One of the most fun parts about reading Shakespeare aloud has to be the speeches; those moving, heroic numbers that inspire us and leave chills in the spine. But how exactly are Shakespeare’s speeches so motivating? Why is it that every time we hear the Saint Crispin’s Day speech we too find ourselves read to take up arms with King Harry? I’ve found out two surprising reasons why Shakespeare’s speeches are so motivational and captivating: they lie in sports psychology and instagram. No, seriously.
There’s a very interesting psychologist by the name of Dr. Jonathan Fader who wrote the book “Life as Sport: What Top Athletes Can Teach You about How to Win in Life”. His premise is “to enhance motivation, set productive goals, sharpen routines, manage stress, and clarify thought processes” with the aim “to approach it [life] with the same immediacy, wonder, and engagement that athletes feel at their peak during a game”. When you think about it, Shakespeare’s battle speeches do those things too, and war could be viewed as an (extremely brutal and competitive) sport. So the leap isn’t too far. Let’s take good old King Harry for an example, and apply some sports psychology to the Saint Crispin’s day speech. King Harry is using this speech to rally his men before what looks like it’s going to be an ugly defeat at the hands of the French; he’s trying to enhance the motivation of his troops to fight (“For he to-day that sheds his blood with me. Shall be my brother”), set a productive goal (not being defeated), sharpen the routine (make sure his men are fighting with their all), manage stress, and clarify the thought processes of his men (“He that outlives this day and comes safe home”). He wants his troops fighting at the top of their skill in order to beat the French – in other words, he wants his team in peak performance in order to win. Rather sporting, isn’t it? So perhaps that’s why we find ourselves nodding along with the battle monologues of the heroes in Shakespeare’s plays; maybe the psychology of it (what’s called the ‘coaching factor’) works on us through the written word.
Now, for the instagram bit. I bet you thought I was kidding, didn’t you? Nope. There are a number of reasons why motivational texts affect our attitudes; but we do know for sure that we like them: instagram is full of motivational quotes plastered over every image under the sun. And we’ve definitely established that Shakespeare’s speeches are motivational. But why exactly do we feel so drawn to and encouraged by these phrases?
There are a few theories. The first one is The Coaching Factor. Doctor Fader explains it as such: “There’s a little bit of implicit coaching that’s happening when you’re reading it. It’s building that self-efficacy in that kind of dialogue that you’re having with yourself,”. You are, in a sense, being coached by the text you’re reading. Try looking to Shakespeare next time you need a pep talk.
Another is the way something is phrased. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Was said many times before JFK coined the phrase, but it is his phrasing that we remember. It’s catchy, readily memorable, and easy to understand. So are a lot of turns from Shakespeare (“Once more unto the breach” anyone?).
There are some biologists that believe motivational texts work on a primal basis as well. The theory is that leaders and their words affect us on a primal level because we are aspirational by nature and want to follow role models. It does make sense when we think of how many times we’re ready to take up swords and follow Shakespeare’s kings into battle. And battle itself is certainly a primal thing.
We have a lot of reasons why Shakespeare’s speeches affect us to profoundly. They’re motivational, touch us on a primal level, they coach us in language we can grab on to and use. They’re a lot of fun to read, too. I have one more theory to add here of my own: they let us be king for a day, or a monologue. And that’s always fun.