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A Guide to Shakespeare's Plays

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William Shakespeare was an English dramatist and poet during the Elizabethan Renaissance. He is affectionately referred to as the “Bard of Avon” after his birthplace and hometown of Stratford-on-Avon. Relatively little is known of the events of Shakespeare’s life. It is known that he married and had three children but that he spent much of his time away from Stratford in London where he was the primary playwright for the theater company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later known as the King’s Men after the death of Elizabeth I. The evidence suggests that Shakespeare came from rather humble origins and that he had little formal education, which has led many to argue that someone of his meager background could not possibly have written the plays that have passed down through the generations under his name. It has been suggested that everyone from Francis Bacon to Christopher Marlowe to Queen Elizabeth was the “real” author of Shakespeare’s works. Serious scholars dismiss these alternative authorship theories as narrow-minded classism, and each one of the potential candidates has been definitively eliminated as the writer of Shakespeare’s body of work. Still, Shakespeare remains an enigma, if only because it is difficult to comprehend how one man could have the insight, creativity, and mastery of the English language exemplified in the plays. Plus his great plays have given us a wonderful breadth of Renaissance costumes to enjoy.


Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s oeuvre includes thirty-eight plays and over 150 poems, mostly sonnets. While many of Shakespeare’s sonnets stand among the most beautiful and skillful poems written in the English language, he realized the true greatness of his talent in the plays. As a young playwright, Shakespeare concentrated primarily on entertaining his audience with comedies. He moved on to write a number of historical plays, most notably the Henry IV and Henry VI cycles and Richard III, one of the greatest historical tragedies ever written in the English language. At the peak of his powers, Shakespeare turned to tragedies. It was at that point, in the early 1600s that he wrote the plays that are collectively considered his masterpieces: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear. Shakespeare’s later plays hearkened back to his early comedies in style and theme but displayed greater depth and complexity and were more romantic, even imaginative, in sensibility.

Comedies

All's Well That Ends Well: One of Shakespeare’s lesser-known and produced plays, All’s Well That Ends Well features one of the Bard’s typically clever heroines, Helena, the low-born orphaned daughter of a talented physician, who, in exchange for curing the King’s illness, is granted her wish to marry Bertram, a nobleman. However, Bertram abandons Helena and goes off to war, telling her that he will not truly be her husband until she manages to remove the ring from his finger and become pregnant with his child. 

The main dramatic action centers upon Helena’s scheme to meet both of Bertram’s conditions which involves the classic English Renaissance plot device known as “the bed trick”: by bedding Bertram and deceiving him into believing that he is actually sleeping with another woman, Helena manages to satisfy both the conditions that Bertram placed on his husbandly love.

As You Like It: As You Like It is the source of the famous Shakespearean quote “All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players.” The inherent theatricality of life is a theme that Shakespeare would return to again and again in later works. As You Like It is distinguished by the well-realized character of Rosalind, who, like many of Shakespeare’s female protagonists, is simultaneously charming and deceptive, spending much of the play pretending to be a man. Rosalind is just one of several cross-dressing heroines to make an appearance in Shakespeare’s plays. 

The Comedy of Errors: Believed to be one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors concerns the comic misunderstandings that result when two sets of identical twins separated at birth encounter one another for the first time in the city of Ephesus.

Cymbeline: One of Shakespeare’s later plays, Cymbeline revisits the trope of the disobedient but misunderstood daughter that features so prominently in King Lear. Princess Imogen disobeys her father King Cymbeline to marry her childhood companion, the low-born Posthumus, who is consequently banished. Posthumus is then deceived into believing that Imogen has committed adultery and orders his servant to kill her. However, Imogen learns of the murder plot and escapes danger by disguising herself as a boy. In the play’s denouement, Imogen’s faithfulness is proven, and it is revealed that the false accusations were the doing of her evil stepmother.

Love's Labour Lost: An early play, Love’s Labour Lost is distinguished by the sophistication of its wordplay and the complexity of its puns. The dramatic action concerns a king and his three companions who foreswear the company of women for three years in order to immerse themselves in study, only to fall helplessly in love with a princess and her ladies-in-waiting.

The Merry Wives of Windsor>: The central figure in The Merry Wives of Windsor is Sir John Falstaff, who, finding himself short on funds, decides to woo two wealthy women by sending them identically worded love letters. Falstaff is also a prominent character in Shakespeare’s historical plays Henry IV, Part I and Henry IV, Part II.

The Merchant of Venice: Widely considered to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, The Merchant of Venice features the unforgettable character of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, who is so angered at the discrimination he suffers at the hands of Venetian Christians, that he demands a “pound of flesh” from the hapless Antonio, who defaulted on his debt. The climax of the play is the court scene in which the intelligent heroine Portia dresses as a man in order to pose as a lawyer and argue in Antonio’s defense.

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Perhaps Shakespeare’s most fanciful and whimsical play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream combines elements of Greek legend and mythology with those of fairy lore. The action switches back and forth from Athens, where Duke Theseus and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, celebrate their marriage, to the fairy realm, where Titania and Oberon, king and queen of the fairies squabble with comic and near-disastrous results for two pairs of young lovers. The character of Puck, Oberon’s mercurial servant, has become the prototype for the mischievous imp, a recurring stock figure in dramatic literature.

Much Ado About Nothing: In this romantic comedy, Shakespeare’s bickering lovers, Beatrice and Benedict, are induced to admit their true feelings for one another as a result of the well-intentioned manipulations of their young friends, Claudio and Hero, whose wedding plans are first ruined and then revived and consummated at the end of the play.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: The place of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, in the Shakespearean canon is the subject of some debate. Although it is generally agreed that Shakespeare wrote a significant part of the play, many scholars believe that he shared authorship with one or more other writers. The plot of Pericles is heavy with incident, including numerous sea voyages, an incestuous father-daughter relationship, a famine, a shipwreck, a tournament, a marriage, and a kidnapping by pirates. 

The Taming of the Shrew: The centerpiece of The Taming of the Shrew is the tour-de-force battle of the wits between Katherina, the eponymous “shrew” who is renowned for her obstinacy and outspokenness, and Petruchio, the gentleman who aims to “tame” her into a suitable bride. The play was the inspiration for the classic Cole Porter musical Kiss Me Kate.

The Tempest: The Tempest was the last play that Shakespeare wrote without the assistance of a collaborator, and many scholars and readers consider it his “farewell” work. From this perspective, the magician Prospero, who voluntarily abandons his powers at the end of the play, is a stand-in for Shakespeare himself, realizing that the time is coming when he must surrender the magic of his pen and leave his life in the theater. Other memorable characters include Miranda, Prospero’s daughter who has been stranded on a deserted island with him for twelve years; Ariel, an “airy spirit” who obeys Prospero’s commands; and Caliban, a bitter, cave-dwelling creature who is the son of the witch Sycorax.

Troilus and Cressida: Troilus and Cressida is set during the Trojan War. Though the play is classified as a comedy, the two lovers do not end up together, and the action ends on a down note with the death of Hector. Troilus and Cressida is seldom performed and is perhaps the least critically praised of all Shakespeare’s plays.

Twelfth Night: Universally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, Twelfth Night is truly an amalgamation of the Bard’s favorite themes, character types, and plot devices. Among the quintessentially Shakespearean elements to appear in Twelfth Night are the shipwreck, the theme of mistaken identity, the revelation that loved ones thought dead are actually living, the cross-dressing heroine, and the theme of deception in love. 

The Two Gentlemen of Verona: One of Shakespeare’s early plays, The Two Gentleman of Verona is the first of the Bard’s works to showcase a cross-dressing heroine. Like All’s Well That Ends Well, The Two Gentleman of Verona features a male protagonist who callously dismisses the woman who loves him but is later brought around to realizing her true worth after she dresses as a boy to win his affections.

The Winter's Tale: In The Winter’s Tale, one of his last plays, Shakespeare returned to the themes of infidelity, suspicion, and false accusations of betrayal that also played a significant role in earlier plays, including Othello, Cymbeline, King Lear, and Much Ado About Nothing. The paranoid King Leontes becomes convinced that his wife Hermione has had an affair with his friend King Polixenes and rejects her unborn child as a bastard. When Hermione gives birth to a daughter, Leontes orders that the infant be taken away, and she is abandoned on the coast of Bohemia. The third act ends with news that Leontes and Hermione’s son has died and with Hermione’s subsequent death from grief. The final two acts of the play take place sixteen years later. At the end of the final act, a repentant Leontes is reunited with Perdita, the daughter he abandoned, and a statue of Hermione comes to life, as it is revealed that Hermione did not die after all.

Histories

Henry IV, Part I: The protagonist of Henry IV, Part I is Prince Hal, the son of Henry Bolingbroke, who draws his father’s ire and displeasure by consorting with the ne’er-do-well Sir John Falstaff and wasting his time on women, drink, gambling, and other pursuits not worthy of the heir to the throne of Britain. 

Henry IV, Part II: Henry IV, Part II focuses on Prince Hal’s maturation from a dissolute youth to a man ready to take on the responsibility of the monarchy. The play ends with the death of Henry IV and the ascension of Hal to the throne as Henry V. In the play’s denouement, Hal rejects Falstaff, who subsequently dies, and his days of merry –making.

Henry V: Having left behind his carefree days as Prince Hal, King Henry V must deal with the demands and horrors of war in the events that unfold before, during, and after the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years War.

Henry VI, Part I: Henry VI, Part I begins immediately after the death of Henry V, following the young new monarch as he deals with military challenges and setbacks in France, including the uprising led by Joan of Arc, who plays a pivotal role in the play.

Henry VI, Part II: Henry VI, Part II begins with the marriage of Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou and the subsequent political machinations and contestations between the Houses of Lancaster and York over who has the rightful claim to the throne.

Henry VI, Part III: Henry VI, Part III continues the tale of the dispute between the Houses of Lancaster and York and ends with the murder of Henry VI by the future Richard III and the apparent victory of the Yorkists.

Henry VIII: Henry VIII is generally believed to have been co-authored by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, who took over as principal playwright for the King’s Men after Shakespeare’s death. The action loosely follows the historical events surrounding Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his marriage to Anne of Boleyn, and the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth I. Henry VIII was most likely the last play that Shakespeare wrote. (The Tempest was the last play that Shakespeare wrote without a co-author.). There is some dispute as to whether it should be included in the official Shakespearean canon. It is generally not highly regarded among Shakespearean scholars and is rarely performed, although the Royal Shakespeare Company in Britain staged a production in the mid 1990s which received positive critical response. 

King John: England and France go to war after the King of France demands that King John abdicate his throne in favor of his nephew Arthur. Meanwhile, while mediating a land dispute, King John discovers that one of the parties to the dispute is actually the illegitimate son of his late brother, King Richard I. John bestows the rank of knight upon his illegitimate nephew who continues to go by the moniker “The Bastard” throughout the rest of the play. France, with the support of Austria, declares war on England, and the chaos is exacerbated by internal squabbling among the English. At the end of the play, John is murdered and his son Henry ascends to the throne. Though it enjoyed great popularity in the Victorian era, King John is rarely performed or studied today. 

Richard II: Richard II, in essence, is a prequel to Henry IV, Part I and Henry IV, Part II. The play ends with the overthrow of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke, who takes the throne as Henry IV.

Richard III: Although Richard III is classified as a history play, it is just as accurate to call it a tragedy. Richard III ranks among Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies in depicting the destructiveness of untempered ambition. Richard’s systematic and brutal elimination of everyone who stands between himself and succession to the throne seems inexorable, but it seems equally inevitable that he will meet his doom in the aftermath of his violent acts. King Richard has contributed such immortal lines to the English idiom as “Now is the winter of our discontent” and “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

Poetry

The Sonnets: The Sonnets are a collection of 154 poems by Shakespeare published in 1609. The bulk of the poems are addressed to a young man, a “Fair Youth,” to whom the speaker declares his love. However, a group of later poems are addressed to a woman, a “Dark Lady,” and these sonnets are much more overtly erotic and explicitly sexual than the “Fair Youth” cycle. The identities of both the “Fair Youth” and the “Dark Lady” have been the subject of much conjecture. It is generally presumed that the “Fair Youth” was an artistic patron of Shakespeare, but there is no consensus as to whether the “Dark Lady” was actually a real person or merely a poetic device. The Sonnets are dedicated to “W.H.,” and there has been much speculation that “W.H.” and the “Fair Youth” were one and the same.

A Lover's Complaint: A Lover’s Complaint consists of 47 stanzas, each consisting of seven lines and is written in the particular rhyme scheme known as rhyme royal. Although there is a general consensus that Shakespeare wrote A Lover’s Complaint, some scholars still challenge the attribution. 

The Rape of Lucrece: The Rape of Lucrece is a narrative poem written in the rhyme royal rhyme scheme and based on the story of the rape of Lucretia by Tarquin the king of Rome as told by Ovid and Livy.

Venus and Adonis: Venus and Adonis is a narrative poem of 1194 lines based on the story of the affair between the goddess Venus and the mortal Adonis in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. 

Funeral Elegy by W.S. In 1989, a linguist named Donald Foster published a paper in which he claimed that the poem “A Funeral Elegy for Master William Peter” had been authored by Shakespeare. Although Foster’s detailed analysis of linguistic structure of the poem and his attribution of the poem’s authorship to Shakespeare received a great deal of attention, Foster’s conclusions have never been widely accepted in the world of Shakespearean scholarship. Many scholars accept the possibility that Shakespeare wrote “A Funeral Elegy” but contend that it is just as likely that the poem was written by his contemporary John Ford. The debate continues, and this poem has never been officially accepted as one of Shakespeare’s works.

Tragedies

Antony and Cleopatra: Shakespeare’s dramatization of the relationship between Antony, one of the triumvirs of Rome, and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, is distinguished by the depth and complexity of the female protagonist’s character. Four hundred years after the play was written, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra remains one of the most endlessly intriguing female figures in the whole of British drama.

Coriolanus: Coriolanus is based on the life of the legendary Roman general known as Gaius Martius Coriolanus. Coriolanus has all the political depth and nuance of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies—Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III—but, while those works were characterized by grand soliloquies and interior monologues that represented the internal reflections and conflicts of their tragic anti-heroes, Coriolanus is distinctively non-introspective.

Hamlet: Hamlet is arguably Shakespeare’s masterwork. It is perhaps the most frequently performed Shakespearean play, if not the most frequently performed tragedy, of all time, and it is the Shakespearean work that has most often found itself translated onto film. Playing the lead role of Hamlet is considered a monumental milestone in an actor’s career. Over the years, Hamlet has been played on the stage and screen by Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Sarah Bernhardt, Edwin Booth, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Ralph Fiennes, Stacy Keach, Sam Waterston, William Hurt, Christopher Walken, Mel Gibson, and Kenneth Branagh. The fascination with Hamlet lies both in his complexity and his deeply and naturally human reactions. Hamlet has been described as a revenge play, as a dramatization of the effects of grief on the psyche, and as a study of one man’s descent into madness. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, his meditation on the fundamental worth of the act of living, is perhaps the most widely quoted and easily recognizable dramatic soliloquy in all of English-speaking theater. 

Julius Caesar: Although the play is titled “Julius Caesar” and Caesar’s assassination is the play’s climactic event, the true protagonist of this tragedy is Marcus Brutus, Caesar’s friend and, ultimately, his assassin.  The central action of Julius Caesar is internal rather than external; the conflict that motors the plot takes place almost entirely within the conscience of Brutus who is torn between his loyalty and friendship to Caesar and his patriotism. In no other play does Shakespeare more finely depict the consequences of betrayal not only on the one who is betrayed but also on the betrayer.

King Lear: One of the major themes of King Lear is blindness, not simply the blindness of age but the willful blindness that prevents a proud man, set in his ways, from accepting the truth. When his daughter Cordelia refuses to embellish on her declaration of love and simply tells the truth, he disinherits her, instead parceling out his kingdom to her two older sisters whose professions of love were pleasingly grandiloquent, but, ultimately, insincere. Lear does not realize until it is too late that it was Cordelia who truly loved him.

Macbeth: Shakespeare’s taut tragedy about a regicide and the eventual downfall of a ruthless usurper has entered the public consciousness more deeply than any of his other works with the possible exception of Hamlet. The figures of Macbeth, a decent man corrupted by ambition and empty praise, and his wife Lady Macbeth, who pursues her own ambitions by driving her husband to murder, have become cultural tropes that are repeatedly evoked not only in arts and literature but in discussions of politics and current events. The prophecies of the three weird sisters and the unexpected events and circumstances that enable them to be fulfilled set the standard for plot twists in modern story-telling. In his shortest tragedy, and of his shortest plays, Shakespeare makes some of his most profound statements about self-delusion, narcissism, guilt, the nature of free will, and the sense of futility inherent in absolute failure. Known as the “Scottish play,” Macbeth is the focus of a number of superstitions in the theater world. It is, for instance, considered bad luck to say the full name of the play while inside a theater.

Othello: Four hundred years before the American Civil Rights Movement, Shakespeare tackled the issue of interracial marriage in Othello. But racial difference proves to be the least of the problems that plague the tragic couple of Othello and Desdemona. Ultimately, Othello’s jealousy leads him to believe, mistakenly, that Desdemona has betrayed him and to murder her in retribution. While Othello’s realization that he has killed the woman he loves for no reason is a heartbreaking one, both for him and for the audience, what is most compelling about the play is how Othello come to his false conviction that Desdemona has been unfaithful. Ultimately, Othello’s confidence in Desdemona’s love and his hold upon his own reality is broken down by the scheming, manipulation, and wheedling of his supposed friend Iago. Iago is at once one of the most hated of Shakespearean villains and one of the most fascinating characters that Shakespeare ever created. The audience is left to wonder not only how Iago manages to pervert Othello’s understanding but what underlying motivation he had for doing so.

Romeo and Juliet: Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of “star-cross’d lovers,” was extremely popular with audiences during Shakespeare’s lifetime and remains so today. It is one of the most frequently performed of Shakespeare’s plays. Romeo and Juliet has not only inspired a number of film adaptations, it also served as the model for the Broadway musical West Side Story. 

Timon of Athens: Timon of Athens is a difficult and uncharacteristic Shakespearean tragedy that has puzzled and challenged students of the Bard for many, many years. In the beginning of the play, Timon is a wealthy man who gives away his riches and possessions to his fawning followers. When Timon realizes that he has nothing left and that he is at the mercy of his creditors, he grows angry, vows revenge, and eventually leaves Athens to live by himself in a cave. 

Titus Andronicus: Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s earliest tragedies, and one of his earliest plays. It is unlike any other tragedy that he wrote. Indeed, today, a new playwright who put the modern-day equivalent of Titus Andronicus on the stage would no doubt be accused of sensationalism. The play comes complete with a rape, gratuitous violence and gore, and a cannibalism scene that is not for the weak of heart. Roman general Titus Andronicus returns to Rome in triumph having captured Queen Tamora of the Goths and her sons. As revenge, Tamora’s sons rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia and cut out her tongue and sever her hands to prevent her from identifying her attackers. Following a painful scene in which Titus slays the mutilated Lavinia, he gets his own revenge by feeding his daughter’s rapists to their unwitting mother in a stew.

Shakespeare continues to awe readers and theater audiences with his mastery of the poetic potential of the English language and the depth of his insight into human nature. No other writer in English has equaled, or even come close, to Shakespeare on both of these measures of literary greatness. Four-hundred years after his death, Shakespeare remains, indisputably, the greatest English writer of all time, if not the greatest writer that the world has ever known. His legacy is undeniable. Shakespeare’s plays, his characters, his plot devices, and his turns of phrase have entered the collective unconsciousness and become imbedded in our general culture. Many writers, past and present, are dazzling in their ability to express themselves in the English language. But no writer has approached Shakespeare in terms of the impact that he himself has had on the English language and on the popular imagination.