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”

What happens in Love’s Labour’s Lost

To soften these harsh January days, where what little savings you had just evaporated and the seasonal encouragement to coat your misery in whiskey, sugar, or retail also just evaporated – this month on What Happens in Shakespeare I give you the sexy, funny, feminist diversion that is Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Swearing off women is harder than it looks.”

What happens in Love’s Labour’s Lost

The king of Navarre and his three friends have bad hangovers. They decide that for the next three years they will do nothing but study. They will fast regularly and only sleep three hours a night. Most importantly, they will swear off the company of women. One friend points out the inherent absurdity, but they all sign the contract. To make this ridiculous plan easier on his bros, the king makes a new law that all women have to stay at least a mile away from the court.

The Princess of France arrives on a diplomatic mission. She is powerfully attractive and so are her three ladies. How inconvenient that the king has just made a vow not to spend time with women. He forces himself to meet with the princess in the interest of state business, but still makes her and her entourage camp a mile away.

There’s a twist. The king falls in love with the princess. Each of the king’s friends falls in love with one of the princess’s ladies. Everybody is now cheating on the contract and wants to dissolve it, but everybody believes everybody else is sticking to it.

Meanwhile, a visitor to the king’s court catches the jester with a local girl. The noble visitor was already lusting this girl. Did I mention the no-ladies contract applies to everyone at court? The jester has to subsist for a week on bran and water. Bran. The highborn bros claim to be fasting, but they’re allowed to eat other food besides bran.

The king and his friends catch each other sending embarrassingly terrible love poems to the attractive women of France. They argue for approximately 4 seconds, then agree to tear up the contract. They slap on some eau-de-taking-a-bath and brainstorm about how to charm women. They settle on dressing up like Russians. Russians infiltrating your seat of government. That’s catnip to the ladies every time.

The attractive women of France, being rather more sophisticated, swap clothes and impersonate each other. The men get an education no 3-hours-of-sleep-a-night university could have offered.

The right women and men eventually find each other.

The princess’s father dies, making her the Queen of France. She and her friends pack up to go home.

The king and the bros quickly try to lock down their respective romantic deals, but the women of France feel the men can still not be trusted. After all, they broke their own vows of celibacy. Cheaters gonna cheat. The women agree to reconsider if the men wait a year and a day.

The attractive women return to France. The men of Navarre contemplate the responsibilities of grownup love.


For actual scholarship, historical context, and a breakdown of why the language in this particular play is so irresistible, read Marjorie Garber’s essay about Love’s Labour’s Lost in her excellent book Shakespeare After All.

“…appareled thus, like Muscovites, or Russians, as I guess. Their purpose is to parley, to court, and dance, and every one his love-feat will advance.”

What happens in Cymbeline

Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline just a few years before he died. It has some divine, confident, heartwrenching language, the kind you would get late in the career of the finest writer in English of all time.

The plot, though. Critic Kerry Reid had this to say:

“Cymbeline at times feels as if William Shakespeare were going through some of his favorites, tossing them in a blender and hitting “frappe.” (Yes, there were no blenders in Elizabethan England. Work with me. Or substitute “mortar and pestle,” if it makes you feel better.)

You’ve got your scheming, power mad queen, a la Lady Macbeth. You’ve got your siblings separated in infancy and miraculously reunited, a la “The Comedy of Errors.” There’s even a villain bent on sowing suspicion about a wife’s fidelity, named Iag — er, Iachimo.”

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Don’t marry evil queen. Don’t bet yr wife can’t be seduced. Don’t let someone cut off yr head. All good advice.” 

What happens in Cymbeline

Imogen is the daughter of the British king Cymbeline. She secretly marries a commoner, Posthumus Leonatus. The king is being influenced by his power-hungry new wife and wants her to marry his wife’s frat boy of a son, Cloten.

Cymbeline and the Queen send Posthumus into exile in Italy. He makes a friend, Iachimo, who makes the timeless claim that all women are sluts. Iachimo bets Posthumus that he will be able to seduce Imogen. Posthumus takes the bet, beginning to show his perhaps less than stellar side.

Iachimo goes to Britain to pitch woo at Imogen, but being already married and having standards, she won’t sleep with him. He hides in a chest and has it sent to her room, where he slips out, watches her sleeping, and takes note of marks on her body. He steals a bracelet that Posthumus gave her.

Cloten pursues Imogen, but again, the girl is already married and has standards. She keeps rejecting him. He goes full men’s-rights rage and decides to get revenge.

Iachimo goes back to Italy and convinces Posthumus that he won the bet. He has Imogen’s bracelet and he knows where her moles are.

Posthumus orders his servant to go back home and murder Imogen. Strike 2 against Posthumus, who is now looking like just another unworthy Shakespeare boyfriend a la Orlando in As You Like It, Hamlet in Hamlet, and every other young man in the greater Stratford-Upon-Avon metro area, but worse.

The servant believes Imogen is innocent. He convinces her to go search for Posthumus, disguising herself as a boy. He reports to Posthumus that he has killed her.

Imogen does dress a boy and leaves the court, but she gets lost. She comes across Belarius and his two adopted sons. (Quick side plot: Belarious was banished from Britain. He kidnapped Cymbeline’s two sons as young children in revenge. So, Imogen’s brothers. These are those boys, all grown up). The family instantly adore Imogen-as-a-boy and take her in.

Cloten shows up looking for Imogen. He is wearing Posthumus’ clothes. He and one of the sons fight. The son kills Cloten and cuts off his head.

Imogen is feeling understandably not 100% after being lost in the wilderness, having a perv count her moles in her sleep, and having her husband try to kill her. She takes medicine the queen had given her, which the queen said was restorative but believed was actually poison. It’s actually just a sleep aid.

Belarius and sons find Imogen, who seems to be dead but is only asleep. They bury her next to Cloten’s body.

She wakes up, sees a man with no head wearing Posthumus’ clothes, and thinks it’s Posthumus.

A Roman army invades Britain. Imogen-as-a-boy gets a job with them as a page.

Posthumus and Iachimo are with the Roman army, but Posthumus dresses as a British peasant and fights for Britain. He wants to die because he believes his servant carried out his orders and killed Imogen, which he now regrets. So he fights maniacally.

The British win the battle, thanks to Belarius, his sons, and Posthumus. He is still trying to punish himself, so he switches back to his Roman clothes and gets taken prisoner by the Brits.

Cymbeline demands to see the prisoners. Now the confusion is sorted out. Posthumus and Imogen are reunited. Iachimo confesses. They forgive him. Cymbeline and his lost sons are reunited. Cymbeline forgives Belarius.

The Queen, who has been sick since her son Cloten was killed, dies. Cymbeline realizes on reflection that her influence was less than salubrious.

Cymbeline releases the Roman prisoners in one last all-is-well gesture.


Read Kerry Reid’s full review of Cymbeline at the Strawdog Theatre Company in Chicago for more. 

For my sake wear this; it is a manacle of love; I’ll place it upon this fairest prisoner.

What happens in The Taming of the Shrew

For this month on What Happens in Shakespeare, I picked a Thanksgiving-appropriate play. It’s chock full of holiday traditions: family feuding, daytime drunkenness, and men judging women on their eating habits.

The Taming of the Shrew is one of the top most-hated Shakespeare plays, and for good reason. There have been some retellings that attempt to bring it up to date but don’t make me like it any better. Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler at least cuts out a lot of the implied violence, and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate at least has singing and dancing. But this is a boys vs girls story where the boys win, roundly and unapologetically. Some modern critics say Katherine’s big speech at the finale is tongue-in-cheek, or contains subtext about the balance of power actually being in her favor. I don’t know enough to commit to that interpretation. I would love to see a feminist production, where, say, Bianca is running a lucrative startup out of her dorm room and Petruchio fatally falls onto the subway tracks while taking a selfie. But this is the text we have. Sometimes you love an author for masterpieces like As You Like It and you can only hope his quill got taken over by bots for The Taming of the Shrew. We’ll talk about The Merchant of Venice later. And Othello. Ouch.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Petruchio tames Kate, and vice versa. No means yes.” 

What happens in The Taming of the Shrew

We start with a wealthy man playing a trick on a poor and badly drunk man. We dive right into the main plot and never see either man again.

Lucentio arrives in Padua, Italy and falls in love with Bianca at first sight. Her father won’t let her get married until her notoriously independent older sister Katherine is married.  

Lucentio disguises himself as Bianca’s teacher to be near her. His servant disguises himself as Lucentio (lost yet?) to negotiate with her father about marriage.

Petruchio arrives in Padua to look for a rich woman, any rich woman, he can marry. He hears about Katherine and decides to marry her, sight unseen.

Katherine and Petruchio meet. She insults him creatively, energetically, and at length (okay, Katherine’s dialog is actually one redeeming thing about the play). He tells her that he will marry her whether she agrees or not.

He tells her father, falsely, that she has agreed to marry him. The wedding date is set.

Petruchio arrives late to the wedding, not at all appropriately dressed and riding a broken-down horse. He interrupts the priest and swills the communion wine. After the wedding Petruchio hauls Katherine off to his house before the feast, saying she is now his property and he can do whatever he wants with her.

At his house in the country, Petruchio starves Katherine and will not let her sleep, saying he loves her so much he cannot let her eat his inferior food or sleep in his uncomfortable bed.

Back in Padua, Lucentio wins Bianca’s heart. His servant in disguise successfully negotiates their marriage by promising her father a huge amount of money. There are shenanigans about getting Lucentio’s father to front the money and give his blessing. Bianca and Lucentio get married.

Katherine and Petruchio return to Padua. On the way, Petruchio forces Katherine to say the sun is really the moon and an old man they encounter is really a young woman. Her spirit is obviously broken.

At a party, Katherine obeys Petruchio’s orders and gives a speech lecturing women about their duty to their husbands. Everybody who knows her is shocked.

There is a contest to see who has the most obedient wife. Petruchio wins.

Katherine and Petruchio leave the party to go to bed.


For a feminist analysis, I liked this 2016 article by Rachel De Wachter: “Power and gender in The Taming of the Shrew.”




What happens in Timon of Athens

Timon of Athens is grimmer than Richard III (murders a guy and seduces his widow), Titus Andronicus (murders a guy and serves him for dinner), maybe even Macbeth (murders a guy and then murders everyone else). There’s no gore to speak of; not even that many important characters die. It’s just that there’s no redemption. Zero. People suck. That’s the moral.

But if you like grimness in your grimness, and I do, Timon will haunt you.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “A fool & his money are soon parted. (WS did it better in a little rewrite called King Lear.)”

What happens in Timon of Athens

Timon is rich. Jeff Bezos-rich. He lends money to his friends, no questions asked. He throws ostentatious parties, he bails people he hardly knows out of jail, he hands out bling like it’s candy. He likes being popular.

Then one day: Oh noes! Insufficient funds! No problem, he thinks, I’ll trot along to my friends and ask for a little loan. They have the money. I should know.

Not so fast. One friend after another claims to be bankrupt, cash-poor, or in one memorable example, so offended by not being asked for a loan first that he refuses on principal.

This is the moment where Timon loses his innocence. The “people suck” theme starts to play loud. Call it schadenfreude or just appreciation for good drama, but I love the innocence-is-lost moment in a story.

Timon boils over with fury. He calls all his so-called friends over for one of his famous parties, but he only serves them water. Then he throws the water on them.

He stomps off into the wilderness, where he discovers that potatoes are good. Never mind that poor people have known about potatoes since God was a child. While digging potatoes he discovers some hidden gold. He gives it to a soldier buddy and tells him to kill everyone in Athens. 

He drives off his faithful servant. That’s when you know he is truly beyond reach. Nobody in Shakespeare ever drives off their faithful servant.

He insults the only two women in the play, a pair of prostitutes who free him from all worldly concerns by taking his last loose change.

And then he dies. Alone, in his cave, hating everybody.

His headstone makes it clear that he is still, today, cursing humanity from the grave. 


Nor are Timon’s problems limited to half the human race. Treat yourself to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s minisite on their current production, where Timon is a woman and so are all her terrible friends.

“Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of Green Sleeves”


What happens in Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida is from what my friend David refers to as “Shakespeare’s bad-mood period.” There is moral dubiousness. There is (I’ll call it) character lurch, where a main character becomes a completely different person for reasons that are not clear. There is interminable holding-forth by important leaders, which you can get for free at a staff meeting. But! The play is based on the real Trojan War as recounted in The Iliad and I love anything about the ancient Greeks. In some ways Troilus is a stand-in for more familiar heroes (Ulysses, Achilles, Hector). Cressida is written to be like Helen, launcher of a thousand ships. Each of those famous names is also a character in the play, although Helen never appears onstage.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Trojan wars are complicated, and Trojans sometimes break.” 

What happens in Troilus and Cressida

Troilus is a Trojan prince and warrior. Cressida is the daughter of a Trojan priest who defected to the Greek side.

Troilus is in Shakespearean-love-at-first-sight with Cressida. Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle, unapologetically acts like a pimp and connives to bring them together.

In the Greek camp, Ulysses (a general) blames his army’s morale problem on Achilles, who is their greatest warrior but who refuses to fight and instead keeps malingering in his tent with his lover Patroclus.

Hector is the greatest Trojan warrior (so, Achilles’ counterpart). He challenges the Greeks to single combat. Ulysses sends his second-best fighter, Ajax, instead of Achilles, on the logic that being snubbed will wound Achilles’s pride and get his head back in the game. Also it would be bad for morale if Achilles died, and morale in the Greek army is already bad.

Pandarus succeeds in bringing Troilus and Cressida together. They make some nice promises, don’t actually get married, but do go off to spend the night together. Which is not even when things get morally dubious.

Cressida’s father (remember, he is Trojan but defected to the Greeks) asks the Greek commanders to exchange a Trojan prisoner for his daughter so he can be reunited with her. The trade is made, to Troilus and Cressida’s total shock.

Ajax and Hector fight but neither one can get the upper hand.

There is a bit of silly politicking.

Ulysses pimps out Cressida to the entire Greek camp and then hands her over to Diomedes, a prominent Greek. Cressida, making the abrupt transition from driven snow to bawdy bawd, cheerfully goes along with all this and agrees to be Diomedes’ lover. Troilus watches. I’m not blaming a girl for doing what she has to do, but by Shakespeare’s standards the moral low ground is now below sea level.

Hector goes into battle. The more-miserable-than-ever Troilus goes with him.

The Trojans drive the Greeks back, but Patroclus is killed. That finally brings a furious Achilles back into the war.

Achilles and Hector fight mano-a-mano. Achilles can’t win in a fair fight, but later he sneaks up on Hector unarmed and kills him. This is not how it went in The Iliad and it makes Achilles look like a right coward, but that action definitely fits the “Achilles” that Shakespeare created.

The play ends with the Trojan army retreating to mourn Hector. Troilus remains miserable and heaps abuse on Pandarus, who deserves it.


For actual scholarship, try out the SparkNotes page. Troilus and Cressida is a confusing and sometimes unsatisfying play, and I found the scene-by-scene analysis and commentary helpful.

Troilus gives Cressida his glove as a love token. 

What happens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Summer Solstice falls in the 3rd week of June. That fine pagan festival is also known as Midsummer. For June’s edition of What Happens in Shakespeare, let’s dive into A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “ ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’ ” (III,2). Everyone likes a nice ass.”

What happens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

You have your fairies: Oberon and Titania, the Fairy King and Queen; and Puck, Oberon’s right-hand man.

You have your hot young mortals: Hermia, Helena, Demetrius and Lysander. These four are all snarled up in a four-way love knot. Let’s take a moment to unravel that.

Hermia loves Lysander. Lysander loves Hermia.

Demetrius also loves Hermia. She does not love him back.

Hermia’s father wants her to marry Demetrius. In the first scene Hermia’s father actually threatens kill her if she doesn’t marry Demetrius – a jarring moment in an otherwise frothy story.

Helena loves Demetrius. He does not love her back, even though they used to be together.

No one loves Helena.

Then you have your weekend-warrior theater company: Bottom and friends.

The mortals go into the forest: Hermia and Lysander to elope, Demetrius and Helena out of concern that someone is getting sexy and it’s not them. Puck doses the 2 boys with sex pollen, which is barely necessary, what with all the hormones and lack of supervision.

Mixups, crying, and a certain amount of nakedness happen.

Bottom and friends are also in the forest, rehearsing a play for a party being thrown by Hermia’s father.

Oberon and Titania live in the forest and are locked in a domestic power struggle.

Oberon breaks out the sex pollen again to make Titania lust for Bottom, who in a side plot got himself a donkey’s head.

More misplaced and/or sex-pollen-induced acts of lust, more crying.

Puck bustles around trying to cover for his boss, Oberon, who eventually relents and gives out the antidote to the sex pollen.

Problem solved–except for Titania, who is a tad bit mortified. Imagine being the chair of the Opera Gala and discovering some random Lyft driver’s name tattooed on your cleavage.

But this is a Shakespeare comedy, and that means anyone who can married at the end does get married. Titania and Oberon make up. Hermia’s terrible father sees reason. Hermia marries Lysander. And Demetrius now loves Helena and marries her.


For actual scholarship and analysis, visit the Shakespeare Resource Center’s page on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

My BayCon 2018 schedule

BayCon is this weekend! This year’s theme is Patchwork Fandom: Stitching the Generations Together. Baycon.org/bcwp/ has the full program, location, and all your other fannish needs. 

Here’s my schedule:

Saturday 5/26
11:30 a.m.
Saving What We Love: The Different Layers of Resistance
A look at how the concept of resistance in SF has changed as well as kept a continuity and what different generations have to teach each other.
With Jennifer Nestojko (moderator), Colin Fisk, Deborah J. Ross

1:00 p.m.
Evolving Career Strategies
How non-traditional publishing is changing the options for a new writer, for good or bad.
With Deborah J. Ross (moderator), M. Todd Gallowglas, Melissa Snark

Sunday 5/27
10:00 a.m.
Queer Open Mic
A BoF (Birds of a Feather) gathering to share work by queer authors. Bring your own or bring a favorite from someone else. Share a short work, an excerpt, a song or a poem. If fandom is a patchwork, we are nothing without the QUILTBAG.
Heather Rose Jones and I will read from our out-n-proudest writings to kick things off. All ages welcome!

5:30 p.m.
Art as Resistance
How your creations can strike a blow for progress.
With Tyler Hayes (moderator), Taunya Gren

7:00 p.m.
Masquerade and Variety Show
Disguises and splendor from the best performers around. And a lil song from me. But come for the splendor.

Monday 5/28
10:00 a.m.
Queer Characters, Queer Fans
Which creators are introducing new and wonderful LGBTQ characters? Who are your old favorites? All ages are welcome at this exploration of queerfolk in genre media and fandom.
With Heather Rose Jones and Anne Killpack

What happens in Antony and Cleopatra

I thought it was fitting to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday this month with a play that showcases what he does best: morally questionable characters, sizzle, and tragedy. This month on What Happens in Shakespeare, we’ll take on Antony and Cleopatra, a dazzling story about two narcissistic politicians with basically no shred of conscience between them who let the demands of loin and ego wreck everything they hold dear. Fun fact: Shakespeare’s Caesar Octavius is the same Caesar who was in power when Mary and Joseph made the trip to Bethlehem.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Love bites. MORAL: Never get involved in Middle Eastern affairs.” 

What happens in Antony and Cleopatra

Mark Antony is one of the three rulers of the Roman Empire. He is living in Egypt and having an affair with Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen.

The other two rulers of Rome are Caesar Octavius and Lepidus. They are worried about their enemy Pompey gaining strength. They criticize Antony for neglecting his duty and not acting manly, being under Cleopatra’s undeniable sway.

Antony’s wife back in Rome dies. Antony feels guilty and returns to Rome, where he decides to marry Octavius’ sister for political reasons.

In Egypt, Cleopatra gets the news that Antony is going to remarry and gets angry. Then she gets the news that his new bride is ugly and decides she can win him back.

Antony, Octavius and Lepidus meet with Pompey and negotiate a truce. Octavius promptly breaks it for his own gain.

Antony learns that Octavius has been speaking out against him. He returns to Egypt, where he and Octavius fight. Both sides win a few battles, but Cleopatra is instrumental in Antony’s losing the war. Antony decides Cleopatra has betrayed him and threatens to kill her.

She locks herself in her monument for safety (that’s what it says: her monument) and spreads the word that she has killed herself.

Antony is remorseful and tells a servant to kill him. The servant disobeys for the first time ever and kills himself instead.

Antony tries to commit suicide, but only manages to injure himself. He lives long enough to go to Cleopatra’s monument. They are reunited. He dies.

Octavius arrests Cleopatra. She finds out about his plan to put her on display in Rome. She kills herself using poisonous snakes. Octavius has her buried beside Antony.


Visit the Royal Shakespeare Company for a breakdown of key scenes and a history of past productions.