Hephaestus's Blog

My Five Favorite Shakespeare Plays
July 20, 2015, 17:37
Filed under: Shakespeare

1. King Lear [comprehensive Sparknotes overview]

Lear, King of Britain, divides his kingdom between two of his daughters, who then withhold their hospitality from him. He goes mad and wanders the countryside while the Earl of Gloucester’s bastard son usurps his father and tries to take over the kingdom. This play explores the loss of control that we can feel when passing on life to the next generation. The king’s loyal daughter Cordelia suffers needlessly through her honesty, but in the end her selfish sisters also lose their lives through their power- and Gloucester-hungry ways.

Fun fact: Lear was banned for a while in the early nineteenth century (during the reign of George III), when mad kings were, understandably, a touchy subject.

2. Macbeth [overview]

The Thane of Glamis receives a prophecy from three witches that he will become king. Inspired by this, and at the urging of his wife, he murders King Duncan, and as the king’s two sons have fled, is crowned himself. He quickly becomes paranoid and has his friend Banquo, who was privy to the prophecy, brutally assassinated. He then visits the witches and is told that a) he must beware Macduff. b) he cannot be harmed by someone born of a woman. c) he is invincible until the forest of Birnam marches against his castle. Based on the first, he has Macduff’s family murdered, which of course thoroughly enrages Macduff, who has been gathering an army in England along with the princes. They soon attack his castle Dunsinane camouflaged with tree limbs from Birnam. The queen kills herself, and the king is killed by Macduff, who was apparently born by Caesarean section. Not pretty.

This one, as the first Shakespeare play I ever saw on stage, has a special place in my heart.

Fun fact: The superstition that this play is cursed may be due to its being an invariably popular play; saying its name or talking about it while another production was going on could be bad for the current production.

3. Much Ado About Nothing [overview]

This play is a classic and clever romantic comedy about the intertwined love stories of Beatrice & Benedick and Hero & Claudio. Claudio and Benedick are two warriors in the service of don Pedro of Arragon, and Hero and Beatrice are, respectively, the daughter and niece of Leonato, Duke of Messina. Claudio and Hero, who love each other deeply, become engaged to marry at the start of the play. However, don John, Pedro’s cynical, mischievous and scheming brother, hatches a plot to convince Claudio that Hero is being unfaithful. This works, until the deceivers are caught by incompetent constable Dogberry and his foolish Watch. Meanwhile, Claudio and don Pedro have been making their own mischief, convincing Benedick and Beatrice to love each other. In the end, Claudio and Hero are reunited, and Benedick and Beatrice decide to get married as well.

Fun fact: The word ‘nothing’, in contemporary slang, was used to mean a woman’s private parts. Thus the title is both “a lot of fuss over nothing at all” and “a lot of fuss over ladies.”

4Twelfth Night [overview]

Viola, a young woman from Messaline, is shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria. Having nowhere to go, she decides to take employment as a servant with the local duke, Orsino, in disguise as a man, because, you know, that’s what you do in a strange country. Orsino, at this time, is pining away with love for the young heiress Olivia. Viola, having taken the name Cesario, acts as a messenger between the two, but, as luck would have it, begins to fall for Orsino, while simultaneously captivating Olivia. While all this is going on, Olivia’s drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch, offended at her steward Malvolio’s behaviour, contrives to fool him into thinking Olivia likes him. She is offended and confused by this, and has him locked up for being insane. At this point, Viola’s brother Sebastian, who was believed drowned, comes on the scene, is mistaken for Viola, and promptly marries Olivia. Then, Viola’s true identity being revealed, she can marry Orsino (this is long before Obergefell, folks.) Sir Toby’s deception revealed, Malvolio is released, and goes off with a shout of revenge.

Fun fact: A man named John Manningham, in his diary for February 2, 1602, recorded his impressions of Twelfth Night in the earliest extant record of its performance. He especially enjoyed the fooling of Malvolio.

5. The Tempest [overview]

A ship carrying, among others, Alonso, King of Naples, his brother Sebastian and son Ferdinand, as well as Antonio, Duke of Milan, is wrecked on the shores of an island somewhere in the Mediterranean. This island is inhabited by the ex-Duke, Prospero, and his daughter Miranda. As the wreck was caused by Prospero, who is somewhat of a sorcerer, all survive, but are scattered around the island. Ferdinand, the king’s son, ends up in one place, and the nobles in another. Ferdinand makes his way to Prospero’s residence, and meets Miranda. They fall in love, as is the wont of such characters. Meanwhile, Prospero has sent his spirit servant Ariel to collect the other nobles, who plotted to overthrow him twelve years previously. While this is going on, two drunk servants, Trinculo and Stephano, fall in with Prospero’s servant Caliban, and the three decide to take over the island. Once they are dealt with, Prospero decides to forgive the nobles, renounce magic, and return to his rightful place in Milan.

Fun fact: The phrases ‘full fathom five’ and ‘sea-change’ come from Ariel’s song in Act I, Scene 2 of this play.


1 Comment so far
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Great summaries and fun tidbits. These are also among my favorites. Have you ever wondered about the nonsense language in All’s Well That Ends Well–and what if anything it means? Someone suggested it is a transliteration of was ancient Hebrew.

Comment by Steve Weitzenkorn

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