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.