With the world celebrating #Shakespeare400, which marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare we thought we’d give you a fool-proof guide to the bard and some of his works.
Impress your friends and amaze your colleagues with this cheat’s guide to Shakespeare…
Recently revived at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) with David Tennant in the title role, Richard II is a history play. It tells the story of Richard who squanders money, loses the support of the common people and goes off to fight a trivial war. His cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, invades England and peacefully takes Richard prisoner. Henry is crowned king and, while in prison, Richard is assassinated. Okay, it doesn’t sound like the most exciting play you’ve ever heard about but that’s because the language is the true star. The play is written entirely in verse, which gives it a musical quality and puts the focus on thoughts and emotions rather than action. It’s not an obvious one but definitely worth a go.
What to say: Of course, no one has bettered the lyricism of Gielgud’s performance.
If you’re looking for something gruesome and bloody then this is the play for you. Richard is evil through and through. He aspires to become the king and decides to kill anyone in his path. He has his elder brother executed but shifts the blame onto the king thereby speeding up the king’s demise. More murders ensue and then Richard becomes Lord Protector of England. In his most infamous act he has his own nephews imprisoned and murdered. If that’s not enough he also kills his wife. In the meantime, the whole of England is terrified of him and eventually the Earl of Richmond invades England. Richard has a terrible dream foretelling that he will be killed in battle the next day and that’s exactly what happens.
What to say: Shakespeare closely followed the Holinshead Chronicles’ account of Richard III, which recorded not only that he had a hunchback and withered arm but that he was born with teeth!
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More cross-dressing mayhem. Orsino, a nobleman, is in love with Olivia but she won’t entertain him. Meanwhile, a ship is wrecked nearby and Viola is washed ashore. Thinking her twin brother is dead she dresses as a man, calls herself Cesario, and goes to find work in Orsino’s household. Cesario becomes Orsino’s favourite and falls in love with him. Cesario takes a message from Orsino to Olivia and Olivia falls in love with Cesario. It’s a weird and wonderful love triangle. To top it all off Viola’s twin brother isn’t dead, meets with Olivia and, thinking he’s Cesario, they marry. Eventually they all meet up, Cesario reveals that he’s actually Viola, Orsino and Viola get married and, you guessed it, they all live happily ever after.
What to say: Now you’re almost an expert on the bard you may have reason to throw this well-known quote around: “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”
As You Like It
The thing about Shakespeare’s comedies is that they are rather complicated but you can always recognise one by the cross-dressing. Orlando (a disinherited aristocrat) has fallen in love with Rosalind and flees to the forest following a wrestling match at court. Rosalind (daughter of the banished Duke Ferdinand) has fallen in love with Orlando and has been banished from court. She disguises herself as a man named Ganymede and flees to the forest with her best friend, Celia. Orlando meets Ganymede who promises to cure him of his lovesickness by allowing him to woo him as if Ganymede were Rosalind. Make sense? It’s meant to be confusing! Anyway, everyone gets married, repents their naughty ways and lives happily ever after.
What to say: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
Along with King Lear,Hamlet is seen as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. Unlike, Richard II and III, Hamlet is a psychologically complex play. In a nutshell, before the play starts Hamlet’s father is murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, who then marries Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet sets out to prove that his uncle has murdered his father. However, Hamlet is a procrastinator. Rather than spending the play avenging his father’s death he spends much of it contemplating life and death. He feigns madness, he kills the wrong man and his girlfriend kills herself. Claudius plots to poison Hamlet but in the end poisons his wife and Ophelia’s brother. Hamlet stabs Claudius and forces him to drink from a poisoned goblet before dying himself. Hamlet’s friend, Horatio, relates the story to a Norwegian prince and Hamlet is absolved of any guilt.
What to say: As Hamlet himself says, the purpose of a play is: “To hold as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.”
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Lear, the ageing king of Britain decides to divide his lands between his three daughters: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. He sets them a test asking them to tell him how much they love him. When Cordelia says that she has no words to describe how much she loves her father he flies into a rage and disowns her. Cordelia leaves Britain with the King of France who wishes to marry her. Goneril and Regan betray their father. Lear goes mad, flees his daughters and wanders about a heath in a thunderstorm with a fool and his only loyal follower. Cordelia returns with an army to save her father but she is defeated and imprisoned with Lear. Cordelia is executed and Lear dies of grief. It’s not called a tragedy for nothing!
What to say: The play is not so much about one man’s destiny but more about the human condition.
Images: Getty, Tonynetone, flickr.com