaining about him to his mother):
Thou hadst a Clarence too, and Richard kill’d him.
From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept
A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death:
That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes,
To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood,
That foul defacer of God’s handiwork,
That excellent grand tyrant of the earth,
That reigns in galled eyes of weeping souls,
Thy womb let loose, to chase us to our graves. (IV.4.49-56)
No gritty Hollywood crime drama can compete with this stuff!