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

What happens in All’s Well That Ends Well

I’m launching a brand-new feature on the blog, What happens in Shakespeare — short summaries of Shakespeare plays for readers who just want the facts. I’ll kick things off with the surprisingly cynical and misleadlingly named All’s Well That Ends Well.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “All Is NOT Well That Ends Well, and this play doesn’t. MORAL: Do it with the lights on.”

All’s Well That Ends Well

Helena is a medical professional with terrible taste in men. She is in love with a wealthy scumbag named Bertram. He does not love her back.

The King gets sick. Helena cures him. He gives her a favor: she can have the hand of any man she wants in marriage. Apparently the King has enough time on his hands to interfere in these matters. She chooses Bertram.

They do get married, but Bertram says the only way his marriage to this woman he despises for no good reason will be a non-sham is if A) she can get the ring off his finger and B) she can get pregnant by him. To make sure neither blessed event happens, he joins the war effort in Italy (she’s in France).

Helena secretly follows Bertram to Italy, where he puts the moves on another woman, Diana. Being a scumbag, he gives Diana his ring (yes, the same one he refused to give Helena, his actual wife). Here we have the famous bed trick. Bertram is about to get sexy with Diana when she and Helena trade places. Now we start to suspect both our heroes may be the tiniest bit self-serving.

A false rumor gets around that Helena is dead. Bertram goes back to France and asks permission from the King to marry yet another woman, him being a widower now. Helena shows up to announce that she is pregnant with Bertram’s child. Diana appears with Bertram’s ring. Now that Bertram is trapped, he says he loves Helena and will be faithful to her. Self-serving trickery is its own reward. These two have to live with each other.


For actual scholarship by experts, visit The Shakespeare Resource Center’s much better page on All’s Well That Ends Well.

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).

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