I’ve been reading quite a few books recently (see reviews!) and have been struck more and more by how many are referencing, or are based around, the works of the Sweet Swan of Avon (for example, New Boy by Tracy Chevalier).
I had a thought that I might like to re-read them – the last time I did that was when I lived in Boston, Mass. about 20 years ago, when I had a night-shift job. It gave me plenty of time then to catch up on my Shakespeare :D.
Then, I said, well if I’m going to re-read them, I might as well review them! There are 37 of them, and to date I have read and published reviews of:
According to learned scholars, they come in four main categories:
Tragedies (10 plays – 10 reviewed), Comedies (11 plays – 11 reviewed), Histories (11 plays – 11 reviewed), Problems (5 plays – 5 reviewed).
Aristotle defined tragedy essentially as the fall from grace of a great man of power, usually due to a flaw in his own character, which causes him to make mistakes. He eventually, but too late, recognises those mistakes.
There’s a new process of thought around Shakespeare’s tragedies, long defined in Aristotelian terms, that in fact they are more than that narrow definition. There is comedy even in the darkest of plays, and Shakespeare gives more of the turbulence of the inner mind than was the norm heretofore. Also, the downfalls arrive differently – Othello for example is more the victim of Iago’s plotting than his own fatal misjudgement.
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.
I didn’t approach them in any particular chronological order, just from what I liked the most/knew the most about. They are my non-scholarly, pure enthusiast review attempts – I hope you enjoy them. I would love to spark debates about my review – please let me know your thoughts!!