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.


What happens in Hamlet

It’s daunting, it’s endless, and there’s basically nobody to like in it, but it’s full of the most beautiful words ever written. For the July edition of What Happens in Shakespeare, let’s tackle Hamlet.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Hamlet avenges his father, and it only takes four hours.”

What happens in Hamlet

Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark. His uncle Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father, married Hamlet’s mother, and is now the King.

When the play begins, Hamlet sees his father’s ghost, who tells him to get revenge for the murder.

Hamlet pretends to be crazy so he can plan his revenge without being found out. He alienates his girlfriend Ophelia to keep up the act.

Hamlet hires a theater company to put on a play about a murder similar to his father’s killing, in the hopes that he will catch Claudius acting guilty. That’s where this famous line happens: “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

Hamlet waffles about killing both Claudius and himself (“To be or not to be?”) He confronts his mother for marrying a murderer. Polonius, Ophelia’s father, eavesdrops. Hamlet thinks the eavesdropper is Claudius and stabs him to death.

Claudius twigs that Hamlet may suspect him of murder and sends him out of town to get killed himself, but that plan backfires and Hamlet gets two of his friends killed in his place. (There’s another whole play by Tom Stoppard about those two: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.)

In the midst of all this faking of mental illness by Hamlet, Ophelia actually does lose touch with her sanity because her boyfriend dumped her for no reason and then he killed her father.  She kills herself.

Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, wants to get revenge on Hamlet for the death of his father and sister. He plots with bad old uncle Claudius to kill Hamlet. Claudius gives Laertes a poisoned sword and gets a poisoned glass of wine ready as a backup.

Hamlet and Laertes duel. Laertes cuts both himself and Hamlet with the poisoned sword. He reveals the Claudius-hates-Hamlet plot to Hamlet and then dies. Hamlet’s mother accidentally drinks the poisoned wine and dies.

Hamlet stabs Claudius with the sword, killing him. Hamlet dies of the wound inflicted by Laertes. His last words are: “The rest is silence.” Actually his very last utterance is “O, O, O, O.” Oddly enough, even though it seems more like a stage direction, those words are always printed at the end of his dying speech.


For real scholarship by experts, visit the Shakespeare Resource Center’s Hamlet page. I also like No Fear Shakespeare, which offers a line-by-line translation of the play into modern English.


What happens in Julius Caesar

This month’s edition of What Happens in Shakespeare is about Julius Caesar.

Ellen Kushner, who knows a thing or two about Shakespeare and about censorship, recently tweeted that wearing her Shakespeare in the Park sweatshirt is suddenly a statement-making act. It’s old news by now that sponsors of the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar pulled out because the theater’s Caesar resembled Donald Trump. Far-right protestors have interrupted subsequent performances.

But the play is not an endorsement of assassination. Far from it. It comments on the ways power corrupts, and on the dangers of a cult of personality, and in one of its most horrifying moments, it shows what can happen when a mob gets out of control.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “When in Rome, watch your back. MORAL: Beware the Ides of March.”

What happens in Julius Caesar

Roman citizens throw a parade and athletic games to celebrate Julius Caesar’s triumphant return from war. Mark Antony, Caesar’s right-hand man, competes in the games. A couple of skeptics try to tamp down the hero worship of Caesar.

On his way to the arena Caesar is stopped by a stranger who warns that he should “Beware the Ides (the 15th) of March.”

Cassius and Brutus (both Senators) are suspicious that Caesar’s overblown power is going to his head and are afraid he will try to become Emperor. Cassius, who is a successful general, is jealous of Caesar’s popularity. Brutus considers himself loyal to Rome and has a more balanced view.

Cassius and his allies visit Brutus at night to persuade him to join their cause. They plan Caesar’s death. Brutus has doubts and can’t sleep, but will not confide in his devoted wife.

On the 15th of March, Caesar’s wife urges him not to go to the Senate, but flatterers convince him to go in order to save face. He goes. Cassius, Brutus and their allies stab him to death. Brutus delivers the killing blow.

At Caesar’s funeral, Brutus calms the nervous crowd by explaining that he and his allies killed Caesar because they were afraid his ambition would lead to bad things for Rome. Mark Antony takes the stage, starts off his speech with “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” and whips the crowd into an angry froth. The conspirators get out of town because they are afraid the mob will kill them.

The mob questions and then kills an innocent bystander, Cinna the Poet, because one of the conspirators was also called Cinna.

Brutus and Cassius gather an army and go to battle against Mark Antony’s forces.

Brutus stoically receives the news of his wife’s suicide in Rome. He sees Caesar’s ghost as he lies in bed. He gets the feeling the battle is not going to go well.

In the battle the Cassius-Brutus side at first appears to be winning. But then Cassius sees his messenger’s horse apparently being overtaken by the Mark Antony side. Cassius fears the worst and gets his servant to help him to a quick death.

Brutus finds Cassius’s body and commits suicide as the only honorable action left to him.

Antony wins the battle. He praises Brutus as “the noblest Roman of them all” and goes back to Rome with Caesar’s nephew Octavius (famous for becoming Caesar Augustus later).


For actual scholarship and insight, visit the Shakespeare Resource Center‘s page on Julius Caesar.

What happens in Romeo & Juliet

For this month’s installment of What Happens in Shakespeare, I wanted to do Romeo and Juliet. If you listen to pretty much any English ballad, or any song Shakespeare wrote for a play, you’d know that May is the real month for lovers (not February, although there’s a character inspired by St. Valentine who is crucial to the plot).

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “ ‘A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life’ (Prologue). Teen marriages never last.”

What happens in Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet are teenagers whose families are feuding. Romeo has been brawling when we meet him. He crashes a party thrown by the enemy family.

Juliet goes to the party to get a look at her future husband: not Romeo, but Paris, the man her parents have arranged for her to marry.

Romeo and Juliet meet and fall in love instantly. This is before they realize they are technically enemies.

They can’t get married in the light of day (there’s a family feud, plus Juliet is engaged), so Juliet’s nurse and Romeo’s friend Friar Laurence (the St. Valentine stand-in) conspire to help them elope.

They spend one night together as Mr. and Mrs. One night, you guys.

Romeo would like us to think he is a lover, not a fighter, by this time. But he still gets in a fight with Juliet’s cousin and kills him. The law finds out. Now Romeo has to leave town.

Juliet’s parents try to speed up her wedding to Paris. She can’t tell them she’s married to Romeo, because family feud. Also he killed her cousin.

But Juliet can’t commit polyandry either, so she runs away to Friar Laurence, who has a plan. Juliet will take a sleeping potion that will make her appear to be dead just long enough to be buried in the family crypt. Romeo will come to the crypt when she wakes up. Then she and Romeo can sneak away and start their life together.

Juliet takes the potion and appears to be dead, just like it promised on the label.

Friar Laurence sends a message to Romeo (remember he’s in another town now), but the message gets bungled. Romeo believes Juliet is actually dead. He comes back to town, buys himself some poison, and goes to her tomb, where she still seems very dead.

Paris is at Juliet’s tomb, mourning. Romeo kills him.

Romeo drinks the poison he bought and kills himself.

Juliet wakes up and sees that Romeo is dead. She kisses him to try to kill herself with the rest of the poison. She stabs herself with his dagger for good measure and dies.

Their families come together to mourn and make peace with each other.


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

My schedule at BayCon 2017

BayCon 2017 is Friday, May 26 through Monday, May 29 at the San Mateo Marriott. I’ll be on some very cool panels this year:

Saturday, May 27

Social Justice Dystopia
1:00 – 2:30 p.m.
Tyranny, censorship, loss of rights, and how to fight back
Anne Killpack (M), Jennifer Nestojko, Skye Allen, Eric “In the Elevator” Zuckerman

Sunday, May 28

Women’s utopias or queer utopias
Sunday 10:00 – 11:30 a.m.
There are a goodly handful of these in the canon.
Meg Elison (M), Heather Rose Jones, Skye Allen

“Do the thing, every day.”
Sunday 11:30 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
Writer, musician, artist type panel discussing tips on practicing your craft every day: how to motivate yourself, how to pace yourself, and how to realize waiting for a muse is a bad career choice.
Amy-Elyse Neer (M), Daniel Dociu, Jay Hartlove, Skye Allen

The Care and Feeding of Your Creative Muse
Sunday 2:30 – 4:00 p.m.
Deborah J. Ross (M), Skye Allen, Jennifer Nestojko, Mark Gelineau