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Starter Shakespeare: your handy guide to the works of the Bard


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Everyone knows at least one Shakespeare play. There is a 99.9% chance that at some point during GCSEs, A-Levels and University you’ve had the unfortunate luck to come in contact with one of the fifty-four works attributed to Willy Shakes. Though there are plenty that roll off the tongue (like Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), what about Trolius and Cressida? Two Gentleman of Verona ring a bell? Ever heard of Pericles, or know the plot of Measure for Measure?

Worry not, as I’ve produced this handy guide below, that details almost everything you’ll ever need to know when tackling one of these bad boys, with absolutely no sarcasm, distress or flashbacks to Year 8 Drama lessons, and all in aid of the big man's birthday.

The Comedies

Starting with the largest of Shakespeare’s genres, the comedies are pretty much what they say on the tin.  They are meant to be light-hearted ridiculous caricatures and parodies of life. Think stolen identities, messing with drunk people, crossdressing in forests and magical mix-ups.

Or not. Some of these plays aren’t funny at all when you think about them- The Merchant of Venice is a race-fuelled tirade against the Jewish, with bargaining for flesh thrown in for good measure.

The plots usually go a little something like this: X wants something. Y also does something. X doesn’t know Y is doing something which messes with X’s plan. V and W muck about in between, usually offering critical commentary on social constructs and important issues whilst being jackasses. Along the way, Z decides to fall in love with Y, they end up happily together and X tends to either repent, get arrested, go mad or die. Happy, happy, nice, nice, and altogether difficulty to get to grips with based on summary alone. Or you know, you get Love’s Labour’s Lost when the King dies and all weddings get suspended, which is quite awkward.

Regarding the characters, they will almost always be well-off individuals, usually random princes, diplomats, military leaders or gentry if male. If female, then expect women that are witty, intelligent and generally offer an awful lot more to the play than anyone else involved. Get used to seeing names like Moth, Maria, Biron, Boyet, Shylock, Jessica and  Bottom. If the name sounds like it could feature in either Greek rhetoric or as a one-off character in Red Dwarf, it is probably from a Shakespearean comedy.

The History Plays

Oi! Don’t! Don’t skip this section! Whilst it doesn’t sound anywhere near as interesting as stolen identities or casually plotting regicide, the histories rightly deserve a strong place in Shakespearean canon. Considering he was writing under Elizabeth I and James I, who were both notoriously difficult to please, you have to admit the guts of the playwright who freely criticised, mocked and warned the monarchs through his stories.

Regarding the structure of the Histories, I have good news and bad news. Good news: they are often full of action, political dealing and drama, as well as impressive and spectacular scenes of coronation, funeral, birth and marriage. The bad news? These plays are LONG. Almost always five acts, with a minimum of three scenes in each, and lots of dense dialogue. And if that isn’t enough? You can always have sequels- Henry IV Part I provides a great cliffhanger for Part II. Overkill? Try telling that to Henry VI- Part I, II and III.

The characters for these plays must have been easy to invent, because they came from real people. Right? Well it’s unlikely Cardinal Wolsey and Anne Boleyn’s scheming was quite so blatant in real life, nor did Richard III probably ever have a Winter of Discontent, but overall the portrayals are quite faithful. Henry VIII wants a piece of nearly anything in a skirt, and King John falls out with nearly anyone he talks to: you’ve gotta credit Shakespeare’s accuracy here.

The Tragedies

Finishing on a sour note, the tragedies. This is actually the most contested genre, as a number of these plays could just as easily fit into the History category. Think Caesar being betrayed by Brutus - quite literally one of the best stabs in the back in history. Coriolanus brought down by his own lust for power, and naïve belief in the ruling political hierarchy. And of course, Romeo and Juliet dying in that cold tomb in Verona - although it’s hard to sympathise with them. Maybe a little more conversation and a little less action was required.

They generally start off on a positive note and go downhill fast, usually around Act 3. X is a triumphant military leader/young lover/ruler/political consort (delete as appropriate) who is in love with his own power/tricked by his evil daughters/falls in love with a rival family’s daughter (again delete as appropriate). They probably concoct a ridiculous scheme for revenge/to escape/consolidate power and ultimately fall onto a path of bad judgement/poor decisions/violence which will inevitably end in everyone dying (hey look, no alternatives here).

Some of Shakespeare’s best characters are the tragic villains: Iago in Othello, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Claudius in Hamlet and to be honest some of these plays might be more interesting if we actually got it from the villain’s perspective. Then again, we already do in some of them. Iago gets more lines than the titular character in his play, and he manages to survive (albeit apprehended by Cassio at the end of Act V).

So there you have it. You’ve pretty much become an expert at everything and anything to do with the Bard. So raise a glass and celebrate/commiserate Willy S today on his birth/death-day. And remember, hell hath no fury like a student scorned.

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