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Shakespeare vs Milton

Shakespeare is widely held to be the greatest literary genius England – or even the world – has produced. But admirers of Milton claim that their man has been overlooked, and that his political and philosophical engagement make him a writer as much for our times as his own.

Nearly four centuries after his death, no writer has come close to matching Shakespeare’s understanding of the world – or his gift for dramatic poetry. It’s not just kings and queens that he captured so uniquely in his transcendent verse. Shakespeare analysed the human condition, not just for Elizabethan England, but throughout the world and for eternity. Britain may not have matched the Continent for music or art but when it comes to literature, Shakespeare sees off all international rivals, whether it’s in the spheres of comedy, tragedy or the sonnet. Even today you and I quote Shakespeare without knowing it: if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if you vanish into thin air or have ever been tongue-tied, hoodwinked or slept not one wink, you’re speaking the Bard’s English.

Milton, say his fans, works on an altogether different, higher plane. In Paradise Lost – the best poem ever written in English – Milton moved beyond the literary to address political, philosophical and religious questions in a way that still resounds strongly today. In his complex, intellectual poetry he drilled down deep into the eternal truths and sought to embody new scientific discovery in his work.

His engagement with the issues of the day – with the nature of knowledge, slavery, free will, love and creation – was unparalleled. Despite complete blindness in middle age, he was the English republic’s best known, most fervent apologist, and a key civil servant for Oliver Cromwell. In his other works, notably in Areopagitica, his attack on censorship, he showed himself as much a master of prose as poetry. He defines not only his age, but our own.

To help you decide who should be crowned king of English letters we brought together advocates to make the case for each writer, and they called on a cast of leading actors to illustrate their arguments with readings from the works.



Erica Wagner

Author and novelist

Author, novelist and former Literary Editor of The Times. She writes for the Economist, The Financial Times and The New York Times, among other publications. She has judged many literary prizes, including the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, and the Whitbread First Novel Award.

James Shapiro

Professor of English, Columbia University

Professor of English at Columbia University and author of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.

Nigel Smith

Literature Professor, Princeton

Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature at Princeton University and author of Is Milton better than Shakespeare?

Pippa Nixon

Rising star of the stage

A rising star who has played Titania / Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ophelia in Hamlet, and Rosalind in As You Like It. The Guardian wrote that she ‘joins Vanessa Redgrave, Adrian Lester and the late Susan Fleetwood in the select pantheon of memorable Rosalinds … It is a captivating, wittily androgynous performance that ushers Nixon to the threshold of stardom.’

Harriet Walter

Actor and author

Actress highly acclaimed for her work on stage, screen and television. Of her many roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company where she is an Associate Artist, the most recent have been Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra alongside Patrick Stewart, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and Lady Macbeth opposite Anthony Sher. She has published three books: Other People’s Shoes and Macbeth for the Faber series ‘Actors on Shakespeare’ and Facing It.

Sam West

Actor, director and essayist

Actor and director who has played the title roles in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II and Hamlet. He has written essays on both plays for the Cambridge University Press and on “Shakespeare and Love” for BBC Radio 3.