Away back in March of this year, I set myself a challenge – to read and review all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays. I have learned quite a lot from it, and distilled for myself some Life Lessons (see below).
Like most people in Ireland & the UK, we did a couple of plays in school – when I was 14, we were taken to see Henry IV [part 1] (I think!) in a now-closed theatre on Pearse St in Dublin, then it was MacBeth for our Leaving Certificate (like A-Levels or high school graduation exams).
After leaving school, I read ZERO Shakespeare until I moved to Boston, where while being snowed in during the Big Chill I started reading them again. I kept reading them off and on for a few years, and it helped that I had an overnight job as well!!
In March so, I decided to challenge myself, to see if in fact I could read and review them all in a year, so set myself a task of one per week. AND I DID IT!!!!!! My last review was of Othello, one of my favourites, and I’d kept it for review until the very end 😀
Below are the links to all my reviews.
What did I learn?
- First, ignore the Olde English language of the plays. You will get bogged down, frustrated and then will give up. For me, I visualised the actors playing out the roles while reading, because Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not analysed to death! Thus, while I did not understand every literal word, I absolutely became engrossed in the portrayal of humanity that is at the core of Shakespeare.
- The story-telling is incredible. The plays explore the depth of human malice, the heights of human passion, and the devastating effects of cruel, burning ambition. In a single canon, we can cover murder, love, jealousy, rage, naked ambition, revenge, loyalty and guilt, amongst others.
- More than any single other writer, Shakespeare enriched the English language. His quotes are used today, and it is rare indeed to find someone who hasn’t used one. “Vanish into thin air”, “The course of true love never did run smooth”, “Jealousy is the green-eyed monster”, and so many, many more. Not to mention his poetry – “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
Life Lessons: Shakespeare’s advice for daily living.
1: Treat everyone with respect.
“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to no one” [All’s Well That Ends Well]. Would Shylock have been so malicious, had he been treated just like everyone else? “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” [Merchant of Venice]. This is a tenet that has even more resonance today, in our supposedly more enlightened world, than back in the 16th century, and mutual respect between people is critical if we genuinely believe in equality of humanity.
2: If something needs to be done, then do it!
Taking action is critical to success. You need to define what success looks like for you, then take the action to bring it about. No-one else is responsible for your life, your happiness. “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, if taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”. Brutus [Julius Caesar] urges us to seize the opportunity which presents itself.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” [Henry IV Part II]. If you are in a position of leadership, sometimes you have to make the hard calls. You ideally will have a vision of what you want, and possess integrity and strong values. This may mean you will find yourself isolated, dealing with confrontation, and myriad other challenges. Leadership is not easy, but working from core values and principles you will have the strength to see it through, or up to a red line which you will not compromise.
4: Quality, not Quantity, is what counts.
“Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow” [Romeo & Juliet]. Take your time. Impetuous choices and rash decisions can have terrible and long-lasting consequences. In love especially, and more generally in all things, take the time to consider. This doesn’t mean be afraid of making a decision (2, above), but try to inform yourself as much as possible about what you are getting into. (A more modern phrase could be “softly softly, catchee monkey”)
5: Two ears, one mouth – use in proportion.
“Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice” [Hamlet]. Listen before you speak. Really listening increases your understanding of the other person/situation, and is a key part of 1, above. Really listening means so much more than just waiting on your turn to speak! Also, by talking less, you find yourself having less regrets about what you did say. Words said cannot be unsaid, even though “mis-speaking” is currently popular amongst Western leaders.
6: Be True To Yourself.
“To Thine Own Self Be True” [Hamlet]. In Shakespeare’s day, this meant sort yourself out first, then you are ready and able to deal with others. Today, these words have taken on a different meaning, mainly around commitment, decency and honesty. I would take it as being both interpretations. You have to look after yourself, through ensuring good health, not courting disaster through narcotics or reckless drug-taking , distancing yourself from those who are only self-interested and will bing you down, etc. Also, be honest with yourself, and treat others as you would like to be treated.
1: Hamlet (1600) – the charismatic, brooding Prince of Denmark.
2: Macbeth (1605) – the Tyrant of Scotland
3: Coriolanus (1607) – Rise and fall of a proud Roman general
4: Titus Andronicus (1593) – A gore-fest in Ancient Rome.
5: Cymbeline (1609) – Reads like a romp through most childhood fairytales, complete with an evil Queen and assorted villains!
6: Julius Caesar (1599) – A defence of democracy, as relevant now as it ever was.
7: Antony & Cleopatra (1606) – To Dare All. An ancient struggle that still impacts the modern world.
8: Romeo & Juliet (1594) – Timeless story of two star-crossed lovers
9: King Lear (1605) – How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child – the classic dystopian family
10: Othello (1604) – “Jealousy is the green-eyed monster”. Probably the bard’s finest play, with his most malevolent villain. Racism issues that still are relevant today.
These are the 11 plays that usually come with witty interactions, light-hearted style and tone, mistaken identities, disguises and misleadings, and ultimately a happy ending with the two main characters being re-united (and usually married).
1: As You Like It (1599) – A pastoral comedy set in France – the clue is in the title!
2: All’s Well That Ends Well (1602) – Lies, deception, sexual indiscretions – a dark comedy by the Bard.
3: The Taming Of The Shrew (1593) – An exercise in misogyny – or a love story about a man liberating a woman?
4: A Midsummers Night’s Dream (1595) – True love never does run smooth!
5: Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594) – Having moderation in all things, and a balance to your life, is key.
6: The Comedy Of Errors (1594) – Two sets of Identical Twins, separated at birth, and accidentally re-united. Hilarity ensues – Shakespeare style!
7: The Merry Wives Of Windsor (1600) – Seduction, pranks, elopements – one of the Bard’s best comedies.
8: Much Ado About Nothing (1598)– Misunderstanding, false accusations, and a bastard price – Shakespeare’s most popular comedy!
9: Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594) – A Shakespearian take on a love triangle, with the other corner thrown in for fun!
10: The Tempest (1611) – “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here”. Shakespeare’s last play, a powerful story or revenge and redemption.
11: Twelfth Night (1599) – “If music be the food of love, play on!” A tale of mistaken identities, foiled social climbing, and unrequited love.
11 in total, covering the twelfth to sixteenth centuries
These plays combine elements of both the Tragedies and the Comedies, but also something of the then current political climate, dressed up in medieval clothing. Shakespeare ran risks of his plays being mis-interpreted in the deadly Elizabethan political world, and must be read with this in mind.
Chronologically, the timeline of the plays covers effectively the One Hundred Years War, from Henry V to Joan of Arc, and the War of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster.
The chronological order of the plays are:
Richard II, Henry IV parts I and II, Henry V [known as the “Henriads” or the Second Tetralogy];
Henry VI parts I, II and III, Richard III [First Tetralogy];
and finally Henry VIII.
Shakespeare wrote them essentially in chronological reverse order, the first tetralogy being written before the second.
Shakespeare drew heavily on the myths surrounding the War of the Roses:
- First, the Lancaster myth, from the overthrow of Richard II by Henry IV, and the subsequent “favour’d” reigns of Henry IV and V [these four plays together are called the Henriads, or the second tetralogy].
- Then, to the York myth where the rightful heir of Richard II, Edward IV, is re-instated to the throne, removing the weak Henry VI [these four plays are known as the first tetralogy].
- Finally to the Tudor myth, uniting the two warring families in the person of Henry Tudor (Henry VII, grandfather to Shakespeare’s queen Elizabeth). Divine Providence was assured, by Henry praying before the battle of Bosworth Field, and killing the evil Richard III.
However, these plays have given us some of the world’s greatest heroes (Henry V) to greatest villains (Richard III).
The following four plays are known as the Henriads (or second tetralogy), and follow the rise of the House of Lancaster.
1: Richard II (1595) – The fall of the Plantagenet king, and the rise of the House of Lancaster.
2: Henry IV Part 1 (1597) – Henry IV seeks to consolidate his grip on power, while concerned about his wayward son and heir.
3: Henry IV Part 2 (1597) – A dying king, a rising prince.
4: Henry V (1598) – The Prince becomes a King.
The next four plays actually appeared before those above, and are known as the first Tetralogy. It is also believed that Part One was actually written AFTER parts two and three. This tetralogy deals almost wholly with the War of the Roses, its beginning and its bloody passage through English history. These are the plays that established Shakespeare, and brought him to the notice of the nobility, and of course the Queen.
5: Henry VI Part One (1591) – Intrigue, sex, murder – a young King and an old war!
6: Henry VI Part 2 (1590) – The War Of The Roses begins!
7: Henry VI Part 3 (1590) – Edward of York becomes king, but there is a serpent lying in wait in the long grass.
8: Richard III (1592) – The ultimate villain rises high, then brought so low.
9: King John (1596) – High tension, intrigue, war, love, hate – early 13 Century England brought to life.
10: King Henry VIII (1612) – Truth, Lies, and the loss of innocence.
11: Pericles (1608) – Frenemies, incest, shipwrecks – a strange play with strong moral themes.
First off, there is no clear agreement amongst the learned as to what should be a “problem play” (that’s the first problem haha).
The Victorian scholars fell on Ibsen’s concept of problem plays as depicting the “new realism’, a philosophy current at the time, and generally meant someone who represented a particular social issue.
The term, as now applies to Shakespeare, is generally taken to mean those plays that have many disparate features that defy simple classification i.e. not everyone having a happy ending in a comedy, an unpleasant ending to a play that satisfies no-one, etc. These plays are not “pure” in the sense of, say, the History plays, nor could be considered as fully-fledged e.g. as a comedy like A MidSummer Night’s Dream.
1: Troilus and Cressida (1601) – Dark love story on the plains of Troy
2: Timon of Athens (1607) – Avarice, superficiality, the pursuit of excess and the price that must be paid.
3: The Merchant Of Venice (1596): – The consequences of looking for your pound of flesh.
4: Measure for Measure (1604) – “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall”. Double-dealing and deception in vice-ridden 16th Century Vienna!
5: The Winter’s Tale (1610) – Story of irrational jealousy, causing sorrow, death and remorse, and redemption and hope.
So – there you have it. A challenge faced, a challenge met. I hope you enjoyed reading the reviews, as much as I did writing them. It was a fascinating challenge, and well-worthwhile! Let me know your thoughts!!