What happens in Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure is a comedy the same way oral surgery is an afternoon at the spa. “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” may be the most famous line. Plenty of sin to be found here. Virtue, on the other hand, you couldn’t find with a flea glass. Any good Shakespeare nerd will tell you about the “problem plays,” where Will took on a moral problem, which he didn’t solve 10 times of out 10 (okay, there are only 3 problem plays). Measure for Measure even ends with an unanswered question, the question, the pop-the-question question. All moral problems more or less remain in their original state.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Dukes suck. MORAL: Don’t get someone else to do your dirty work.”

What happens in Measure for Measure

The Duke of Vienna announces he is going away and puts his deputy Angelo in charge. The duke is not actually going anywhere, but instead hides in plain sight to find out what happens in Vienna when he’s not around.

Angelo is a moralistic prig, and like all moralistic prigs, he has hidden depravities. His first decision is to shut down the brothels and strictly enforce the laws against sex outside marriage. He has Claudio arrested and sentenced to death for getting his (Claudio’s) fiancée pregnant on a technicality (the lawbreaking. The pregnancy came about the usual way).

Claudio’s sister Isabella, who is about to become a nun, pleads for his life. Angelo (and I love that his name is Angelo) agrees to let Claudio live if Isabella sleeps with him. She refuses.

Angelo once had a fiancée, Mariana, but he dumped her when her family lost all their money. The Duke of Vienna, who is by now disguised as a friar, suggests a bed trick. Isabella would agree to sleep with Angelo, but then Mariana would secretly take her place. Having slept with “Isabella,” Angelo would then have to pardon Claudio. Plus he’d have to marry Mariana according to his own law.

Isabella and Mariana agree to the plan. The bed part goes off just fine. But after the deed, Angelo still gives orders for Claudio to be executed because he is afraid Claudio will try to get revenge.

Angelo demands proof that Claudio has been executed. The duke sends him the head of an already-dead pirate who looks faintly like Claudio (Bardaholics call this…wait for it…the head trick). Angelo buys it.

The duke-in-disguise tells Isabella that her brother Claudio is dead. He suggests she complain to the “duke,” who is about to return to Vienna.

The duke “returns.” Isabella tells her story. He pretends not to believe her. Eventually he reveals that he was in Vienna the whole time and knows everything, which forces everyone else to be honest. He also announces that Claudio is alive.

Angelo confesses to the full menu of crimes. The duke sentences him to marry Mariana and then be executed, which would mean Mariana would inherit his money but not have to be his wife.

Mariana and Isabella plead for Angelo’s life. The duke pardons Angelo.

Then the duke asks Isabella to marry him. She never answers. This sparks 400 years of was-it-yes-or-no Shakespeare nerd battles.


If you want to indulge your curiosity about the bed trick, or anything bed-related, and who doesn’t, I recommend Jeannette Winterson’s article Bed tricks and broken women: Shakespeare’s guide to love.



Wordy news

Friends! I’m reading at Literary Speakeasy next week alongside these wonderful writers. Come have a drink with us and I’ll tell you the story about the girl with the magic eyeballs. Or the one about the DJ who gets kidnapped by the fae for a dance underneath the Van Ness Muni station. I haven’t decided.

Literary Speakeasy
Thursday, August 29, 7-8:30 p.m.
Martuni’s | 4 Valencia St., San Francisco
No cover charge, no drink minimum
Facebook event here.


What happens in The Merry Wives of Windsor

The Merry Wives of Windsor. The play Shakespeare nerds everywhere are proud to hate. Tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth I wanted a play about her favorite character, the sloppy knight Falstaff from the Henry IV plays, but “to show him in love.” And to deliver it in fourteen days.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Prequel to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Don’t mess with the ladies.”

What happens in The Merry Wives of Windsor

Falstaff arrives in the town of Windsor. He is broke. He is known for his outsized personality and his…appetites. He devises a plan to kill a few birds with one stone by seducing two different rich women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page.

He sends the women identical love letters. The letters get intercepted by their husbands.

The women, who are friends, compare notes and have a good laugh. They decide a little revenge would break up the dull afternoons.

There is a subplot with the Pages’ daughter, who wants to marry a man her parents don’t approve of.

Mr. Ford puts on a disguise and tells Falstaff he is himself interested in Mistress Ford, but first he wants to pay Falstaff to seduce her so she won’t be so…virtuous. Don’t think about that too hard. The point is, someone is offering to help Falstaff have sex. Falstaff tells Mr. Ford-in-disguise that he and Mistress Ford already have an appointment. Mr. Ford, who was already jealous and had a rage problem, flies into a jealous rage.

Falstaff goes to meet Mistress Ford as arranged. She and Mistress Page trick him into hiding in the laundry basket. Then they throw him into the river. It doesn’t faze him very much.

Falstaff goes back to meet the wives again. This time they trick him into dressing up as an elderly aunt whom Mr. Ford can’t stand. Mr. Ford comes home and sees the “old woman” he hates. He beats her and throws her out.

The wives let their husbands in on the joke. Together they engineer one last humiliation for Falstaff. They arrange to meet him in the forest for sexytimes. They get a group of kids to dress as fairies, go to the meeting instead of them, and pinch and burn him.

The nighttime-plus-disguises combo helps the Pages’ daughter elope with her boyfriend.

Falstaff takes the joke pretty well, even though he is still broke and single. Mr. and Mistress Page accept their daughter’s marriage. They invite everybody back to their house to celebrate, including the admittedly entertaining Falstaff.


Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom’s book Falstaff: Give Me Life illuminates what’s so compelling to some people about the old gent. If you don’t have time for a whole book, there’s the NY Times review, “Shakespeare’s Hot Mess: What We Can Learn From Falstaff.”




What happens in Othello

This month in plays that give everybody hives, let’s talk about Othello. A man’s character, his relationship, and ultimately his life get destroyed because he is black. Men murder their wives. It’s all awful. But we do get Iago, the most love-to-hate-him villain maybe ever.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted, “Othello forgoes marital counseling, takes matters into his own hands. Count to 10 before killing your wife.”

What happens in Othello

Othello is a respected military leader. He promotes Cassio instead of Iago. Iago sets out to get revenge.

First, Iago tries to drive a wedge between Othello and his new wife, Desdemona, by manipulating Desdemona’s father with some racist poison (Othello is “a Moor,” meaning he has African heritage). Which kind of works, but not really. Everybody can see the couple is sickeningly in love. Desdemona’s father is not thrilled, but even though they eloped, he reluctantly accepts the marriage.

Next, Iago manipulates Cassio into getting drunk and fighting. Othello demotes Cassio for behaving like a frat boy. He has no idea Iago was involved.

Now Iago has gotten his revenge on Cassio. But he doesn’t stop there. He continues dripping racist poison into people’s ears until everybody is dead. It’s the kind of insidious campaign of destruction that 1) isolates Othello and makes room for the morons of Venice (we’re in Venice) to see him as an alien, 2) actually causes Othello to doubt his own status as a regular member of society toward the end, and 3) keeps Iago’s villainous little hands totally clean.

Iago decides to make Othello think his wife is unfaithful. He suggests that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Othello is a tad gullible, and although he is made of tougher moral fiber than Iago, he clearly has anger issues. He rewards Iago with a promotion and asks him for help killing Cassio and Desdemona.

Iago plants Desdemona’s handkerchief in Cassio’s room. Othello verbally abuses Desdemona in public, accusing her of being unfaithful. Witnesses are shocked.

Iago tries to get Cassio killed, but Cassio only gets wounded. Othello hears Cassio making I’m-hit noises and thinks Iago has killed him. He goes home ready to kill Desdemona.

Meanwhile, Iago “finds” the wounded Cassio. Iago sends his own wife, Emilia, to tell Desdemona the news.

Othello reaches the sleeping Desdemona before Emilia gets there. He wakes her up and accuses her of cheating on him with Cassio. She protests that she is innocent and says she loves Othello. He smothers her.

Emilia enters and Desdemona revives for a moment. She repeats that she is innocent. As she dies, she says that Othello is also innocent.

Iago and some side characters enter the room. Emilia defends Desdemona’s innocence, recognizing that Iago is the mastermind.

Othello sees the truth and tries to kill Iago. Iago kills Emilia and runs off. Othello kills himself. Iago is captured.

The body count is lower than in some Shakespeare plays, but Iago is still alive at the end!! How is this justice?? He’s supposed to be executed later, but still. Even Macbeth dies while the curtain is still up after all that murdering.

Final score:

Non-murderers dead: 3 (Emilia and Desdemona (plus a side character, Roderigo, but we don’t have room for side characters on the Shakespeare TLDR)

Murderers dead: 1 (Othello)

Non-murderers alive: 1 (Cassio) (Someone has to stay alive to take over for the boss in every play. That’s Cassio.)

Murderers alive: 1 (Iago)


I am so far from being qualified to address the deadly axis of racism and sexism in 1600s Europe or the profound twistedness of Iago’s motivation, but Kiernan Ryan is. Read his article, “Racism, misogyny and ‘motiveless malignity’ in Othello.”



What happens in King Lear

Dementia. Unexpected socialist leanings. Real estate woes. King Lear is about aging: the regret, but also the loss of control and the shock when you discover you are just as frail as the old people you used to make fun of.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “It’s hell getting old.”

What happens in King Lear

The aging King Lear of England decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He demands each of them prove how much they love him. Whoever loves him the most will get the most land.

Goneril and Regan, the two oldest daughters, offer some patently insubstantial flattery. Cordelia, the youngest, is disgusted by this display. She states the simple truth that she loves her father. Lear misunderstands, gets angry, and disowns Cordelia. She elopes with the King of France.

Lear divides the kingdom between Goneril and Regan. Lear’s trusted friend Kent warns that this may be a mistake. Lear gets angry and banishes Kent. We begin to sense an anger-and-banishment theme.

Kent turns right around and goes into Lear’s service in disguise. It may be a clue to Lear’s declining mental health that he doesn’t recognize Kent, but then again, it’s Shakespeare. All it takes is a hat to change your appearance beyond all recognition. Or if you’re a woman, a pair of pants.

There’s a subplot with another noble, Gloucester. We don’t usually do subplots here on the Shakespeare TLDR, but bear with me, because this one leads to some very dramatic dying by important characters. Gloucester has 2 sons: Edgar (whose mother was Mrs. Gloucester, making him legitimate) and Edmund (whose mother was, according to a seriously inappropriate dad speech Gloucester makes, not his wife but most impressive in the sack). Edmund schemes against Gloucester and Edgar because he wants a bigger inheritance. Edgar realizes his brother wants to kill him and goes away in disguise.

Back to the main plot. Lear stays with Goneril first, but she gets tired of hosting his entourage of 100 knights and their non-bathing ways. She throws him out.

Lear goes to Regan next. She doesn’t let him stay with her at all.

The two sisters gang up on Lear and demand he let go of some of the knights if he wants any help from them. This is a thinly disguised bid for power: they are afraid he can take over the kingdom again with his entourage of irrational men who have swords.

Lear realizes his daughters don’t love him after all. He gets angry. Usually when he gets to peak rage he banishes people, but this time he’s not the landlord, so he just stomps out into a storm. Kent follows him.

Out on the wild moors, Lear has a crisis of conscience. It occurs to him that he shouldn’t have disowned Cordelia. And one night of sleeping in a hut shows him that he should have been kinder to homeless people while he was in power.

Lear and Kent encounter Gloucester, who has gone out to help the unmoored (sorry) king in spite of orders from Regan and Goneril to stay away from him.

Gloucester goes home. Regan has his eyeballs plucked out to punish him. Later his son Edgar-in-disguise helps him.

Kent leads Lear to Dover. They find Cordelia and her husband (the King of France) preparing to invade England (now controlled by Goneril and Regan).

The battle happens. The French lose. Lear and Cordelia are captured.

Regan and Goneril argue because they are both in love with Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son. Goneril kills Regan.

Gloucester learns Edgar-in-disguise’s identity and dies of, apparently, a happy shock.

Edgar stabs Edmund. Edmund gasps out that he’s sent someone to execute Cordelia and Lear, then he dies.

Goneril is having the worst day ever. She commits suicide.

Lear goes to stop Edmund’s messenger, but it’s too late. Cordelia has already been hanged. Lear dies of a broken heart.


For a more, with pictures, hie thee to the hilarious Good Tickle-Brain’s King Lear summary.


Wordy news

Friends! I’m on the Queer Words podcast! This is my first ever podcast, which is obvious from my terrible speaking voice. Wayne Goodman was very kind to invite me on anyway.

Queer Words has me down as “Skye Allen, musician, chicken wrangler, award-winning author of speculative fiction for younger readers.” We may have the wording for the tombstone right there.

And! Today is the book anniversary of Pretty Pegmy queer YA novel. I’m so proud this book has been in the world for five years. You can read an excerpt here.

I’m celebrating the utterly astonishing day I became a published author by hosting a giveaway on my Facebook page. I’d be most flattered if you stopped by.

Happy Pride Month. Keep fighting for what you love.

On the shelf at Folio Books




What happens in The Merchant of Venice

I’m not the biggest fan of The Merchant of Venice. Except for that impossibly moving speech by Shylock, it’s a very hard play to love. I’m hopelessly unqualified to comment on the anti-Semitism that is rampant in the text. I grew up Catholic, nothing I know about Judaism and anti-Semitism is lived experience, and I’m not even a real student of Shakespeare. But it’s rampant. The blood libel. The forced conversion to Christianity. The feminizing of the outsider. The pitting of a sympathetic queer character against a villainous Jewish character. There’s zero that is comfortable about this play.

Luckily, real experts are out there. This Smithsonian story, “Four Hundred Years Later, Scholars Still Debate Whether Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” Is Anti-Semitic,” is a good place to start reading.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Always read your loan papers before you sign them.”

What happens in The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice, it turns out, isn’t Shylock. The merchant of the title is Antonio, who owns a shipping company.

Antonio’s friend Bassanio asks him for a loan so he can travel to Belmont and try to marry Portia. There’s a ridiculous contest going on for Portia’s hand in marriage, but Bassanio likes his chances and Portia likes Bassanio.

Antonio clearly also likes Bassanio and is suffering from a bad case of “in sooth I know not why I am so sad” because Bassanio is about to marry someone else.

Antonio doesn’t have the capital for the loan because all his ships are off at sea. He sends Bassanio to the moneylender Shylock for a credit loan, which Antonio will back with his shipments as security.

Shylock, who is Jewish, holds a grudge against Antonio for his history of displaying anti-Semitic behavior. He offers Bassanio the loan, but instead of charging interest, what he wants is a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the loan isn’t repaid within three months.

Shylock explains his reasoning with some of the most powerful lines in all of Shakespeare:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

In Belmont, Bassanio wins the silly contest and marries Portia.

Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea. He is now bankrupt. Shylock has Antonio arrested.

Bassanio, Portia and a few sidekicks return to Venice to help Antonio.

In the court in Venice, Shylock demands the pound of Antonio’s flesh. Portia appears in disguise as a (male) lawyer (all lawyers were men. Yes, you are correct that all actors were also men, you clever bardlet. Here we have one of those triple-points scenes, a man playing a woman playing a man). She argues on Antonio’s behalf, famously saying, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” Shylock isn’t swayed. Bassanio, newly rich thanks to Portia’s enormous wealth, offers to pay the debt, but Shylock refuses.

Portia finds a loophole: the contract is for a pound of flesh, but there’s nothing in it about blood. Shylock can’t get the pound of flesh without shedding blood.

For the crime of threatening Antonio’s life, Shylock has to forfeit all his money to Antonio and Bassanio. Antonio refuses his share, but demands that Shylock convert to Christianity. Shylock leaves the court in defeat.

Antonio’s ships return safely after all. Happy ever after for (and this comes as no surprise) everybody but Shylock.





What happens in The Comedy of Errors

April. Again. Somehow. In between the income tax all-nighter and explaining to the young people how the Easter Bunny rose from the dead on the 3rd day to lay chocolate eggs, join me for an interval of birthday cakes and ale. I’m celebrating Shakespeare’s 455th with an early, jokey, morally dicey play: The Comedy of Errors.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Twins is funny. MORAL: Adoption is a choice, too.”

What happens in The Comedy of Errors

Egeon, a man from Syracuse, goes to Ephesus. There’s a law against travelling between Syracuse and Ephesus. He gets arrested and sentenced to death.

He tells the arresting Duke the story of coming to Ephesus to look for his lost son. Years ago, Egeon and his wife had twin boys. They bought another pair of twin infant boys. Bought. As slaves.

Critical sidebar: Enslaved Africans had been in England for about 30 years when The Comedy of Errors was written (sometime around 1589). Queen Elizabeth I profited from slavery — although, unbelievably, she is supposed to have expressed a hope that the Africans would not be enslaved without first giving their free consent. Shakespeare doesn’t make a meaningful distinction between servants and slaves in The Comedy of Errors, basically giving the two Dromios the same level of independence as paid servants. Some scholars have guessed that was because he was afraid to criticize the queen, but he was not always silently complicit on the subject of slavery in later plays. There’s a good post on The World of Will blog about his treatment of slavery in The Merchant of Venice.

So back to the Egeon family. Egeon and his wife named both their sons Antipholus and both their slaves Dromio. Because it’s definitely easier to have two sets of twin boys in your household if you give them the same two names.

The family went to sea and got shipwrecked and separated. Egeon, one son, and one slave were rescued by one ship. A different ship rescued his wife and the other two boys.

Eighteen years went by. Egeon’s Antipholus-and-Dromio set went to search for Antipholus’s lost twin brother. Egeon later went himself to search for the boys, only to get arrested in Ephesus. Now we’re up to date.

Unknown to anybody else, Egeon’s Antipholus-and-Dromio duo arrives in Ephesus. The other Antipholus is already living in Ephesus with his wife Adriana and the other Dromio, but nobody knows that.

Aaaannd let the funny errors commence.

Antipholus of Syracuse meets Dromio of Ephesus on the street. Dromio tries to get Antipholus to go “home” for dinner. Antipholus abuses the Dromio he thinks he knows.

Adriana locks her real husband out of their house because she is already there with his confused twin, Antipholus of Syracuse. All twins are identical in Shakespeare, including the brother-sister variety. See Twelfth Night for details.

Antipholus of Ephesus refuses to pay for a gold chain he ordered because he never received it, it having been delivered to his twin by Ye Olde Amazonne Prime and probably left in full view on the porch to be opened by enterprising passers-by. The goldsmith has Antipholus of Ephesus arrested. Antipholus of Ephesus blames Dromio of Syracuse, the Dromio he thinks he knows, and beats him.

Adriana is convinced that “her” Antipholus and Dromio have lost their minds. She has them tied up and takes them to her friendly neighborhood exorcist.

She encounters Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse and thinks they’ve escaped from having their mortal souls extracted via their nostrils or what have you. The pair from Syracuse hide in a convenient abbey, legitimately fearing the worst.

In the meantime, Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus do escape from the exorcist. They arrive at court to petition the Duke just as Egeon is about to be executed.

Egeon sees his son and thinks he is saved, but Antipholus of Ephesus hasn’t seen his father since he was a child and doesn’t recognize him.

Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse come out of hiding in the abbey and see the other two twins.

The abbess reveals that she has been living in disguise and is actually Egeon’s wife.

The twins sort out their stories. The Duke lifts Egeon’s sentence. The family units are all reunited.


I discovered the completely excellent Shakespeare Birthplace Trust while researching The Comedy of Errors. Prepare to lose the whole rest of your day.



What happens in Coriolanus

Some critics think of Coriolanus as one of Shakespeare’s truly genius tragedies. It has plenty in common with King Lear (leader is misunderstood) and Macbeth (combat veteran tries politics). T.S. Eliot thought it was better than Hamlet. Me, I’m a sucker for everything by the late-period, slightly cynical, completely incandescent Shakespeare. So as a birthday present to myself, this month on What Happens in Shakespeare let’s boil down Coriolanus.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Aloof, non-sympathetic warrior dies. MORAL: People skills matter.”

What happens in Coriolanus

Food shortages in Rome are causing unrest. The population is threatening to rise up against the 1%. They single out Caius Martius, an elite military leader who famously despises the unwashed.

The citizens do rise up, but war breaks out with the neighboring Volscians and that puts an end to the revolt at home. Caius Martius leads the Roman army to such a dazzling victory over the town of Corioli that he is given a new name: Coriolanus (“conqueror of Corioli”).

Back in Rome, the rulers urge Coriolanus to run for public office. He likes the idea in principle, but the problem with public office is the public. He has to win them over. He can’t stand the sight of these sheeple. They shop at Costco, they don’t have iPhones, they couldn’t identify a really good cabernet sauvignon if it bit them on the rhymes-with-heinous.

He tries to put on a show of relating to the voters, probably by rolling up his spotless shirtsleeves and being seen to grill his own organic grass-fed steak, but his true nature as an insufferable snob wins out. He finds himself making public speeches about how government by the people is a terrible idea.

By this time the people have had it up to the eyeballs, between the 1% hoarding all the corn and now the not-at-all-veiled insults. They run Coriolanus out of Rome.

In revenge, Coriolanus joins the Volscians and conspires with his former enemy Aufidius. Together they invade Rome.

Let me repeat that. The man runs for office, doesn’t get the popular vote, goes off in a huff, and invades his own country.

Two of his friends come to Coriolanus where he is camped outside the city gates to beg him to call off the invasion, but he won’t listen. Then his mother arrives to plead for Rome. In a surprisingly humanizing moment, he does listen to her. He changes his mind. The Romans hail his mother as the savior of the city.

Coriolanus returns to the Volscians’ home turf, where they give him a parade that befits a hero, name a dessert after him at the Hotel Volscian, and sell t-shirts with pictures of his beard on them in the metro stations.

But his new best friend Aufidius decides that Coriolanus’s refusal to occupy Rome amounts to treason when it comes to the Volscians.

So then some of Aufidius’ men assassinate Coriolanus.


For more about that audacious T.S. Eliot claim, here’s a story on Slate.



What happens in Titus Andronicus

I read Titus Andronicus all in one sitting a few years ago and I still have a bad taste in my mouth. Once I started, I never wanted to have to get back into the right state of mind to pick it up partway through. I had to finish, though. I’m reading the complete works of Shakespeare, not the palatable works of Shakespeare.

But that doesn’t mean you have to join me, fair reader. I’m going to go ahead and put a trigger warning here.


Continue reading “What happens in Titus Andronicus”