William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564 in Stratford-on-Avon, and his birthday is celebrated on April 23, the date he died in 1616. John Shakespeare, his father, was a glover and a burgess and was chosen alderman in 1565 and bailiff (mayor) in 1568. William attended a free grammar school where he learned Latin. In late November 1582 he married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway, and their daughter Susanna was born on May 26, 1583. Twins Hamnet and Judith were born in 1585, but their only son Hamnet died in 1596. William may have worked as a schoolmaster before he became an actor and began writing plays. By 1594 he was established as one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Company which played in the Theater built in 1576 by James Burbage whose son Richard was their leading actor. Shakespeare’s success enabled him to buy a large house in Stratford in 1597. In 1599 the Burbages built the Globe Theater. When James I became King of England in 1603, they became known as the King’s Men. In 1608 they began leasing the indoor theater called Blackfriars for comedies. All the actors were men, and boys played the female roles. Authors often collaborated with each other on plays, and acting companies could make revisions. Nineteen of Shakespeare’s plays were published as quarto editions during his lifetime, though many of them were pirated and not necessarily accurate. In 1623 the First Folio was published by Shakespeare’s acting colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell containing all but one of Shakespeare’s 37 plays with Pericles the sole exception. About 800 copies of the Folio were printed with corrections added during the process.
The authorship of the plays published in Shakespeare’s name has been questioned and is still controversial. Francis Bacon explained the biliteral cipher in his Advancement of Learning in 1605 and in the expanded Latin version De Augmentis Scientiarum of 1625. The American teacher Elizabeth Wells Gallup published the deciphered texts which she found in many publications by Shakespeare, Bacon, and others printed between 1579 and 1671, and they claim that Bacon had written the plays of Shakespeare and also writings of other authors.
What is more astounding is that these decipherings suggest that Bacon was the son of Queen Elizabeth, that she had been married secretly to Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, before she became queen, and that Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, was also her son. This explains why Francis Bacon received little inheritance from Nicholas Bacon, but Elizabeth refused to recognize her sons. American cryptologists William and Elizebeth Friedman worked with Gallup and published a book in 1957 discussing the difficulties of deciphering the biliteral cipher because of the type fonts used. No one other than Gallup was able to replicate her work which was probably partially based in intuitive perception to overcome the type-setting problems. The Friedmans admitted they did not recognize the spirit world. Although they recognized she was sincere and honorable, for technical reasons they rejected the hundreds of pages of writing Gallup published from 1899 to 1910. Unless DNA evidence could show that Queen Elizabeth and Francis Bacon were related, few are likely to believe these claims. Regardless of who wrote them, the plays of Shakespeare have been recognized as perhaps the greatest literature ever written.
All of Shakespeare’s English history plays are based on The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland by Raphael Holinshed. Shakespeare’s three plays about Henry VI and Richard III also used The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York by Edward Hall. Henry VI Part 1 depicts events from the funeral of King Henry V in 1422 to the betrothal of Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou in 1444. Incidents that happened years apart are sometimes reported in the same scene, but the Hundred Years War and the events leading up to the War of the Roses are well portrayed.
Henry VI Part 1 (1590) begins as Henry V’s brothers, the dukes of Bedford and Gloucester, are mourning the King’s death when they learn of reverses in the century-long war against France and of the capture of their military leader Lord Talbot. Bedford, regent in France, vows to fight the French. Gloucester, ruling in England, wants to have the infant Henry crowned, and the Bishop of Winchester comes into conflict with him because of his control over the young king. The Bastard of Orléans brings the peasant-girl Joan to the court, and she perceives the hiding Dauphin Charles at their first meeting. Then she shows her military skill be besting Charles in a sword duel and is appointed commander. Talbot is ransomed, and after the Earl of Salisbury’s death he fights against Joan’s army. The Countess of Auvergne tries but fails to imprison Talbot. A quarrel starts between Richard Plantagenet of the white rose and the Earl of Somerset and his red rose. Old Edmund Mortimer is released from the Tower and dies.
Gloucester manages to bring young Henry to France to be crowned, and as King Henry VI he makes Richard the Duke of York and Talbot the Earl of Shrewsbury. Joan persuades the Duke of Burgundy to join the French in the battle for Rouen. Somerset and York bring their quarrel to King Henry who begs them to put it aside and work together in the battle against the French. When Talbot is in danger, Richard resents that Somerset has not supported him with his horsemen and refuses to fight the French without them. Talbot tries to persuade his son John to flee a desperate battle at Bordeaux, but John is like his father and insists on fighting. Both men are slain during the English defeat. Henry agrees to a truce, and Gloucester wants him to marry the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac. Winchester raises his status and power by sending money to the Pope to become a cardinal. Joan is deserted by her helpful spirits and is captured by Richard of York. The English plan to burn her as a witch, and she pleads for her life by saying she is pregnant to no avail as the English laugh at the “virgin.” The Earl of Suffolk captures Margaret, daughter of Duke Reignier of Anjou, and the married Suffolk loves her but arranges for her to wed King Henry. After the victories of Henry V escalated the war against France, this historical drama shows how English conflicts among themselves weakened them further.
Henry VI Part 2 (1590) portrays events from the wedding of Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou in 1445 to the first battle in the War of the Roses at St. Albans in 1455. In the first scene the marriage contract is read, and the English nobles are horrified by its terms which made Margaret’s father Reignier king of Anjou and Maine, and she brought no dowry at all. Henry agrees nonetheless and raises Suffolk to a duke. Humphrey of Gloucester as protector still holds much power, but Cardinal Beaufort urges the other nobles to plot against him. Gloucester’s wife Eleanor wants to be queen and hires witches and sorcerers to help her husband become king. However, the priest John Hum is also taking money from Suffolk and the Cardinal, and the informed Duke of Buckingham and Richard of York break up the séance and arrest them. King Henry orders the commoners executed and Duchess Eleanor banished. Queen Margaret urges Henry to dismiss Gloucester who resigns as protector. Suffolk accuses Gloucester of treason in his handling of war funds, and Humphrey defends his actions and accuses those conspiring against him. Henry believes Gloucester is a good man and refuses to condemn him, but Suffolk sends two men to murder him.
Richard of York believes he has a claim to the throne and that he would be a better king than the pious Henry, and he is supported by the earls of Salisbury and Warwick. Suffolk and the Cardinal get the King to send York against the Irish rebellion, and he agrees to go but also incites the rabble-rouser Jack Cade to lead a revolution in Kent; they hate the nobles and want to kill all the lawyers. Cade becomes mayor of London; but the King’s forces led by Baron Clifford squelch the revolt, and Henry allows the people to go home while offering a large reward for Cade who is then killed by Alexander Iden in Kent. Gloucester is found dead in his bed, and soon the guilty Cardinal Beaufort dies without repenting. Warwick and Salisbury persuade the Commons to banish Suffolk who is murdered by pirates at sea. York returns to England with his army and agrees to dismiss them only if Somerset is arrested for treason. Buckingham says Somerset is in the Tower. When Richard sees Somerset at court, he claims the throne and calls upon the aid of his sons Edward and Richard. Civil war breaks out between the houses of York and Lancaster. In the battle young Richard slays Somerset, and York kills Clifford. Queen Margaret urges Henry to flee with Clifford’s son, and they are pursued by York, his sons, Warwick, and Salisbury.
Henry VI Part 2 exposes the ambitious nobles as they struggle viciously for power while King Henry is perceived as weak because he aims for peace and reconciliation. Queen Margaret and the Duchess of Gloucester are even more ambitious than their husbands. A nation preoccupied with a long war against France has disintegrated into civil war.
Henry VI Part 3 (1591) dramatizes the War of the Roses from 1455 to the death of Henry VI in May 1471. After the battle at St. Albans the King with Clifford and the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland find Richard of York sitting on the royal throne protected by his sons, Norfolk, Montague, Warwick, and soldiers. Henry VI negotiates a compromise whereby he shall continue to be King but will be succeeded by York and his heirs. Young Richard persuades his father York that the house of Lancaster has no right to the throne, and they prepare for war. Queen Margaret leads an army, and in battle Clifford kills York’s youngest son Rutland. York himself is captured and murdered by Clifford and Margaret. The York brothers Edward, George, and Richard agree to work together. Edward IV claims the throne, and in a battle Warwick rescues Richard. Henry VI laments the killing of father by son and son by father and has to retreat. Edward IV begins to rule and makes his brothers George Duke of Clarence and Richard Duke of Gloucester.
Warwick goes to French King Louis XI to find Edward a wife. Henry VI is captured. The widow Elizabeth Grey pleads with Edward IV for her husband’s land but refuses to give in to him until he asks her to be queen. Warwick in France arranges for Lady Bona to wed Edward and forms an alliance with Louis. Margaret opposes this, and letters about Edward’s marriage to Lady Grey cause Louis and Warwick to side with Margaret and Henry. George of Clarence and others are upset by Edward’s foolish marriage and go over to Henry’s side. Warwick leads their army, and they capture Edward. Queen Elizabeth is pregnant and is given sanctuary, and Richard with Hastings and Stanley rescues Edward while he is hunting. Henry VI has been freed from the Tower and designates Warwick and Clarence to rule while he studies and prays. Edward wants to fight for the crown again, and he and Richard arrest Henry and Exeter. In battle George returns to Edward who slays Warwick, but Margaret has brought an army from France. In the battle of Tewksbury the Yorkists capture Margaret, Oxford, and Somerset. Prince Edward of Lancaster flouts the authority of Edward IV and is murdered. Richard goes to the Tower and kills Henry VI. In the last scene reconciled George and Richard kiss Elizabeth’s baby Edward.
Another foolish royal decision on marriage causes a divided kingdom and war, and the disabled Richard of Gloucester resents how he is scorned and becomes ruthlessly ambitious.
Shakespeare’s Richard III (1592) is based on the two chronicles by Holinshed and Hall and the History of King Richard the Thirde which was published in 1513 by Thomas More who emphasized his villainy. The brilliance of Shakespeare’s language shows how Richard can fool people by pretending to be sincere while he tells the audience of his fiendish plans to murder his way to the crown. The most striking scene, which has no basis in history, is his wooing of Lady Anne Neville after having murdered Henry VI the father-in-law she is mourning. Her father Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick was killed in battle by his brother Edward, and Richard also murdered her husband Prince Edward. Though she reminds him of these atrocities, he answers her curses with sweetness and pretended love and affection for her, creating tremendous irony. In history this may have been a love match, and there is no evidence that Richard ordered the murder of his brother George, Duke of Clarence. His ordering the deaths of the young Edward V and his brother Richard of York is circumstantial. Although this play begins in 1471 just after Richard has killed Henry VI and Edward IV has been restored, King Edward appears in only one scene when he is dying of disease. Thus Richard is the dominant character throughout culminating in his becoming king in June 1483 and his death in battle in August 1485. Nonetheless Richard probably did order other murders to advance his political career, and the play shows the negative consequences of his blind ambition and ruthless violence. The death of his only son in 1484 is not mentioned in the play. Yet most of the events are historical, and the dramatic effect of his violent career is powerful.
Richard’s physical deformity for which he was scorned is used as a psychological justification for his ambition to excel politically. Shakespeare’s language expresses the thoughts and feelings of the characters. Late in the play Richard tries to persuade Edward IV’s widow Elizabeth to let him court and wed her daughter even though she is his niece and he has had Elizabeth’s brothers and friends killed. In a poignant scene Richard’s mother the Duchess of York, Queen Margaret, and Queen Elizabeth grieve and review the wrongs they have suffered from Richard’s crimes. The Duke of Buckingham helps Richard to become king by cooperating with his lies about King Edward and his pretended humility. As soon as he is on the throne Richard III orders Buckingham to kill Edward IV’s two sons. When Buckingham asks for what he promised him, Richard puts him off. Richard has his wife Anne poisoned, the children of his brother George ruined, and Buckingham killed. Thus he provokes the revolt that leads to the victory and reign of Henry Tudor of Richmond whose virtue and just cause for overthrowing Richard is contrasted to the latter’s evils. The spiritual values are clear the night before the climactic battle when the ghosts of those murdered by Richard discourage him and encourage Richmond. Thus this play provides ethical lessons through the extremely negative example of Richard III who self-destructs and is replaced by the virtuous Henry VII.
Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John (1596) is based on Holinshed and the anonymous play, The Troublesome Reign of King John. John succeeded his brother Richard the Lion-Hearted in 1199 and tried to rule England until his death in 1216. The play opens with France’s King Philippe II supporting the claim of his vassal Arthur, John’s 14-year-old nephew, to the town of Angiers which is besieged by the French and English. Philip Faulconbridge has been dispossessed by his half brother Robert who calls him a Bastard. Philip is confident and offers to serve King John who makes him a knight. His mother admits that he is the natural son of King Richard. John’s mother Elinor criticizes Arthur’s mother Constance for trying to make her son king of England. The citizens of Angiers refuse to open their gates to either side. The Bastard advises John to give up some land to avoid war and cooperate with the French to take the town. Cardinal Pandulph favors Arthur and the French and excommunicates John for abusing Stephen Langton who was elected Archbishop of Canterbury. Philippe is also supported by an Austrian army. The Dauphin Louis helps seal a deal by agreeing to marry John’s niece Blanch of Castile.
Negotiations break down when Philippe fears being excommunicated too. In a battle the English take Angiers and capture Arthur, and the Bastard kills the Archduke of Austria. John orders loyal Hubert de Burgh to murder Arthur. Constance grieves for missing Arthur and is inconsolable. Hubert prepares to put out Arthur’s eyes with hot irons; but the youth pleads so well that he changes his mind. The earls of Pembroke and Salisbury complain about the order to kill Arthur, and John regrets his decision. After being blamed, Hubert tells John that Arthur is alive and well. However, Arthur jumps off the wall of the castle and dies. (This is fiction because Arthur disappeared in 1203.) Pembroke and Salisbury find his body and leave John for the French. Louis wants to claim the English throne and leads an invasion, and John gives the Bastard command of the English army. To fulfill a prophecy John surrenders his crown to Cardinal Pandulph on Ascension Day and acknowledges the Pope. After the French noble Melun says that Louis plans to kill the English after victory, many English nobles leave the French army. The Bastard and Louis want to fight, but Pandulph has arranged a peace treaty. John has retreated to a monastery where he is poisoned by resentful monks and dies. (He actually died of dysentery.) He is succeeded by 9-year-old Henry III, and the Bastard vows to serve him.
Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (1592) is based primarily on the play The Menaechmi by Plautus and secondarily on his Amphitryon. Shakespeare’s play adds a second pair of twins as the servants Dromio of Ephesus and of Syracuse, doubling the confusion and the humorous situations with their twin masters Antipholus of Ephesus and of Syracuse. The wife Adriana and her sister and others in Ephesus come to believe that Antipholus is mad, and the schoolmaster Pinch and the Abbess Emilia are satirized by the remedies they suggest for his condition. Finally the sentenced merchant Egeon of Syracuse recognizes his twin sons both named Antipholus and their servant twins, and the conflicts caused by the confused day are resolved.
The Taming of the Shrew (1593) is similar to several similar stories and may have been based on a play of the same name. Shakespeare’s raucous comedy is set in Padua where Baptista intends to get his shrewish elder daughter Katherina wedded before he gives away Bianca who is courted by Hortensio, Gremio, and the university student Lucentio. To expedite their courtships they agree to pay Petruchio a reward if he can wed Katherina. Petruchio has come to “wife it wealthily” and is confident he can tame any shrew. As he does so with his commanding will, Lucentio has his servant Tranio replace him so that he can pretend to be a tutor and gain access to Bianca. Baptista wants the largest dowry for Bianca, and Lucentio also contrives to have a stranger impersonate his father to guarantee his offer is higher than that of the older Gremio. Hortensio pretends to be a music tutor, but Bianca prefers Lucentio. Petruchio and Katherina are soon married, and he takes her to his home in Verona where he starves her and deprives her of sleep until she obeys whatever he commands no matter how ridiculous. As she becomes compliant, he agrees to return to Padua for a visit. There Lucentio’s father Vincentio arrives and discovers the two impostors. Lucentio and Bianca have married secretly, and Hortensio married a widow. At a banquet Petruchio wagers that his wife will obey him better than theirs, and they eagerly accept the bet. Only Katherina obeys her husband’s summons, and she sweetly describes how a wife should serve and obey her husband who does so much for her. The others are astonished and must admit that this shrew has been tamed.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594) is a youthful comedy that draws the story of Proteus and Julia from Los Siete Libros de la Diana (The Seven Books of the Diana) by Jorge de Montemayor and the friendship plot from Boccaccio’s Decameron as retold in Thomas Elyot’s Book of the Governor and from John Lyly’s Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit. This is the first Shakespearean comedy in which a young woman pretends to be a boy, playing with the custom that limits all roles to male actors.
In Verona young Proteus tells his best friend Valentine that he is in love with Julia, but Valentine prefers travel for learning and leaves for Milan. Antonio sends his son Proteus to Milan to be educated, and Valentine and Julia exchange vows and rings. Much humor comes from the wit of the servants Speed and Launce. Valentine meets the Duke’s daughter Sylvia, and they fall in love. The Duke wants Sylvia to marry wealthy Thurio, but she dislikes him. The friends are happily reunited in Milan, but Proteus is quickly smitten by Silvia’s beauty. Valentine confides in his friend that he will use a rope ladder to elope with Sylvia. Realizing he is betraying his friend, infatuated Proteus warns the Duke that his daughter is planning to escape. The Duke waylays Valentine, cleverly discovers the rope ladder, and banishes him from Milan.
Meanwhile Julia dresses as a young man and goes to find her beloved Proteus. He exploits Thurio’s musicians by singing to Sylvia, but Julia has arrived and is shocked and broken-hearted to hear her lover singing and confessing his love to Sylvia who loves Valentine and scolds Proteus for betraying Julia. With much irony and some strained credibility, Julia as Sebastian tells Proteus that she will take his love letters to Valentine, who is captured by outlaws in the forest and is made their noble leader. Sylvia goes to meet Valentine and is accompanied by the knight Eglamour who runs away when the outlaws capture Sylvia. The Duke, Thurio, and Proteus go after Sylvia and are followed by Julia. Proteus finds Sylvia and proclaims his love for her but is overheard by Valentine, who is shocked but forgives his friend when he admits his guilt and even relinquishes Sylvia, causing Julia to faint. She revives and gives her ring by mistake to Sylvia. They realize she is Julia, and Proteus declares he still loves her. Thurio rejects Sylvia because he is afraid to fight Valentine, and the Duke lets her marry Valentine who persuades the Duke to pardon the outlaws. Love and friendship triumph in this comedy with a warning that men can be fickle.
In Love's Labour's Lost (1595) King Ferdinand of Navarre has taken a vow of ascetic discipline for three years, and he persuades Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine to join him in study by promising to eat only one meal and sleep only three hours per day and avoid the company of women. Berowne takes exception but goes along. The King admits he will break his vow when the French Princess arrives for a visit. They receive some entertainment from the clown Costard and Don Adriano de Armado, and the schoolmaster Holofernes provides some scholarly wit. Opportunities for love arrive with the Princess of France and her attending ladies Rosaline, Maria, and Katharine. The four men visit her camp and fall in love. Berowne catches the three other men breaking their vows with the ladies, and all admit they have done so. Berowne suggests they can learn from studying love, and they send tokens to the ladies. The men and the women try to trick each other wearing masks, and the women fool them by exchanging the favors they received from the men. Later they are reconciled. They are enjoying entertainment when a messenger informs them that the King of France has died. The Princess asks that the four men spend twelve months in seclusion. The ladies promise that if they do, then they will marry them.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595) is drawn from many sources but mostly the poet’s imagination. Framed by the court of Athens, where the ancient Theseus is soon to celebrate his wedding to the Amazon queen Hippolyta, Egeus insists that his daughter Hermia marry Demetrius even though she is in love with Lysander who loves her. Demetrius has rejected Helena and now loves Hermia, but Helena still loves him. A fantasy takes place in a wooded fairyland during one night by moonlight as a dream governed by Oberon, the king of the fairies, who commands Puck to work his magic on the lovers. Titania is queen of the fairies and refuses to give her adopted Indian child to Oberon for a page. Hermia and Lysander escape to the forest, and she insists they sleep apart. Demetrius pursues Hermia while Helena runs after him. Oberon wants to help Helena win Demetrius, but Puck mistakenly drugs Lysander who then is smitten by Helena. Demetrius is also charmed and now woos Helena who, having been rejected before, now questions the sudden infatuation of both men. They compete and quarrel over her but are prevented from fighting a duel. Oberon has Puck give Lysander the antidote so that he goes back to loving Hermia.
Also that night an amateur theatrical group of artisans rehearses the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, directed by carpenter Peter Quince who assigns the parts to the weaver Bottom to play Pyramus, Flute to play Thisbe, the joiner Snug to enact the lion, the tailor Starveling to present moonlight, and the tinker Snout to depict a wall. Their rehearsals are rife with comical comments. Puck applies the herb to Titania so that she is enamored of the ridiculous Bottom who has been transformed with an ass’s head. After confused merriment the magic is erased, though Demetrius still loves Helena. Theseus over-rules Egeus so that the two couples can marry. At the banquet Theseus selects the mechanicals’ play which is briefly performed as a farce. Finally Puck tells the audience that what they have seen and heard has been but a dream. Thus love has been seen as magical and changeable, and plays reflect the hopes, wishes, and fears of society as do the dreams of each person at night.
The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597) is a comedy based on the character of John Falstaff as he appeared in Shakespeare’s two parts of Henry IV. He is accompanied by his companions Bardolf, Pistol, and Nym and by his servant Robin. After Falstaff writes two similar letters to the mistresses Ford and Page in an attempt to seduce them and get some of their wealth, they with Mistress Quickly contrive to play practical jokes on him by inviting him to meet with Mistress Ford in her house and then have trouble escaping from her husband Ford, who adds to the fun by disguising himself as master Brook to spy on Falstaff. The other plot is over who will marry Anne Page. Her father has chosen Shallow’s cousin Slender whose servant is Simple while her mother selects Doctor Caius; but Anne wants to marry young Fenton. As usual the attempt of parents to choose who their children should marry is satirized so that the young can choose their own mates by love.
Richard II (1595) and this series of four history plays were once again drawn from Holinshed’s Chronicles, and this one and the two following plays on Henry IV used also Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York in portraying the internal conflicts in England.
Richard II begins in 1398 when the King is 31 years old. His cousin Henry Bolingbroke accuses Thomas Mowbray of treason for having taken money the King gave him for royal soldiers and for having murdered Richard’s enemy Thomas Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester. Mowbray denies the charges. Neither man is willing to forgive the other, and so they are to fight a duel with lances. However, Richard II changes his mind and banishes them both instead, Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for six years. This goes hard with Henry’s elderly father John of Gaunt who dies after warning that the land has been “leased out” to King Richard II, who claims Gaunt’s estate, angering many nobles. Richard uses this money to lead a military campaign to Ireland, leaving his uncle, the Duke of York, as regent. Henry returns to England to claim his father’s land and is supported by Earl Henry Percy of Northumberland, Ross, Willoughby, and others.
When Richard II returns, he finds the Welsh are supporting Bolingbroke, and Henry has executed Richard’s followers Wiltshire, Bushy, and Green. Richard II goes to Flint Castle where Henry comes to ask only for his estates. Richard II agrees, but Bolingbroke takes him prisoner and goes to London. There Henry, Northumberland, and others force Richard to abdicate the crown to Bolingbroke who orders Richard II held in the Tower. Henry IV plans his coronation and has Richard transferred north to Pomfret Castle and Richard’s young Queen Isabella of Valois sent to France. The Duke of York learns that his son Aumerle is involved in a conspiracy to kill King Henry at Oxford, and he reports this to the King; but his wife the duchess pleads on her knees that Henry pardon her son. He does so, but soon to fulfill his wish Pierce Exton puts Richard to death. This drama shows how clumsy and violent monarchy and feudalism can be when men cannot cooperate for mutual benefit but rather consider honor and ambition more important than human lives.
Henry IV Part 1 (1596) begins with the new King Henry IV (r. 1399-1413) admitting that England is in disarray with wars against Scotland and Wales, and he wishes his wayward son Prince Hal were as valiant as Henry Percy’s (Northumberland’s) wild son Hotspur (Harry Percy) who wants the King to ransom Edmund Mortimer, whom Richard II had chosen as his heir. Hotspur angers the King by refusing to give him his prisoners. The Percys, Mortimer, and Owen Glendower of Wales resent that Henry IV has betrayed his promises for their helping him to the throne, and they join with Welsh rebels and Scots led by Archibald (Earl of Douglas) to increase their territory.
Prince Harry and Ned Poins show that John Falstaff and his friends Bardolph and Peto are cowardly fools by disguising themselves and robbing them after they have stolen money from travelers. Later they all enjoy Falstaff’s bragging tale of how he fought off so many robbers. Falstaff and Hal take turns playing the King, and Hal indicates he will banish Falstaff. After a sheriff comes looking for Falstaff, Hal decides to give the money back. Prince Hal tells the King that now he will be a gentleman and a courageous warrior. He makes an officer of Falstaff, who recruits the poorest soldiers to save money. The rebels and the King’s forces prepare to fight at Shrewsbury, and King Henry IV offers to fulfill his promises; but Thomas Percy (Earl of Worcester), and Richard Vernon mistrust the King and tell Hotspur that he was abusive and ready to fight against traitors. In the battle Douglas kills Walter Blunt and others in royal armor, but Prince Hal saves the King from being killed by Douglas. Hal is wounded but kills Hotspur. Falstaff has fallen, and Hal assumes he is dead; but later Falstaff finds the body of Hotspur and claims he killed him. Worcester and Vernon are captured, and Henry IV orders them executed for lying about his terms. Prince Hal asks to dispose of Douglas and releases him.
Henry IV Part 2 (1597) continues the depiction of Henry IV’s reign as rumors spread of the Shrewsbury battle. Northumberland learns that his son Hotspur was killed, and his widow grieves and blames his father for not going to the battle. Richard de Scrope, Archbishop of York, has raised a large army, and King Henry has 25,000 soldiers. John Falstaff is up to his old tricks. He owes the hostess Mistress Quickly money, and the whore Doll Tearsheet says he promised to marry her. He is about to bed her when Prince Henry and Ned Poins appear and are entertained by Falstaff’s lies. King Henry IV is ill, but news of Glendower’s death is welcome. Justices Shallow and Silence help Falstaff recruit soldiers. The most able men pay off Bardolph who gives the money to Falstaff for rejecting them as three poor men are “pricked.” Prince John of Lancaster and the Earl of Westmoreland offer redress of grievances and peace to the rebels Northumberland, Archbishop Scrope, and Hastings. They accept, and the joyful news spreads. The rebel forces quickly disperse but not the King’s; then Lancaster arrests the three rebel leaders and orders them executed for treason. Falstaff captures John Coleville who is also sentenced to death.
Dying King Henry IV hears the good news and recalls his difficulties in taking the crown and governing a divided nation. He falls asleep, and Prince Henry, thinking he has died, tries on the crown and leaves the bedchamber. When the King awakes, he calls for help and reprimands his son. The Prince explains his loyal thoughts and concern that the crown had caused his father’s death. The King is convinced and hopes that his son’s succession will prove more royal than his controversial claim had. After the death of Henry IV the young King Henry V relieves the concern of the Chief Justice for having sought his arrest, and he hopes that he will continue to enforce the law even against princes. Falstaff learns that his friend is King, and he and his friends go to see him. When the royal Henry V passes by them, he denies knowing the old man and orders them banished. Falstaff hopes that the King will summon him in secret at night. These two plays portray the troubled reign of the usurper Henry IV and the rationalized dalliance of Prince Henry with the witty but alcoholic, lecherous, and corrupt Falstaff.
Henry V (1599) uses a Chorus to introduce each act and conclude the play. In the first scene the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely discuss likely taxes on the Church’s wealth and their offer to contribute to the war in France. They and other nobles urge King Henry V (r. 1413-22) to claim territory in France once gained by King Edward III in the Hundred Years Wars that Henry V will resume. Insulted by the French ambassador’s gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin, Henry declares war on France. Before embarking, Henry learns that three nobles plotting to assassinate him have been caught, and he sentences them to death. The Hostess tells her friends how Falstaff died.
Henry V in France demands that the town of Harfleur surrender or be burned, and they let in the English army. The French have an army five times larger and assume the English will pay ransoms, but Henry tells the French herald Montjoy he will pay nothing. The two armies prepare to fight on a field, and Henry lifts the spirits of his men with his optimistic speeches. Bardolph and Nym have been hanged for stealing. In the battle by Agincourt the French are losing. When King Henry learns that the Duke of York was killed and that the French are sending reinforcements, he orders the English to kill their prisoners and goes back to the fight. Fluellen and Gower believe the King ordered killing prisoners because the French murdered the unarmed boys in the baggage train and robbed his royal tent. Montjoy comes again and says the English have won the battle, and he asks for time to count the dead. Henry announces that the tally shows the French had lost 10,000 men including 126 nobles while only 29 English dead were counted. Henry humbly says that only God could have worked such an extraordinary victory. The Duke of Burgundy mediates a peace treaty, and Henry woos the French Princess Katharine who with her father’s consent agrees to marry him. This play appeals to English patriotism, but is that merited when a nation uses military force to conquer territory in another country?
Henry VIII in 1613 was first performed at the Globe Theatre. During the third or fourth showing a cannon shot caused the thatched roof to catch fire, and the theatre burned to the ground. The style of the play suggests that it was probably revised by Shakespeare’s successor John Fletcher before it was published in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works in 1623. The play begins in 1521 with the trial and execution of Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, and concludes with the baptism of Elizabeth in September 1533.
King Henry VIII is persuaded to put the powerful Duke of Buckingham on trial for treason. Henry relies on the advice and administrative skill of Cardinal Wolsey. Queen Katherine accuses Wolsey of benefiting from taxes. Henry orders an investigation and reform, but Wolsey orders rumors spread that he is responsible for that. Buckingham is convicted of believing in the prophecies of the friar Nicholas Hopkins regarding the King’s death and is executed. During a dance at court the masked Henry becomes enamored of the beautiful Anne Boleyn, and Wolsey arranges for them to dine together. After twenty years of Henry’s marriage to Katherine only their daughter Mary has survived. He now believes he committed a sin by marrying his brother Arthur’s widow and seeks a divorce. Katharine is questioned by the cardinals Wolsey and Campeius from Rome, but she suspects their motives and withdraws from the proceeding. Henry finds out that Wolsey has delayed the divorce because he does not want Henry to wed Anne Boleyn. Henry dismisses Wolsey and sends him away from the court. The King secretly marries Anne, and after Wolsey’s death she is crowned Queen. Katherine with the ladies attending her recalls her loyalty to the King and forgives her being disregarded. Henry appoints the Protestant Thomas Cranmer to be Archbishop of Canterbury and his chief advisor. The Catholic Stephen Gardiner accuses Cranmer of heresy and summons him to the Council. Cranmer appeals to Henry who gives him his ring so that he can appeal to him. Cranmer is kept waiting outside the Council, and then Gardiner orders Cranmer conveyed to the Tower. Cranmer shows the ring to the Council. Henry was listening behind a curtain and comes forth to reprimand Gardiner and restore Cranmer. In the final scene Archbishop Cranmer baptizes the Princess Elizabeth and prophesies that she will be a great and virtuous virgin.
The Merchant of Venice (1596) is called a comedy but is a dramatic problem play. Like Marlowe’s Jew of Malta Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock and how he is treated by the Christians reflects the anti-Semitism in England, where Jews had been banned. Elements of the story are drawn from medieval Italian stories.
Young Bassanio wants to court wealthy Portia of Belmont. He is in debt but is able to borrow 3,000 ducats from his good friend Antonio, a successful merchant in Venice. He has several ships out and is so confident that at least one will return that he borrows the money from the Jewish moneylender Shylock. The Jew wants revenge against Antonio and insists on a pound of flesh if he is does not pay it back within three months. Bassanio invites Shylock to a feast so that his friend Lorenzo can run off with Shylock’s daughter Jessica with much of her father’s money. Portia tells her friend Nerissa that she does not like any of her recent suitors except Bassanio. Her late father in his will made her swear that she would only marry the man who chooses the correct one of three caskets which are of gold, silver, and lead. Suitors who choose must promise not to seek a wife if they are rejected. The Prince of Morocco selects the gold casket which promises “what many men desire” and loses. The Prince of Aragon chooses the silver casket which offers “as much as he deserves” and also fails. Bassanio picks the lead casket, and Portia is happy to marry him. His friend Gratiano has fallen in love with Nerissa who agrees to wed him.
Bassanio receives a letter from Antonio explaining that his debt is past due, and he wants to see his friend before his death. The weddings are to take place at once, and then Bassanio leaves for Venice. Portia and Nerissa dress as learned doctors and appear at the trial of Antonio who stands condemned by the Duke who dares not violate Venetian law because it would ruin the city’s reputation. Portia explains that mercy is a divine quality that blesses those who give and receive and which characterizes wise rulers; but Shylock insists the bond be fulfilled even after Bassanio offers to pay many times the amount owed. When the doctor (Portia) says the Venetian law must be carried out, Shylock praises the lawyer; but then she explains that he must take the pound of flesh without spilling any blood nor can he take a different amount than exactly one pound. Also a Venetian law condemns anyone who contrives to bring about a person’s death, and the Duke finds Shylock guilty of that. The Duke decides that Shylock must pay with his life and all his property, but they commute the sentence to his becoming a Christian and sharing his wealth with Antonio and willing his entire estate to Jessica’s husband Lorenzo. Antonio and Bassanio are grateful to the lawyers who asks Bassanio for the ring she gave him. He and Gratiano are persuaded to give to the lawyers the rings they promised they would never give up. When they return to the home of Portia, the young men are reprimanded for not having the rings; but then they learn their brides had been the lawyers.
As You Like It (1598) is set in France, portrays romantic love, and is based mostly on the pastoral romance Roslynde by Thomas Lodge. Duke Frederick’s daughter Celia and the exiled Duke Senior’s daughter Rosalind have become best friends and attend a wrestling match at court. Orlando, the youngest son of the late Rowland de Boys who had been an ally of Senior, is despised by his oldest brother Oliver. Orlando, though smaller, defeats the stronger wrestler Charles. Rosalind is enamored of Orlando and rewards him with her golden necklace. The usurping Duke Frederick learns of this and banishes her. Celia pleads for her friend to no avail and runs off with Rosalind who dresses as a man. The court jester Touchstone goes with them. Orlando flees from his brother Oliver and goes to the forest of Arden with old Adam. Rosalind’s father Senior is living there with a few followers, and they welcome Orlando and Adam. Among them is the melancholic Jaques whose cynical wit provides a balance to the Arcadian optimism. The elderly shepherd Corin helps Rosalind and Celia buy a cottage. Orlando writes love poetry to Rosalind and puts the pages on trees. Rosalind as Ganymede reads them and asks Orlando to practice wooing Rosalind by courting him (her). The rustic Silvius loves the shepherdess Phebe, but she falls in love with Ganymede (Rosalind). Touchstone meets Audrey and is eager to marry her, though he does not expect it to last long. Orlando tells how he saved his brother Oliver from a snake after he was injured by a lion, and grateful Oliver ends his enmity. Oliver falls in love with Celia. Orlando wants to marry Rosalind, and Ganymede promises weddings the next day. When Phebe sees that Ganymede is Rosalind, she agrees to marry Sylvius. Duke Senior presides over the weddings of the four couples conducted by Hymen. A messenger arrives and says that Duke Frederick met a hermit and has devoted himself to religion, giving the dukedom back to Senior. Jacques plans to join Frederick to learn from the converted.
Much Ado About Nothing (1599) is known for the original wit portrayed by Beatrice and Benedict as they spar in sexual tension in reluctance to marry. Aragon’s Prince Don Pedro has defeated his bastard brother Don John in battle, and both are invited to visit Messina by its Governor Leonato. Count Claudio of Florence falls in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero. At a masked ball Don Pedro woos her for Claudio, and Don John tries to make Claudio jealous of Don Pedro; but Claudio and Hero agree to marry. Benedict fought for Don Pedro and engages in a battle of wits with Leonato’s niece Beatrice. Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato contrive a conversation in the hearing of Benedict to persuade him that Beatrice loves him, and Hero and her maid Ursula talk so as to convince hiding Beatrice that Benedict is in love with her.
Don John pays his men Borachio and Conrade to make it look as though Hero is with a man at night by her window while Borachio is actually wooing her servant Margaret. Don John gets Claudio and Don Pedro to witness this at night. The constable Dogberry, Verges, and the Watch manage to catch Borachio and Conrade, but their poor communication does not prevent Leonato from going to the wedding where Claudio, Don Pedro, and Don John accuse Hero of the affair. Hero is shocked and swoons. After the three men leave, Friar Francis, who was to perform the wedding service and believing that Hero is innocent, suggests she hide in the Church and that they tell people she died to turn the offenders’ guilt to remorse. Benedict tells Beatrice that he loves her, and she asks him to kill Claudio. Dogberry and the Sexton inform Leonato of the plot they discovered and that Hero is innocent. Don John has fled. Claudio and Don Pedro admit their mistake, and Leonato and his brother Antonio persuade Claudio to marry Antonio’s daughter. At that wedding Hero removes her mask, and Claudio sees she is alive and will marry him. Benedict asks Beatrice if she loves him, and both say they do not love each other more than reason. Yet they want to marry, and Benedict suggests a dance first.
Twelfth Night, or What You Will (1601) is another romantic comedy in which the heroine dresses as a man, setting off confusion and irony. Much deception makes the play more interesting than dull commonplaces. The original story was adapted into a novella by Matteo Bandello and in other works. The English festival of Twelfth Night allows a Lord of Misrule to bring about entertainment and sons.
A shipwreck has caused Viola and her brother Sebastian to be separated, each believing the other must have drowned. A sea captain helps Viola dress as a man and take the name Caesario to serve Duke Orsino of Illyria. Orsino is in love with the Countess Olivia, but she is in mourning and will not see him. Orsino sends Caesario to court Olivia on his behalf, and she is smitten by the go-between and keeps asking Caesario to return. Viola falls in love with Orsino. Olivia’s uncle Toby Belch is using the money and drink of the foolish knight Andrew Aguecheek who is also trying to court Olivia. Her steward Malvolio is an obnoxious Puritan disliked by all in the house, and Toby persuades the servant Maria to entrap Malvolio by writing a letter in her lady’s hand to convince him that Olivia loves him secretly and asks him to smile and wear yellow stockings cross-gartered. Olivia thinks he has lost his wits, and he is locked up. The jester Feste is the witty fool and musician, and he mocks the jailed Malvolio for his madness.
Olivia declares her love for Caesario, and this makes Andrew jealous. Toby then schemes to provoke a foolish duel between the knight and Caesario, making sure that neither intends to hurt the other. Meanwhile Sebastian and his friend, the sea captain Antonio, have arrived and agree to meet later. Antonio sees Caesario and thinks it is Sebastian and intervenes in the fight. Antonio is arrested and asks Caesario for the money he entrusted to Sebastian. Viola realizes her brother must be alive. Andrew gets into a duel with Sebastian thinking he is Caesario. Olivia stops it and invites Sebastian to visit her, and he agrees to marry her. Orsino sees Antonio and learns his story, and Antonio once again asks Caesario for his purse. Olivia arrives and calls Caesario her husband, and she dismisses Toby and Andrew for abusing Caesario. Sebastian arrives and is glad to find Antonio while the others are surprised to see Caesario and Sebastian looking alike. Viola tells her story and explains her disguise. Duke Orsino asks his page to dress as a woman. Feste brings a letter from Malvolio. The plot against him is revealed, and Olivia orders him released. Orsino and Viola are to wed, and Toby in gratitude has married Maria. The Puritan’s condemnation of the drunken revelers reflects two extremes in English society, but as usual in the comedies love conquers all.
All's Well That Ends Well (1603) is based on a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron and is another problem play with a happy ending. The orphan Helena has been adopted by the Countess of Rousillon and has fallen in love with her son Bertram. The King of France is ill, and none of his physicians have cured him; but Helena offers a remedy that her father had discovered and is willing to die if it does not work; but if it does, the King must let her choose her husband. The remedy works, and Helena selects Bertram who is promised wealth by the King and though reluctantly is persuaded to wed her. Yet he refuses to give himself to her and goes off to the war in Italy with the braggart Parolles and two Dumaine brothers. Helena declares she will not consider herself his wife until she wears his honored ring and bears his child. There the others entrap the foolish Parolles into informing against his friends. Helena travels to Italy as a pilgrim and employs a Florentine widow and her daughter Diana who is one of the women Bertram desires. Diana gets him to give her his valued ring and then arranges a bedding in which Helena is secretly to take her place. Reports of Helena’s death arrive, and the old Lafew offers his daughter to wed Bertram who has returned home with the Dumaine brothers and the shamed Parolles. They gather at court and notice that Bertram wears the ring that the King gave to Helena. The King questions Bertram, and Diana testifies and says she is still a maid. Finally Helena appears, astonishing all but Diana and her mother. Helena has obtained Bertram’s ring and is pregnant by him. Bertram now is willing to accept Helena as his wife.
This romantic drama portrays a young man who looks down on an orphan, is swept away by hope of military glory, and as to Diana he admits he “boarded her in the wanton way of youth.” Bertram and his friends played a devastating trick on the soldier Parolles, but Helena and her friends redeemed Bertram by their clever plot. The course of true love never runs smoothly, but any play can be considered a comedy if all ends well.
Measure for Measure (1604) is a dark comedy or problem play based on the story of Epitia from Cinthio’s Hecatommithi and George Whetstone’s play Promos and Cassandra. The title reflects the law of karma and comes from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus taught,
Do not judge, lest you be judged;
for by what condemnation you judge, you will be judged,
and by what measure you measure,
it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:2)
In Vienna the Duke Vincentio announces that he is leaving, and he appoints Angelo as his deputy to enforce the laws more strictly than he has had the heart to do; the elderly Escalus is to be his assistant. Instead of going to Poland the Duke disguises himself as a friar. Angelo arrests Claudio, who has impregnated his betrothed Juliet, and he uses an old law to condemn him to death. Claudio sends the fop Lucio to a nunnery to ask his sister Isabella to plead for his life to Angelo. She has not yet taken her vows and agrees. As a friar the Duke visits Isabella who explains that Claudio and Juliet want to marry but were delayed over the dowry. Urged on by Lucio, Isabella pleads with Angelo for her brother’s life. Angelo is adamant, but he is affected by her beauty and intelligence and asks her to come to him again. Alone with her he hints and then suggests that if she would give up her virginity to him, he would let Claudio live. She is shocked and threatens to expose him, but he says she will not be believed. Angelo even threatens to torture Claudio. Isabella visits Claudio in prison, and he pleads that she sacrifice herself for his life, but she declines to sin. The Duke has overheard their conversation and advises her that he can help her save Claudio without losing her virtue. Angelo five years ago had betrothed himself to Mariana; but when her dowry was lost at sea, he broke off the engagement. The Duke says that Mariana in secret will replace Isabella for the desired act. Angelo also orders all houses of prostitution be taken down. Comic relief is provided with a look at realistic behavior as Mistress Overdone and Pompey are arrested for running a bawdy house.
Angelo breaks his promise and orders Claudio’s head, but the Duke persuades the provost to let Claudio live and execute someone else. The provost suggests a dead prisoner’s head could be used to represent Claudio’s, and the Duke approves. After the announced execution Lucio gossips to the friar (Duke) how sinful the Duke is. The Duke lets Isabella believe Claudio is dead so that she will plead for him, and he has it announced that the Duke is about to return for a gathering at the gate. Isabella and Mariana are veiled, and they reveal themselves and plead to the Duke who defends Angelo as his authority and pretends to disbelieve them. Then he lets Angelo sit in judgment and leaves. He soon returns disguised as the friar and criticizes the recent government. Escalus and Lucio want the friar arrested, and Angelo orders it; but then the Duke removes his robe to the amazement of all. Angelo admits his guilt and asks for death; but the Duke orders him to wed Mariana. The Duke asks Isabella to plead for Angelo’s life, and she does, arguing that his intent to kill Claudio was not the act. Claudio is then revealed and will marry Juliet. The Duke orders Lucio to wed a whore he got pregnant as his punishment for slandering a prince. Finally the Duke asks Isabella to marry him. This play reflects the conflicts arising in England because of the increase of puritanical morality and suggests that moderation and mercy are important values.
As Shakespeare got older, he turned from comedies to tragedies. Romeo and Juliet (1595) is an early tragedy and has become the icon of romantic tragedy. The play is based on several stories, a novella by Matteo Bandello, and other adaptations. Verona is the scene of a bitter feud between the Capulet and Montague families, and the tragedy is an indictment of such useless violence. Juliet is only 14 years old but quickly agrees to marry Romeo even though he is an enemy of her family. Romeo is in love with love and likewise hardly knows Juliet before they marry. The wearing and use of swords in the streets triggers the series of deaths. Once again a father (Capulet) trying to force his daughter into a marriage (with Paris) causes problems. Romeo and Juliet seem to be half in love with death as they are with each other, and Friar Laurence recklessly uses a counterfeit of death. The practicality of the Nurse is loathed by the idealistic Juliet. Romeo inadvertently causes Mercutio’s death while trying to stop the fight, but then he kills the hostile Tybalt. Later the desperate Romeo slays his rival Paris and himself. Young Juliet manages to take her own life with a dagger. The confusion resulting from the plague and its quarantine suggests that this story comes from an era when life seemed precarious with so many people dying. Nonetheless the romantic scenes are beautiful, and one hopes that the story of the young lovers will end the feud and help people focus more on love than on hate.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1601) is in my view the greatest play ever written. The revenge tragedy is based on the legendary Amleth as chronicled by Saxo Grammaticus. This tragedy portrays a young man who must act and describes the long process that leads up that action.
In the first scene the ghost of King Hamlet appears to the skeptical Horatio, who explains that this King was challenged by Norway’s King Fortinbras, killed him, and took some land. Now young Fortinbras has brought an army to Denmark to win back the lost territory. The experience of seeing the ghost turns Horatio into a believer of such spirits. Hamlet takes the words of the ghost seriously as confirming his own thoughts and is set on to revenge his father’s murder by his uncle Claudius who has married Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude. Hamlet pretends to be mad, and guilty Claudius sends his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet. The King’s counselor Polonius is satirized for his elaborate rhetoric and gives advice to his son Laertes, but that includes this gem of wisdom,
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Yet Polonius sends his servant Reynaldo to spy on his son by spreading rumors of his son’s false vices in order to find out about his actual behavior. Polonius also tells his daughter Ophelia to stop seeing Hamlet. When Hamlet rejects her and tells her to go to a nunnery, they wonder if her love made him mad. Hamlet is glad to see the players and has them perform The Murder of Gonzago with some lines he adds to expose his uncle’s crime. Claudius gets so upset that he stops the play, and now Hamlet has more proof of his uncle’s guilt. The Queen summons Hamlet who, perceiving someone is hiding, kills the person; but it is Polonius, not the King. Claudius orders Hamlet to go with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England with a secret order for Hamlet’s death, but Hamlet is rescued by pirates and replaces the order with one to have the messengers killed. When Hamlet returns he is resolved to act and says, “There's a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”
Laertes returns from France to investigate his father’s death. Claudius explains that Hamlet killed him and offers Laertes an opportunity for revenge on Hamlet in a fencing contest. Ophelia, in grief for her late father and for losing Hamlet’s love, appears to have lost her mind and drowns herself. At Ophelia’s funeral Laertes and Hamlet argue whose grief over her is greater. In the duel Laertes has poisoned his rapier, and Claudius has poisoned a drink meant for Hamlet; but Gertrude drinks the poison and dies. Laertes mortally wounds Hamlet but loses his rapier to Hamlet who then does the same to Laertes. Hamlet finally kills Claudius, forgives Laertes, and prevents Horatio’s suicide so that he can tell Hamlet’s story. Hamlet gives Fortinbras his approval to rule in Denmark and then dies. Fortinbras arrives, sees the dead, and claims the crown of Denmark.
Othello (1604) is based on the tale “A Moorish Captain” from Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi. This tragedy is propelled by the villainous Iago who resents having been passed over by Othello who has appointed Cassio as his lieutenant. Othello the Moor of Venice has just been married to Desdemona when his ancient Iago and his tool Roderigo wake up Desdemona’s father Brabantio with the news. At the same time the Duke of Venice has learned of a pending attack on Cyprus by a Turkish fleet, and the general Othello and Brabantio are called to the Council. There Brabantio accuses Othello of stealing Desdemona, but she says she is his willing wife. Othello is sent to Cyprus, and Iago is to bring Desdemona the next day. Roderigo wants to drown himself, but Iago persuades him to get money so that Iago can try to win over Desdemona for him.
Cassio is friendly with Desdemona and was Othello’s go-between in his courtship, and Iago uses this to make the Moor jealous. Iago manages to get Cassio drunk and with Roderigo provokes a brawl for which the drunken Cassio is blamed by Othello who takes away his office. Iago encourages Desdemona to plead for Cassio with her husband, gets his wife to steal a special handkerchief that Othello gave Desdemona and which Iago takes to Cassio’s room. Cassio then gives it to his lover Bianca while Iago makes Othello think that Cassio is talking about having relations with Desdemona. By these and other contrivances the manipulative Iago whips Othello into a frenzy of jealousy as Desdemona keeps trying to plead for Cassio. Iago persuades Roderigo to ambush Cassio who is wounded, and then Iago kills Roderigo. Iago persuades Othello to suffocate Desdemona, but after her death Emilia explains to Othello that Desdemona was ever faithful and that Iago tricked him. Othello realizes he was wrong about the virtuous Desdemona and tries to kill Iago and then commits suicide. This passionate drama is a warning against jealousy and shows how easily it can be provoked even when there is no cause. Iago knew how to do it because he was jealous of Othello without reason also.
King Lear (1605) derives from the legendary King Leir placed in the 8th century BC by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain and was adapted from Holinshed’s Chronicles. Whereas Hamlet is a study of a prince building up to an action, King Lear explores the consequences of a critical action taken by an old king at the beginning of the play.
The 80-year-old King Lear foolishly divides his kingdom between his two oldest daughters Goneril and Regan who flatter him, and he disinherits the youngest Cordelia who is honest. The Duke of Burgundy rejects Cordelia without a dowry, but the King of France accepts her and she him. The Earl of Kent counsels Lear to correct his error, but the angry King banishes him. Kent disguises himself to serve Lear who with his Fool visits Goneril and her husband the Duke of Albany. Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, plots against his brother Edgar to get his place and persuades his father that Edgar intends to kill him for his estate. Edgar is also disinherited and flees. Goneril instructs her steward Oswald to treat disparagingly the King and his hundred knights, and Kent disguised as Caius defends Lear and opposes Oswald. Although her husband Albany does not agree with her behavior, Goneril tells Lear he can only have fifty men stay with them. Lear is offended and decides to visit Regan, and he sends Caius with a message to her. Caius clashes again with Oswald, and Regan and her aggressive husband the Duke of Cornwall, who have decided to visit Gloucester, put Caius in the stocks. Regan tells Lear he can only have 25 servants there. Lear says he will return to Goneril, but she has arrived and argues that he needs no servants at all because it would be better for him to rely on his daughters’ servants.
Lear realizes they do not care about him and decides to leave during a terrible storm and is accompanied by the Fool and followed by Caius. On the heath they meet Edgar who is pretending to be mad Tom o’ Bedlam. Gloucester finds them and urges Lear to go to Dover where Cordelia and her husband have landed. Edmund learns that his father is communicating with the French forces at Dover and informs Regan and Cornwall, who gouges out Gloucester’s eyes as a traitor; but a loyal servant slays Cornwall and is also killed. Blinded Gloucester wanders on the heath and is guided by his son Edgar toward Dover, preventing his father’s suicide and killing Oswald who was sent to slay Gloucester. Goneril scorns her kind husband and falls in love with Edmund, but the widow Regan wants Edmund too. Kent (Caius) brings Lear to Dover where he is taken in by the French. Lear awakes and recognizes Cordelia, and they talk. Gloucester died after Edgar revealed himself. Edmund commands the victorious English forces, and they capture Lear and Cordelia. Albany arrests Edmund for treason, and Regan tries to defend him but has been poisoned by Goneril. Edgar challenges Edmund and mortally wounds him in a duel, and Goneril commits suicide. Edmund warns them to send someone to save Cordelia as he had ordered her to be hanged to counterfeit suicide. Lear arrives carrying the dead Cordelia. He mourns her and recognizes Kent, forgiving him before dying himself.
Macbeth (1606) is based on Holinshed’s Chronicles which has Banquo helping Macbeth (r. 1040-57) to kill King Duncan. The three witches and their prophesies are in Holinshed as is Macbeth slaughtering everyone in Macduff’s castle while he is away with Malcolm. In the play Lady Macbeth persuades a reluctant Macbeth to murder Duncan; but then he ruthlessly has others killed while she eventually has bad dreams and takes her own life. The sight of Banquo’s ghost disturbs Macbeth, but others do not see it. Scotland is portrayed as quite primitive with an informal process of deciding on the next king. In a peculiar scene Malcolm tells Macduff that he has many vices but then declares that he is the exact opposite with no sins at all. The play is very dark and pessimistic, though the final triumph of Malcolm, Macduff, and Sivard provides a favorable resolution of the conflicts portrayed.
Titus Andronicus (1593) is an early revenge tragedy with gruesome violence set in Rome during the early Christian period when the Romans were fighting the Goths. In the year 88 CE two Roman legions proclaimed Lucius Antonius Saturninus emperor in Lower Germany; but his rebellion ended when he was killed at the battle of Castellum. Domitian was Emperor of Rome 81-96, and he punished the officers of Saturninus. At the beginning of the play Saturninus becomes emperor, and at the end of the play he is killed and replaced by Lucius. Thus Titus Andronicus appears to be a work of fiction in which the Goths are portrayed as cruel barbarians, and a black African is depicted as a villain. Titus Andronicus is a successful Roman general, and he and his family suffer horrible cruelties and eventually get grisly revenge.
Julius Caesar (1599) is based on Plutarch’s Lives of Caesar, Marcus Brutus, and Antony. Julius Caesar is cheered by Romans on the Lupercalia holiday and turns down a crown offered him by Mark Antony. Cassius resents the power of Caesar and tells Brutus of his concern, and they agree to dine together. Cassius has papers thrown into the house of Brutus, and he reads them. His wife Portia asks what is bothering Brutus, and he says he will share his secret with her. On a stormy night the conspirators meet with Cassius and Brutus and plan to kill Caesar on the Ides of March (44 BC). Cassius thinks they should also slay Antony, but Brutus persuades them that that would make their sacrifice look like butchery. In the morning Calpurnia tells her husband Caesar that she had a dream in which his statue bled, and she persuades him not to go to the Senate that day. However, Decius Brutus arrives to take him and argues that the dream was misinterpreted and that Caesar would be mocked if he stayed away. Caesar goes with him and is surrounded by the conspiring senators. Casca strikes him from behind, and others stab him many times. Caesar sees his friend Brutus do so also and falls. Antony had been led away but returns and talks to the assassins and carefully avoids offending them. He asks to speak at Caesar’s funeral, and Brutus lets him follow his own speech. After Brutus offers the reason of ambition for the killing of their leader, Antony gives a longer speech in which he mourns for the heroic Caesar and then reads from his will what he left to the Roman people who go wild with rage.
The conspirators have fled from Rome, and young Octavius Caesar arrives and meets with Antony and Lepidus, deciding on the names of men who are to be executed. Romans are divided in a civil war between the two sides. In their tent Brutus and Cassius quarrel bitterly over various issues and nearly come to blows. Brutus admits that he just learned that his wife Portia had killed herself, and this finally melts the anger of Cassius. Brutus explains why it is better to march to Philippi, where their armies meet in battle (42 BC). Cassius is being defeated by Antony’s forces; but Brutus is succeeding against Octavius. Cassius sees some soldiers roughing up Titinius and does not realize they are on his side. Cassius asks his slave Pindarus to kill him for his freedom, and he does. Brutus wants to die also but several soldiers refuse to kill him. Finally he persuades Strato to let him run against his sword, and he dies. Antony arrives and comments that most of the conspirators were envious but that Brutus was the “noblest Roman of them all” because he believed he was acting for the “common good of all.”
Troilus and Cressida (1602) has been called a tragicomedy, but to my mind it is mostly tragedy except for the cynical chiding of Thersites. The Quarto edition was called a history play, and the First Folio put it with the tragedies. Set during the Trojan War and using Homer’s legendary characters, the story of the two lovers is based on medieval tales from the French of Benoit de Saint-Maure, the Italian of Boccaccio, and the Middle English of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.
Troilus and Cressida begins after seven years of besieging Troy has wearied the Trojans and the Greeks. Priam’s younger son Troilus is in love with Cressida, daughter of the Trojan priest Calchas, and her uncle Pandarus strives to bring the lovers together. Cressida admires Priam’s older son Hector and puts off Troilus because she likes being wooed. The war is dragging on as Achilles declines to fight while spending his time with young Patroclus. Cressida eventually confesses her love to Troilus, and Pandarus arranges for them to spend the night together. Calchas has sided with the Greeks and gets the Greek leader Agamemnon to exchange the captured Trojan commander Antenor for Cressida. The lovers are parted as she is given to the Greek Diomedes. The Trojan commander Aeneas brings Hector’s challenge for a single combat. Ulysses persuades the warrior Ajax to accept, but in this version Hector refuses to kill his cousin Ajax. Hector wants to fight Achilles. Ulysses helps Troilus spy on Cressida as she gives her token of love to Diomedes. Hector disregards the dire prophecies of his sister Cassandra, the pleas of his wife Andromache, and the advice of his father Priam. During a battle Diomedes gains the horse of Troilus and sends it to Cressida. When Patroclus is badly wounded, angry Achilles calls upon his Myrmidons and goes to fight Hector. However, unlike Homer’s Iliad, Achilles does not fight him but has his Myrmidons kill the unarmed Trojan prince. Pandarus complains that his work is eagerly sought but little rewarded, and his name is used for those who “pander.”
Antony and Cleopatra (1607) is based on Plutarch’s Life of Antony and is historically accurate. Mark Antony while ruling the eastern part of the Roman Empire has gone to Alexandria and fallen in love with Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra and is distracted from his governing. He learns that his wife Fulvia rebelled against the powerful Octavius Caesar and is dead. Sextus son of Pompey has a powerful navy, and Octavius summons Antony to Rome where he agrees to wed Caesar’s sister Octavia. The triumvirs Caesar, Antony, and Lepidus negotiate a truce with Sextus Pompey. However, Caesar and Lepidus go to war against Sextus and defeat him, and then Octavius removes Lepidus from power so that he could rule most of the empire. Cleopatra is very upset that Antony has married Caesar’s sister; but Antony returns to Egypt, and they are reconciled. Antony and Cleopatra try to fight a naval battle against Caesar and Agrippa at Actium (31 BC). Cleopatra flees with her ships, and Antony has disregarded the advice of Enobarbus and follows her. Antony and Cleopatra try to fight Octavian in Egypt; but even Enobarbus deserts them, and they are easily defeated. Cleopatra sends a message to Antony that she died after saying she loved him. He tries to commit suicide and is taken to her and dies in her arms. Octavian promises Cleopatra he will let her have a respected position, but she learns that he plans to take her to Rome for his triumphant parade. So she and her maids of honor Charmian and Iras commit suicide by the poisonous asp.
Coriolanus (1608) is based on Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus which drew from the histories of Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Gaius Martius in 493 BC leads Romans in an attack on the besieged Corioli that captures the town. He declines to accept any spoils but is honored with the name “Coriolanus.” The plebeians had seceded, and the neglect of farming caused a famine. Coriolanus objects that five tribunes have been appointed, and he demands that the plebeian reforms enacted the previous year be repealed before the grain imported from Sicily is distributed at low prices. Senators vote for Coriolanus to be consul, and his mother Volumnia and friends Menenius Agrippa and the commander Cominius urge him to mollify the people who must also approve; but he refuses to pander to them in the streets, and led by the tribunes Sicinius and Brutus they refuse to grant him the office. When the tribunes put Coriolanus on trial for giving the spoils of war to his friends and for tyranny, senators support him. However, he is convicted and banished from Rome. Coriolanus goes to the Volscians and offers to assist his arch-enemy Tullus Aufidius who accepts him as an ally against Rome. They win battles and regain Corioli and then advance on Rome. His friends Menenius and Cominius appeal to Coriolanus not to attack Rome to no avail; but his mother Volumnia and wife Virgilia plead with him, and Volumnia persuades him to make peace between the Romans and the Volscians. Coriolanus agrees to do this, and Aufidius is also moved by her words. Coriolanus goes to the Volscians, but Aufidius, who has long desired revenge for his many defeats from Coriolanus, has his men murder him. This tragedy shows how a war hero may be unfit for political leadership, though ironically too late has he learned to try to negotiate peace.
Timon of Athens (1608) is expanded from the brief descriptions of Timon in Plutarch’s Lives of Alcibiades and Antony. The misanthropic Timon may have been a philosopher during the Peloponnesian War. Timon likes to host banquets for his guests and is eager to help his friends and those in need with generous gifts. When he hears that his friend Ventidius is in jail for debt, he offers to pay the debt and help support him when he gets out. Learning one of his servants is in love with a young woman, he contributes an equal amount to her father’s dowry so that they can marry. Captain Alcibiades and his soldiers also dine with Timon. The cynical philosopher Apemantus warns Timon that those who eat his food and drink his wine might slay him. When Athenian ladies bring gifts from wealthy men, Timon showers his departing guests with gifts and money. On another day servants of creditors come to collect the bills and debts owed by Timon, and his steward Flavius tells his master that he is out of money and cannot pay them. Timon therefore orders his servants to go to Lucullus, Lucius, and Sempronius to ask them for loans, but they make excuses and turn the servants away. The Senate is imposing the death penalty on a debtor. Pleas by Alcibiades to help the veteran soldier are dismissed, and they banish the angry captain. Timon has his steward prepare a feast for his friends, but the covered dishes contain only water that Timon flings at his guests. The house of Timon is stripped of its furniture, and Flavius shares what little money is left with the departing servants.
Timon has gone to live in the forest where he is nearly naked and digging for roots to eat. One day he digs up many gold coins. Alcibiades and his mistresses Timandra and Phrynia visit Timon who castigates Athenians and mankind. When Timon learns that Alcibiades is going to besiege Athens, he gives him and the women gold coins. Hearing that Timon has gold, a poet and painter come to visit him but pretend they have come to comfort their friend. Timon realizes they are lying but gives them coins anyway. Apemantus comes to see the hermit because he has been told that Timon is imitating his own views. They discuss how terrible people are. Flavius arrives with two senators who try to persuade Timon to return to Athens. Timon says he loves his country but declines. Alcibiades tells Senators that he will spare Athens if those who offended Timon are punished; but when they send for Timon, they learn that he is dead and left behind a bitter epitaph.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1608) is based on a tale in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (1393) and the similar novel The Pattern of Painful Adventures by Lawrence Twine which was reprinted in 1607. Scholars have suggested that the first two acts were written by George Wilkins who also adapted the play into the novel The Painful Adventures of Pericles (1608). A pirated edition of Pericles was published as a quarto in 1609, but the play was left out of the first folio but included in the third in 1664.
Pericles is narrated at intervals by John Gower and begins with the sordid situation of the King of Antioch who loves his daughter and kills men wooing her who can not understand his riddle of their incestuous relationships. Pericles takes his chance and answers the riddle correctly but flees in disgust. Antiochus sends a man to murder Pericles so that he will not reveal his shame, but Pericles returns to Tyre and appoints Helicanus to govern there while he travels to Tarsus where he helps relieve their famine. Pericles moves on and escapes a shipwreck. Fishermen take him to a tournament at Pentapolis where he wins the hand of the princess Thaisa, daughter of King Simonides. Learning that Antiochus and his daughter have been killed by lightning, Pericles and his pregnant wife set sail for Tyre. She gives birth to Marina during a storm and dies, and they toss her coffin into the sea. Worried about the baby, Pericles takes her to nearby Tarsus. The coffin washes ashore at Ephesus and is unsealed by the physician Cerimon. He uses massage and music to revive Thais who becomes a votary of the goddess Diana. After about a year Pericles leaves Marina with Cleon and Dionyza at Tarsus and returns to rule Tyre as king.
Many years later Marina is excelling so much that Dionyza resents her outshining her daughter and orders a servant to murder her. Marina attempts to reason with the murderer when suddenly pirates abduct her, take her to Mytilene, and sell her to a brothel. Pericles returns to Tarsus where Dionyza and Cleon show him Marina’s tomb. He puts on sackcloth and refuses to cut his hair as he wanders. Marina manages to keep her virginity by preaching a virtuous life to the brothel’s customers, frustrating its owners. One day the governor Lysimachus comes to her, and he is so persuaded by her virtue that he gives her gold and promises to free her. She satisfies the Pandar’s servant Boult with the gold and persuades him to place her where she can teach her skills. Wandering Pericles arrives at Mytilene, and Lysimachus takes the talented Marina to the boat to heal the dejected Pericles. They gradually discover they are father and daughter, and Pericles gives Lysimachus permission to marry her. Diana appears in a dream to Pericles who goes to her temple at Ephesus where he finds his wife Thais. This romantic drama of adventure and spiritual miracles depicts virtuous people overcoming difficult challenges.
Cymbeline (1609) is based on the legendary King Cunobeline who ruled southeastern Britain in the first half of the first century of the Common Era and was mentioned by the Roman historians Suetonius and Dio Cassius. His legend is told by Geoffrey of Monmouth and in Holinshed’s Chronicles. In the play King Cymbeline and his Queen refuse to pay tribute to Rome and hope to marry his daughter Imogen to her son Cloten; but Imogen has secretly married Posthumus Leonatus who is then banished by the King. Posthumus meets Iachimo in Rome, and they make a bet over whether Iachimo can have sex with Imogen. Unable to seduce her, Iachimo contrives to be carried into her bedroom in a chest. While she is asleep, he comes out and memorizes intimate things and steals her precious bracelet. With these he is able to persuade Posthumus that his wife was unfaithful, and he in a letter orders his servant Pisano to murder Imogen on the way to Milford Haven. Pisano cannot do it and gives her a box of medicine he got from the Queen who wants to poison Posthumus; but a physician had weakened it to a drug that induces sleep. Imogen dresses as a man and ends up with banished Belisarius, who twenty years ago abducted Cymbeline’s two sons Guiderius and Arviragus and has raised them as his own.
Feeling bad from her ordeal, Imogen takes the medicine and falls into a deep sleep. Cloten goes looking for Imogen, and Pisano shows him a letter from Posthumus. Cloten disguises himself as Posthumus, but he is killed by Guiderius. Imogen wakes up alone next to the beheaded Cloten and thinks his body is her husband’s. She gets a position as a page under the Roman ambassador and general Caius Lucius. Posthumus in the battle against the Romans fights for the British and captures Iachimo. Cymbeline is made a prisoner by the Romans but is rescued by Belarius and the two sons. Posthumus joins the three, and they rally the British to victory. Despondent Posthumus wants to die and surrenders as a Roman, but in prison the ghosts of his parents and brothers help him by appealing to Jupiter. In his tent Cymbeline questions prisoners. His physician Cornelius tells him the Queen is dead and that she did not love him. All the complications are unraveled, and the King is reunited with his sons. Posthumus forgives the villainous Iachimo, and Cymbeline even says he will pay the tribute to Rome.
The Winter's Tale (1610) is based on Robert Greene’s prose romance Pandosto, The Triumph of Time (1588) republished as Dorastus and Fawnia in 1607. King Polixenes of Bohemia has been visiting King Leontes of Sicilia and Queen Hermione and tells them he wants to go home; but the Queen pleads with Polixenes to stay longer until he gives in to her request. Leontes becomes extremely jealous of him and his pregnant wife and assumes this second child is not his own. His advisor Camillo tries to persuade Leontes that his jealousy is not valid, but the King makes him promise to poison Polixenes. Camillo reluctantly agrees after Leontes promises to forgive Hermione. Camillo confides in Polixenes, and they flee together. This causes Leontes to order his wife put in prison. There she gives birth to Perdita. Leontes rejects the child and orders Antigonus to take the baby far away to a deserted shore. There a bear chases Antigonus away and kills him, but a shepherd finds the baby. Leontes sends messengers to the oracle at Delphi, and the answer comes back that Hermione is innocent, that Leontes is a jealous tyrant, and that he will have no heir until what was lost is found. Leontes rejects the prophecy, but a servant comes in and says his son has died of grief, causing Hermione to faint. Later Paulina, wife of Antigonus, says the Queen is dead. Now Leontes repents and blames himself for his jealousy and says he will do penance at her grave.
Sixteen years later beautiful Perdita is in love with Prince Florizel of Bohemia, but she doubts that he can marry a poor peasant. Polixenes and his advisor Camillo in disguises attend a sheep-shearing festival. When his son Florizel is about to become engaged to Perdita, Polixenes reveals himself and forbids the marriage. The young couple plans to elope, and Camillo offers to take them to the court at Sicilia. The frightened old shepherd goes to tell Polixenes how he found the baby girl with gold and jewels; but the thief Autolycus picks his pocket, and the shepherd sails for Sicilia also. There he tells Leontes how he found the child. When they realize that Perdita is his daughter, Polixenes approves her marriage with Florizel. Paulina asks Leontes to visit a new statue of Hermione who appears to come alive after living in seclusion. Leontes has regained his wife, and Paulina is to marry Camillo. The happy endings of these late romances show how the poet has matured and merged his flair for romantic comedies and troubling tragedies into romances where problems are overcome.
The Tempest (1611) is a creation of the dramatist with elements from various sources, and with the success of the Jamestown colony it can be seen as an homage to the New World. The magic of Prospero mirrors the work of the dramatist who must arrange the events to present a story that is entertaining and enlightening. Prospero was so absorbed in his studies that he neglected his dukedom of Milan and was driven out by his brother Antonio and his accomplices King Alonso of Naples and his brother Sebastian. Gonzalo helped Prospero leave with his library, clothes, and food. On the island Prospero is aided in his magic by the spirit Ariel to whom he promises freedom. Twelve years later he creates a tempest to bring these men and others on a ship to his magical island. He has also made a servant of the bestial Caliban, son of a witch, who could not behave well on his own. Alonso’s son Ferdinand is separated from the others so that he can meet and court Prospero’s daughter Miranda. Stephano finds wine and is joined by his friend Trinculo and Caliban, who offers to serve them if they will kill his master; but their drunkenness is ineffectual and provides comic relief. Antonio and Sebastian make fun of the counselor Gonzalo and plot against King Alonso, but magic prevents their violence. Prospero gathers them all together and resolves the conflicts. Then he renounces his use of magic and is to return to his dukedom, and Miranda and Ferdinand are to wed in Naples. The depiction of Roman gods and goddesses in this and other romances and classical plays shows the influence of the humanistic Renaissance in a wider spirituality.