The Great Plays

“Hamlet” is one of Shakespeare’s most renowned plays, and its story is one of tragedy and revenge. The play follows the titular character, Prince Hamlet of Denmark, as the ghost of his father charges him with avenging his murder.

Hamlet

“Hamlet” is one of Shakespeare’s most renowned plays, and its story is one of tragedy and revenge. The play follows the titular character, Prince Hamlet of Denmark, as the ghost of his father charges him with avenging his murder. However, Hamlet is crippled with inaction as he grapples with the moral consequences of revenge by murder.

“How all occasions do inform against me and spur my dull revenge” – Hamlet

The characters in “Hamlet” are multifaceted and often contradictory. Hamlet himself is a complex figure, torn between his desire for revenge and his fear of the consequences of his actions. Claudius is a villainous figure, but also a sympathetic one, as he is driven by his own ambition and guilt. Ophelia is a tragic figure, driven to madness by the rejection of Hamlet and the weaponization of her sexuality by her father, Polonius.

Macbeth

“Macbeth” is one of Shakespeare’s most renowned plays, and its story is one of ambition and power. The play follows the titular character, Macbeth, as he is tempted by the prophecies of three witches and spurred on by his wife to kill the King. 

This leads him to have to commit a series of murders to help cover it up, including the King’s guards and his best friend, Banquo. However, this brings about guilt and his own eventual downfall. As Macbeth’s ambition leads him to commit increasingly heinous acts, his pursuit power is ultimately his undoing.

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?” – Macbeth

The tragedy of Macbeth is that he is ultimately a victim of his own ambition, leading to first hubris and then guilt. The play serves as a warning against the consequences of power without morality.

Romeo and Juliet

“Romeo and Juliet” is one of the most famous plays written by William Shakespeare. It tells the story of two rival families, the Montagues and the Capulets, who are at war throughout the streets of Verona. However, the two children of the family fall in love with each other, secretly marrying with the help of the local friar. In the end, both lovers end up committing suicide because they can’t bear to live without each other.

The play highlights the power of love, as Romeo and Juliet are willing to risk everything for it. Fate is also a major theme in the play, as it is fate that brings the two lovers together and ultimately leads to their downfall. 

“A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life” – Romeo and Juliet

The play also explores the theme of mortality, as the two lovers die in the end. It is a powerful reminder of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. “Romeo and Juliet” is a timeless classic that continues to captivate audiences with its themes of love, fate, and mortality.

King Lear

King Lear was a play written by Shakespeare in 1606 and was described by Percy Bysshe Shelley as “the most perfect specimen of dramatic art existing in the world”. 

In the play, the old and weary King Lear, tired of ruling England, decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Foolishly, Lear gives the lion’s share to Goneril and Regan, who flatter him with their words, and banishes his most loving and honest daughter, Cordelia, when she doesn’t shower him with false compliments. It doesn’t take long for Lear to realize that he’s made a grave mistake. Goneril and Regan quickly reveal their true, wicked colors and leave Lear out in the cold to fend for himself.

Meanwhile, there’s a parallel plot with the Earl of Gloucester and his two sons, Edgar and Edmund. Edmund schemes to discredit his brother so that he’ll be the heir to his father’s estate, even going so far as to have his father believe that Edgar is trying to kill him. Edgar, now in danger, goes into hiding. As the play progresses, things go from bad to worse for both Lear and Gloucester. Tragedy strikes both families. 

In the end both Edmund and the wicked sisters are killed, and Lear is reunited with Cordelia, before he ultimately dies of a broken heart.

Othello

Othello is a story about a general in the Venetian army who overcame racial prejudice to become powerful and well-respected. But as much as he excels on the battlefield, his love life is where things start to unravel. He falls for the lovely Desdemona, and they marry in secret. But not everyone is happy for the couple– in fact, the villainous Iago is determined to ruin their happiness. Iago manipulates Othello by planting the idea that Desdemona is cheating on him. Unfortunately, Othello starts to believe it.

In the end, Othello’s jealousy drives him to smother Desdemona in her bed. But he’s not the only one who’s met a tragic end– Iago’s scheming also costs the lives of a few others, including his own wife. It’s not until Othello realizes the truth that he turns on Iago, stabbing him before killing himself. It’s a heartbreaking tale of love, jealousy, and betrayal that leaves no one unscathed.

In a nutshell, Othello is a story about a guy who has it all– except the ability to trust his own wife. The result is a cascade of misery and death that only comes to a halt when the protagonist kills himself.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved works, and its story is one of the most iconic in literature.

In the first part of Midsummer Night’s Dream, we are introduced to the main players: Theseus and Hippolyta, the Athenian rulers who are preparing for their wedding, and four young Athenians, Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena. Hermia loves Lysander, but her father wants her to marry Demetrius, and threatens to kill her if she doesn’t obey. Lysander and Hermia decide to run away into the forest. Meanwhile, Helena, who is hopelessly in love with Demetrius, informs him of their plan and follows them into the forest.

Once in the forest, the characters are at the mercy of the fairies who live there. Oberon, the king of the fairies, is quarreling with his queen, Titania, over a young Indian boy that they both want as a servant. Oberon orders Puck, a mischievous fairy, to use a magic flower to make Titania fall in love with the first thing she sees. Puck also accidentally causes both Lysander and Demetrius to fall in love with Helena, which makes the four young Athenians very confused and upset.

In the second part of the play, order is restored. Puck reverses the love spells, and the four young Athenians return to Athens. Demetrius is now content with Helena, and Lysander and Hermia are allowed to marry. Oberon and Titania also reconcile, and bless the couples at their weddings.

The Tempest

The Tempest, first performed in 1611, is one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote before he died.

Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, is exiled on a remote island with his daughter Miranda after being overthrown by his brother Antonio. When Antonio’s ship passes by the island, Prospero uses his magical powers to summon a storm to wreck the vessel. The survivors – including Antonio, the king of Naples, and the king’s son, Ferdinand – wash ashore on the island. Prospero orchestrates a series of trials and tribulations for the survivors, manipulating them to achieve his desired outcomes.

Ultimately, Prospero arranges for his daughter Miranda to marry the king’s son, Ferdinand, which will restore Prospero’s status as Duke of Milan. Meanwhile, Antonio and the other schemers are punished for their treachery. Prospero ultimately forgives them, though, and sets them free to return to Italy. In the end, Prospero abandons his magical powers and plans to return to civilization himself.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar, which was written in 1599, is one of Shakespeare’s major history plays.

In the first half of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the title character has just led a successful military campaign and returns to Rome in triumph. His popularity and ambition worry some of the senators, particularly Brutus and Cassius, who fear that Caesar will seize absolute power and declare himself as king. The conspirators lure Caesar to the senate house and assassinate him, believing they have saved the Republic.

In the second half of the play, however, things do not go as planned. Mark Antony, a close friend of Caesar’s, delivers a stirring speech at his funeral that turns the people of Rome against the conspirators. Civil war breaks out, with Antony and Octavius Caesar (Caesar’s heir) on one side and Brutus and Cassius on the other. In the end, Antony and Octavius are victorious, and Brutus and Cassius take their own lives to avoid capture.

Twelfth Night

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a shipwreck leaves the twins Viola and Sebastian separated and stranded on the shores of Illyria. Viola, believing her brother dead, disguises herself as a man, “Cesario,” to gain employment with the Duke Orsino. Orsino is in love with the Countess Olivia, and sends Viola/Cesario to court her on his behalf. However, Olivia falls in love with Viola/Cesario, unaware of the disguise. Meanwhile, Sebastian arrives in Illyria and is mistaken for Viola/Cesario by Olivia, who marries him. At the same time, the Duke realizes that he loves Viola. The truth is eventually revealed, and Viola and Orsino marry as well.

Alongside this main plot, Shakespeare also presents a humorous subplot involving Olivia’s servants. Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, is tricked by Maria, Toby, and Andrew into believing that Olivia loves him. They convince him to act foolishly, wearing yellow stockings and smiling incessantly. Olivia believes Malvolio has gone mad and has him imprisoned, but the truth is eventually revealed and Malvolio swears revenge on those who tricked him.

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a witty and entertaining play, exploring themes of love, disguise, and mistaken identity.

Measure for Measure

One of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, but one which is important to understanding his  canon is Measure for Measure.

In the first half of Measure for Measure, the Duke of Vienna leaves the city and puts the puritanical Angelo in charge. Angelo is determined to enforce the city’s strict moral code, and he arrests Claudio for getting his fiancee Juliet pregnant before marriage. Angelo sentences Claudio to death, but Claudio’s sister Isabella pleads for her brother’s life. Angelo agrees to spare Claudio, but only if Isabella has sex with him. Isabella refuses.

In the second half of the play, the Duke returns to Vienna, disguised as a friar and orchestrates a plan to catch Angelo in his hypocrisy. Isabella agrees to sleep with Angelo, but the Duke arranges for Mariana (Angelo’s jilted ex-fiancee) to take her place. Angelo is caught and admits his guilt, but the Duke then reveals that he never actually left Vienna and has been monitoring the situation all along. The Duke pardons everyone, reunites Angelo and Mariana, and proposes marriage to Isabella.

Measure for Measure is often seen as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” as it doesn’t fall neatly into one category. It deals with weighty themes of morality and hypocrisy, but it ultimately has a happy ending.

Love's Labour's Lost

In the play Love’s Labour Lost, Shakespeare tells the story of King Ferdinand of Navarre and his three companions, who have sworn off women for three years in order to focus on their academic pursuits. But this is easier said than done, as the arrival of the Princess of France and her ladies throws a wrench in their plans. The four men are all smitten with these women, and a series of comic misunderstandings and mix-ups ensue as they each try to woo their respective love interests, all while trying to keep up the appearance of their scholarly dedication.

Ultimately, the four men are discovered and they confess their feelings to the women. But the play doesn’t end with a typical Shakespearean happy ending. Instead, the princess and her ladies postpone any possible engagements until they return from mourning the death of the Princess’s father. It’s a cheeky and bittersweet conclusion to a play that revels in the humorous folly of love.

In Love’s Labour Lost, Shakespeare takes a playful jab at the ridiculousness of trying to resist the irresistible. As the four men struggle to stay true to their scholarly pursuits, they make complete fools of themselves, highlighting the absurdity of their plan from the start.

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Who Was William Shakespeare?;

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, in April 1564. His exact date of birth is unknown, but it is traditionally celebrated on April 23rd.

The Elizabethan World;

The Elizabethan era was a time of great change and upheaval in England. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the country experienced a period of religious reformation, economic growth, and exploration.

The Early Works;

Shakespeare's early works are a testament to his genius and creativity. His earliest plays, such as ‘The Comedy of Errors’ and ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, are full of wit and wordplay, and demonstrate his skill in creating complex characters and storylines.

Key Themes in Shakespeare;

Love and romance are recurring themes throughout Shakespeare's works, often taking center stage in plays such as "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream".

Shakespeare’s Language;

Shakespeare's use of language was a major factor in his success as a playwright. His mastery of the English language was evident in his use of puns, wordplay, and blank verse. 

Adaptations of Shakespeare;

Shakespeare's works have been adapted in a variety of ways, from stage productions to films to graphic novels. Stage productions have been the most popular form of adaptation, with countless productions of Shakespeare's plays being performed all over the world.

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