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. 


What happens in Pericles

The Roman goddess Diana is associated with hunting, wild places, and the moon. But most germane to Pericles, the late Shakespeare romance that critics love to hate, Diana was also the goddess of chastity. The play is set during Diana-worshipping times, which serves to highlight all the plot points having to do with sex, or at least having to do with incest, rape, and prostitution. The story also has an Odyssey-like feel, what with the multiple shipwrecks, the endless journey home, and the general sense that the main character is living out a horrible fate predestined by the gods.

Diana was celebrated with a festival in August. To honor her this month you can shave your head, as young worshippers supposedly did in Roman days, or if you’re attached to your hairstyle you can join me in a read of Pericles for this month’s installment of What Happens in Shakespeare.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Don’t ask someone to solve a riddle whose answer will reveal you’re committing incest.”

What happens in Pericles

Pericles, Prince of Tyre, enters a riddle contest to guess Antiochus’ secret and marry Antiochus’ daughter. He correctly guesses that the secret is incest. He loses interest in the whole sick family and sails away from Tyre because now Antiochus wants to kill him.

Pericles’ boat is shipwrecked. He washes up on shore at Pentapolis, and in a somewhat odd first move, fishes his rusty armor out of the ocean and enters a tournament for the hand of Thaisa (the man badly wants to get married). He wins the tournament and marries Thaisa.

News arrives that Antiochus is dead and the people of Tyre want their prince back.

Pericles sails for Tyre with Thaisa, who is now pregnant. Thaisa appears to die giving birth to their daughter Marina during a storm.

Pericles seals Thaisa’s body in a watertight coffin and buries her at sea because his crew thinks having women on board is icky and female corpses are even ickier.

The coffin washes up on the shores of Ephesus, where Cerimon revives the understandably bewildered Thaisa.

Thaisa assumes Pericles was lost at sea during the storm. She becomes a priestess in the temple of Diana.

Still on his way back to Tyre, a very miserable Pericles leaves his infant daughter at Tarsus to be raised by Cleon and his wife Dionyza.

Fast forward sixteen years.  The by-now gorgeous and talented Marina has inspired the jealousy of Dionyza, who instructs a servant to have her murdered.

Dionyza’s servant has just decided he can’t kill Marina after all when she is, no joke, kidnapped by pirates. The servant reports back that Marina is dead. Cleon builds a monument to her memory.

Pericles encounters the monument on a visit to Tarsus, falls into despair, and stops speaking or shaving.

Meanwhile, the pirates sell Marina to a brothel in Mitylene, where she proves to be a disastrous investment because she drives all the customers away with her virtuous talk. Just as one of the brothel staff is, horrifyingly, about to rape her so she will no longer be a virgin, the governor comes along, is ensorcelled by her charms, and sets her free.

Pericles sails into Mitylene still despairing about the loss of his daughter. He encounters Marina, who is locally famous by now for separating men from their desire to visit prostitutes. He eventually recognizes her and begins to speak again.

Pericles is visited by a dream that instructs him to visit the temple of Diana at Ephesus. There he and Marina are reunited with Thaisa. Marina marries the governor of Mitylene. Pericles celebrates all this happy news by shaving.


For actual scholarship and analysis, visit the Shakespeare Resource Center’s page on Pericles.