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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

Leading American Shakespeare scholar and author of Shakespeare in a Divided America

Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He has written several books on Shakespeare including 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, which won the BBC4 Samuel Johnson Prize in 2006, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, which was awarded the James Tait Black Prize and the Sheridan Morley Prize. His most recent book is Shakespeare in a Divided America. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian and The London Review of Books, among other places. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Royal Shakespeare Company and he is currently the Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at the Public Theater in New York City.

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

Acclaimed British actress who has played many Shakespearean characters

Acclaimed British actress who has played many Shakespearean characters including Ophelia, Helena, Portia, Viola, Imogen, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice and Cleopatra (most of them for the RSC). She has also played Brutus, Henry IV and Prospero in all-female productions at the Donmar Warehouse. She also appeared in RSC productions on Broadway. Her television credits include The Crown, Succession, Killing Eve and Belgravia and she has appeared in films including Sense and Sensibility, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens and Rocketman.

Samuel West

Actor, director and essayist

Actor and occasional director. He has played Hamlet and Richard II for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Jeffrey Skilling in Enron in the West End and the voice of Pongo in Disney’s 101 Dalmations II.  On screen he’s been in Mr Selfridge, W1A, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and the films Suffragette, Darkest Hour and Howards End.  He plays Siegfried Farnon in the new TV adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small. As a narrator, he has appeared with all the major British orchestras.  His production of The Watsons by Laura Wade was due to open in the West End last May. Sam is an Associate Artist of the RSC and Chair of the National Campaign for the Arts.