What happens in Shakespeare

To celebrate my favorite author’s birthday, I’m launching a new feature on the blog: What happens in Shakespeare. 

I got the idea while my wife and I were watching the TV series Slings and Arrows (which is brilliant and hilarious and you need to go watch it now. NOW! GO!). The first season centers around a production of Hamlet. Nadja asked me what happens in Hamlet. I tried to recount the story, but realized right away that while it’s all clear in my head, it’s a pretty complicated plot once you start trying to explain it.

So I decided to write short summaries of Shakespeare plays. Just the action, just the main characters, and for the sake of keeping it brief, just the big plots in most cases — not the subplots. And just the plays I’ve actually read. I needed a motivator to finish reading all the plays, a project I started a few years ago and let drop. Can’t call myself a fangirl if I haven’t read all the plays.

There are some terrific summaries out there written by real Shakespeare scholars. I’m definitely not one of those. For actual scholarship, I can recommend The Shakespeare Resource Center. SparkNotes has a context feature that helps you understand the author’s influences and what was happening in his world at the time of writing each play, plus a very good scene-by-scene breakdown. I’ve gained tons of insight from reading the Folger Shakespeare Library editions, mainly for the footnotes on every page that help translate Shakespearean English, since that’s basically a foreign language. And for the ultimate TLDR experience, you can’t beat the Reduced Shakespeare Company; they summarized the plays in 140 characters each on Twitter.

I’ll kick things off in the next post with All’s Well That Ends Well (for no special reason except that it’s the latest one I’ve read).

swan
A mute swan in England. Ben Jonson called Shakespeare “the Swan of Avon.”
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