What happens in The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Shakespeare wrote The Two Gentlemen of Verona very early in his career, possibly even before he went to London. It’s a short play full of, for him, early-career clumsiness. The ending is sudden and not very believable, and that’s saying a lot for a writer who once ended a play by having a statue come to life. There is a truly appalling scene involving a near rape followed by the intended victim’s boyfriend offering to give her to the would-be rapist. Give. Like an old coat. Critics have explained that scene as an attempt at comedy, or have said the author intended to emphasize a point he implies everywhere else in the play, that the two male leads are in love with each other. Just calling this a “comedy” is a problem; in later, more serious plays Shakespeare offers much more insight about sexual violence and the question of property vs. personhood. I can only read with modern eyes; scholars also say contemporary audiences might have objected to the rape, but not seen the giveaway as any serious violation of the social code.

But The Two Gentlemen of Verona is also the play where Shakespeare first introduced the cross-dressing woman, the bromance with (probably) benefits, and the forest as a place where class disappears and you’re free to lust in all directions without judgement. So much of what we love Shakespeare for is here in kernel form in this, I’ll just say it, awful play.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Don’t fall in love with your best friend’s girlfriend.”

What happens in The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Proteus and Valentine are best friends. Valentine leaves Verona to go to Milan. Proteus stays behind to be with his girlfriend Julia.

Valentine meets Silvia, the daughter of the Duke of Milan. The Duke has already arranged for her to marry another man, but she and Valentine fall in love.

Proteus also goes to Milan. He sees Silvia and decides he must have her, despite having exchanged rings with Julia five minutes ago. I may as well point out that Proteus’ name could be interpreted to mean he is a fickle weasel with no concept of loyalty to friend or lover and probably terrible breath.

The Duke banishes Valentine to the forest, where he bluffs his way into a band of thieves and becomes their leader.

Proteus pursues Silvia, who runs away into the forest to be with Valentine and his merry men.

Julia disguises herself as a boy and goes to Milan. The entire cast of a play with Verona in its name is now in Milan. She gets a job as Proteus’ page, where she can keep an eye on him. She learns about his feelings for Silvia. She doesn’t take the news well. 

Proteus and Julia-in-disguise find out about the Silvia-Valentine forest adventure. There is some relief for Julia: Silvia is still in love with Valentine and does not seem interested in Proteus. Proteus and Julia-in-disguise “rescue” Silvia from the thieves.

Proteus pushes himself on Silvia more relentlessly than ever and finally threatens to rape her. Valentine intervenes. Proteus is instantly remorseful. Valentine is so overcome by his friend’s remorse that he offers to “give” Silvia to Proteus.

Julia-in-disguise faints. Remember, she is still dressed as a boy. Proteus (remember, to call him a fickle weasel would be an insult to the fickle weasel community) decides he loves Julia after all. One suspects this is related to either the unconscious state or the boyish disguise, because one has concluded by now that the second-burningest love affair in the play is obviously between Valentine and Proteus.  

The Duke appears out of nowhere to give Silvia and Valentine his blessing. They get married. Proteus and Julia get married. The audience, and it has a lot of patience because most of the time it likes Shakespeare, departs numbly for the shower.


For more, there’s a nice breakdown of key scenes and famous quotes on the Royal Shakespeare Company site, not to mention a very fetching dog and Patrick Stewart.





What happens in As You Like It

As You Like It is chock-full of naughtiness. Just think about that title. Yes, the play does look at real-life love vs. what we imagine love is supposed to be like. It examines the myth that rural life is simpler than city life. It pokes fun at poetry and defies convention by giving one of its finest speeches to a side character. But oh my word, nobody in this play can keep their pants on. This month on What Happens in Shakespeare, let’s find out what still gets us all bothered after 400 years.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Desperate Housewives in Forest of Arden. MORAL: U can always get a guy by pretending to be a boy.”

What happens in As You Like It

In France, Sir Rowland de Bois has died, leaving two sons, Oliver and Orlando.

Duke Frederick has banished his brother Duke Senior, who now lives in the Forest of Arden. Frederick allowed Senior’s daughter Rosalind to remain at court with Frederick’s daughter Celia, since the two are inseparable friends. Or possibly more. Their dialog is thick with passion even for Shakespeare, and there’s basically nothing safe for work about Shakespeare.

Oliver hates Orlando and will not give him access to the usual advantages the younger son of a nobleman expects. Oliver schemes to get Orlando killed in a wrestling match, but Orlando wins the match. Rosalind and Celia are spectators. Rosalind embarrasses herself by revealing her instant attraction to the hunky but intellectually inferior Orlando.

Frederick becomes angry with Rosalind for no reason and banishes her. Celia decides to run away with her. They leave for the Forest of Arden. Even though they’re taking the court jester Touchstone with them, Rosalind decides they need the protection of a man, so she dresses as one in a move that is not queer at all. She changes her name to Ganymede. Celia adopts the name Aliena.

At the same time, Orlando runs away to the Forest of Arden. Oliver failed to get him killed the first time, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be so lucky again. Orlando meets Duke Senior, who knew Orlando’s father and takes him in.

Rosalind and Celia meet shepherds in the forest, including the humble Silvius, who is in unrequited love with the somewhat sharper-witted Phebe.

There is a subplot with Touchstone and a sad man named Jacques.

Orlando, who is smitten with Rosalind, writes terrible love poetry and sticks it on trees.

Rosalind and Celia (“Ganymede” and “Aliena”) meet Orlando in the forest. “Ganymede” convinces Orlando to treat “him” as Rosalind and practice his seduction moves without the actual Rosalind present. These love lessons become sweet misery for Rosalind, but Orlando enjoys himself rather more than you would expect a completely heterosexual man to.

Frederick sends Oliver into the forest to look for Celia and Rosalind.

Orlando rescues Oliver from a lion in the forest. Yes, a lion. In a forest in France. The brothers reconcile their differences.

Oliver tells the story to Celia and Rosalind. Oliver and Celia fall helplessly in love.

Phebe, the shepherd woman, has fallen in love with “Ganymede.” Rosalind does some verbal sleight of hand to convince her to redirect her affection toward Silvius in the event that Ganymede is not available to marry any woman.

Rosalind and her father, Senior, are reunited.

Rosalind marries Orlando. Celia marries Oliver. Phebe marries Silvius. And there’s a fourth: Touchstone, the clown, marries Audrey, another shepherd woman.

Frederick has a religious conversion and decides to live a spiritual life away from the world with Jacques (and what could be more wholesome than two men living out their lives in the woods together?). Senior’s lands and title are returned to him. Everybody who doesn’t already live in the forest goes home.


For more about As You Like It, this month I recommend the excellent Folgerpedia by the Folger Shakespeare Library. 


What happens in The Winter’s Tale

This month on What Happens in Shakespeare, let’s explore The Winter’s Tale. It’s packed with the usual plot implausibilities and feminist-shakes-fist moments of a Shakespeare romance, and it hardly ever gets performed—not surprising when you see just how much time you have to spend with a powerful abuser stomping around the stage before he finally sees the error of his ways. But scratch the surface, and there’s still a lot to love here. Shakespeare was a master of character, and Leontes’ change of heart is undeniably masterful. Plus if you ask me, The Winter’s Tale is an early example of urban fantasy. Before Peter Pan flew through the Darling kids’ bedroom window, before Don Giovanni invited a headstone to dinner, Hermione made the must-be-magic journey from life to sculpture to life again. 

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “It’s OK to kill yr wife & best friend, & abandon yr baby, as long as you regret it. + Living statues!”

What happens in The Winter’s Tale

King Leontes of Sicilia and his pregnant wife, Hermione, are hosting King Polixenes of Bohemia.

Leontes, cowardly bully that he is, convinces himself that Polixenes and Hermione are lovers. He orders his servant Camillo to poison Polixenes. Instead, Camillo warns Polixenes of the plot and they escape together to Bohemia.

Leontes is furious. His behavior goes from bad to unforgivable. He publicly accuses his wife of infidelity and announces that her unborn baby must be illegitimate. He throws her in prison. (Let’s take a moment to ask ourselves why this play is considered a romance.) He asks the Oracle of Delphi to confirm his suspicions.

The queen gives birth to a baby girl in prison. Her loyal friend Paulina brings the baby to the king, hoping the sight of her will soften his heart, but he only gets angrier. He orders Paulina’s husband, Lord Antigonus, to take the baby and abandon it in some desolate place. Antigonus leaves with the baby.

The answer comes from the Oracle of Delphi: Hermione and Polixenes are innocent, and Leontes will not have an heir until his lost daughter is found.

Leontes’s and Hermione’s son, Mamillius, immediately makes the prophecy come true by getting sick and dying when he hears the accusations against his mother.

Hermione collapses. Paulina delivers the news that she has died. Leontes—now competing for the triple crown of coward, bully, and hypocrite—declares himself heartbroken and repentant. (To be fair, the text supports his being genuinely heartbroken and repentant very well. I just have zero tolerance.)

Antigonus, meanwhile, abandons the baby on the Bohemian coast (oh hush, I know Bohemia didn’t have a coast). He has a change of heart and almost saves her life, but here Shakespeare intervenes, using the only stage direction that ever appeared in one of his plays: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” We never see Antigonus again, so we can safely assume the worst.

A shepherd rescues the baby and names her Perdita.

Sixteen years go by.

Florizel, the son of Polixenes, falls in love with Perdita.

Polixenes and Camillo visit the countryside. Polixenes denounces his son for intending to marry a poor shepherd woman. Florizel and Perdita escape to Sicilia, with the help of Camillo.

In Sicilia, Leontes is still in mourning after all this time. Okay, maybe we feel a slight pang for the wretched coward now. He greets Florizel, the son of his old friend. Perdita’s true identity is revealed. There is a great deal of rejoicing.

Paulina presents a statue of the dead queen. The sight makes Leontes distraught, but then the statue comes alive—stay with me here, people—it’s Hermione, back from the dead. In one of the least supportable moments of the whole play, she seems genuinely happy to see him. This lady is way more forgiving than I would be. There is a whacking great enormous amount of rejoicing.


For more, including a side-by-side translation from Shakespeare’s English to modern English, visit No Fear Shakespeare’s page on The Winter’s Tale.


What happens in Twelfth Night

The Twelve Days of Christmas (I had to look it up) are the days between December 25 and January 6, the day the Magi arrived in Bethlehem to greet the newborn Jesus according to Christian tradition. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night was written as a Twelfth Night’s entertainment. A fine choice for this month’s edition of What Happens in Shakespeare.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Shipwreck. Cross-dressing. Character A loves Character B who loves Character C.

What happens in Twelfth Night

Viola and her twin brother Sebastian are shipwrecked off the coast of Illyria. Viola believes Sebastian is dead. To increase her chances of survival in the strange country she has landed in, she disguises herself as a boy and calls herself Cesario.

Viola finds a job as a page in the service of Orsino, the Duke. She immediately develops a crush on him.

Orsino is in love with a noble lady, Olivia. He sends Viola to Olivia with love letters. Olivia has never been interested in Orsino but immediately develops a crush on “Cesario.”

Subplot alert: meanwhile, in Olivia’s household, there is a running feud between her servant Malvolio and various other side characters. It evolves into a very barbed commentary on class in Shakespeare’s Britain. We don’t have time for such things on What Happens in Shakespeare, but when you read the play or watch the movie, you’ll see why this particular subplot is pure satirical genius.

Viola, with increasingly conflicted feelings, continues to try to get Olivia to fall in love with Orsino. Olivia continues in her genteel way to try to get “Cesario” into bed.

Sebastian reappears in a flurry of subplot and loses a fight. Olivia rescues him, thinks he is Cesario (the twins look alike, especially since Viola is dressed as a boy), and convinces him to marry her.

Viola comes on the scene and there is a shock as people realize she and Sebastian are not the same person. The brother and sister are reunited. You will tear up at this time. Don’t try to be tough. Shakespeare has powers when it comes to relatives thought to be dead.

Orsino (remember him?) falls in love with Viola-as-a-girl. They get engaged. Olivia and Sebastian have by now gotten married and plan to have lots of little Illyrians.


For more background and detail than even I can handle, try PlayShakespeare.com. And movies! I like Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film version of Twelfth Night, which has splendid costumes and scenery and Helena Bonham Carter. Helen Hunt also did a sizzling portayal of Viola in this 1998 production.



What happens in Much Ado About Nothing


This month in What Happens in Shakespeare, let’s revive our spirits with Much Ado About Nothing, a fizzy drink of a play with some surprisingly heavy twists at the bottom of the glass.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “People in love act like idiots. Don’t believe everything you hear.” 

What happens in Much Ado About Nothing

Beatrice and Benedick have sharp tongues and a juicy feud based on mutual loathing.

Hero and Claudio are deeply in love and never argue at all. (Hero is a girl.)

Two old men start meddling.

Old Man #1, Don Pedro, engineers a gossip campaign to mess with Beatrice and Benedick and gives out that they each secretly like each other. The two believe the false rumors and get all flustered around each other. They go from being sparring partners to K-I-S-S-I-N-G.

Old Man #2, Don John, has a creepier plan. He frames Hero and makes it look like she’s cheating on Claudio. He does it because he’s mad at Don Pedro, who is his brother, but that’s a subplot and we don’t do subplots on What Happens in Shakespeare. We’re trying to fight the TLDR.

Claudio believes the vicious gossip. He dumps Hero. Now Hero’s heart is broken and the whole town thinks she’s a slut.

Hero’s father fixes everything by making Claudio agree to marry his “niece” – Hero in disguise. Claudio is happily surprised to see Hero, who forgives him.

Beatrice and Benedick are keen to tie the knot.

The curtain falls on a good old-fashioned double wedding.


For more, I recommend Open Source Shakespeare, which has a fun feature where you can click on a character’s name and see all their speeches. Two movie versions I could watch over and over are Kenneth Branagh’s from 1993 and Joss Whedon’s from 2012.




What happens in Macbeth

It’s got witches, ghosts, Sting lyrics, and the original serial killer. This month in What Happens in Shakespeare, we nod to Halloween with the play that dare not speak its name: Macbeth.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to be more aggressive in pursuing career options.”
What happens in Macbeth

Macbeth is a soldier and wealthy landowner. He and his comrade Banquo are on their way home from war. They meet three witches prophesy on the road, who prophesy that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor (royalty) and later King of Scotland. They also predict that Banquo will be the father of kings.

King Duncan meets them on the road and gives Macbeth a new title: Thane of Cawdor. So the first prophesy has come true.

Macbeth goes home to his wife, who convinces him to kill King Duncan and frame the servants. Macbeth famously says “Is this a dagger I see before me?” He overdoes it by killing Duncan and the servants.

Macbeth becomes King of Scotland, even though you might think one of Duncan’s two sons, Malcom and Donalbain, would be next in line.

Malcom and Donalbain are justifiably afraid Macbeth is going to kill them next. They leave town.  

Macbeth is afraid Banquo will take over the throne, since the witches prophesied that he would be the father of kings. He kills Banquo.

At a dinner party Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo. No one else can see it, but they do see Macbeth acting crazy. Lady Macbeth tries to cover for him.

Macbeth goes back to the three witches, who know he’s coming by the pricking of their thumbs and famously say “something wicked this way comes.” The witches tell Macbeth to watch out for Macduff, another nobleman who is against Macbeth being king.

The witches also prophesy two things: no man born of woman can harm Macbeth, and he will be safe until Birnam Wood (the forest) comes to Dunsinane (his home).

Macbeth gets the news that Macduff has gone to England to join Malcolm’s forces. Remember, Malcom’s father was King Duncan. Macbeth goes to Macduff’s home and kills his wife and children.

There is a harrowing scene where Macduff gets that news.

Malcolm, Macduff and their army invade Scotland to overthrow Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth kills herself out of guilt for all the murders she and her husband have committed. Macbeth is shocked. He famously says “Out, out, brief candle!”

Malcolm’s army uses branches cut from Birnam Wood for camouflage. Birnam Wood is now coming to Dunsinane, just like the witches prophesied.

On the battlefield, Macduff announces that he was not “of woman born” but was instead “untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb (born by cesarean section). He and Macbeth fight. Macduff kills Macbeth.

Malcolm becomes King of Scotland.


For more, try out No Fear Shakespeare‘s scene-by-scene translation of Macbeth.

What happens in The Tempest

In What Happens in Shakespeare this month, let’s dive into The Tempest. Climate change has brought us some vicious hurricanes this month. How fitting that the tempest in The Tempest was also human-engineered.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Not even stranding your daughter on an island will keep her from discovering boys.”

What happens in The Tempest

Prospero was the Duke of Milan. He was also a magician. His brother Antonio usurped his position as Duke and put Prospero and his young daughter Miranda in a leaky boat, presumably hoping they would get lost at sea. They washed up on an island that had only 2 people living on it: Caliban, a wild-seeming man, and Ariel, a magic spirit.

Twelve years pass. Prospero rules the island with magic and treats Caliban and Ariel as his slaves.

Ariel regularly asks Prospero for his freedom. Prospero puts him off.

Prospero’s Italian enemies – his false-Duke brother Antonio, plus the King of Naples and a handful of others – are coming near the island. Prospero uses magic to shipwreck them. Ariel asks Prospero for his freedom.

All the Italian enemies survive the shipwreck, but they go ashore on the island and get separated. The King of Naples believes his son Ferdinand is dead. Ariel asks Prospero for his freedom.

Prospero orders Ariel to magically obfuscate the enemies and cause them to get lost. Ariel leads them all hither and yon, but Ferdinand gets special treatment—Ariel leads him straight to Prospero’s home. Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love. Prospero is not having this, and despite owning two slaves, makes Ferdinand do manual labor. Ariel asks Prospero for his freedom.

There is a subplot where the rest of the enemies and Caliban plot to kill Prospero and take over the island. The one person in the cast with an actual claim to the place is Caliban, who was born there and whose mother owned the land. Ariel undoes their plans with magic, which is not much of a challenge since they were not overly detail-oriented even before they started drinking. Ariel asks Prospero for his freedom.

Prospero has a change of heart. He decides Ferdinand will do fine as a son-in-law now that he has passed the test of upper-body strength. He uses magic to throw Miranda and Ferdinand an engagement party. Ariel asks Prospero for his freedom.

Prospero removes his magical disguise (he had been wearing a magical disguise) and reveals to his enemies that voila, he is the original Duke of Milan. He forgives Antonio and the rest of the shipwrecked Italians. Ariel asks Prospero for his freedom.

Prospero swears off magic. He prepares to leave the island for Milan, where he will become the Duke again. And he finally sets Ariel free.


For a better summary, real scholarship, and some wonderful visuals, visit the Royal Shakespeare Company’s page on The Tempest.