What happens in Richard III

Friends, in the time of coronavirus, I trust you’re safe and well, or if by some feared but daily increasing chance you’re not, I trust “what is infirm from your sound parts shall fly, health shall live free, and sickness freely die.” *

In the meantime, once you have enough toilet paper stocked to satisfy the most anxious in your household, the next thing you need is a good story. Richard III is a very good story.

Richard III might be the best (worst) Shakespeare villain. I know I said that about Iago. I know the Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth combo is hard to beat. Titus Andronicus killed and ate so many people I wouldn’t even try to tot up the body count. But Richard III blithely killing his brother, his nephews, and finally his wife, before trying to marry his niece? Profound mental illness all sealed up behind that unforced charm? Richard III is terrifying. Maybe I’ve known too many criminals, but there’s something unsettlingly believable about him.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “The end justifies the means. Horses are very valuable, worth kingdoms.”

What happens in Richard III
(King of England from 1483-1485)

Richard III of the House of York, the brother of King Edward IV, wants to be the King of England.

The last time we saw Richard, he was murdering King Henry VI. Now we’re at Henry VI’s funeral. Richard pitches woo at Lady Anne, the widow of Henry VI’s son. Against her patently better judgment, it sticks and they get married.

Richard schemes to get his older brother Clarence locked up in the Tower of London. Then he hires assassins to kill him. They drown Clarence in “a butt of Malmsey,” or a barrel of wine, which seems like a waste of wine, but everybody in the cast of Richard III has a budget in excess of requirements.

King Edward IV is ill. He appoints Richard to govern in his place. Richard gets a taste of what it’s like to sit on the throne. There’s no turning back now.

Next up on the path to kingship: eliminate the competition. Richard locks up his two young nephews, King Edward IV’s children, in the Tower of London. You remember what happened to the last relative he sent to the Tower of London.

The Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s ally, drums up support for Richard’s claim to the throne.

Edward IV dies of his illness. Richard becomes King Richard III.

The first thing Richard does is execute a key adviser, the Lord Chamberlain, for trying to undermine him.

Richard’s nephews are in line for the throne, so he sends an assassin to the Tower of London to smother them.

Buckingham suspects Richard had the two boy princes killed. So then Richard denies Buckingham a promotion to earl. So then Buckingham tries to raise an army to fight Richard. Murdering little kids is one thing, but don’t even think about coming between the nobility and their pursuit of property. Richard captures and executes Buckingham.

Not satisfied even though he has killed off all the surviving heirs to the throne and at least two of his naysayers, Richard now wants to marry Elizabeth, Edward IV’s daughter, to cement his position as king.

Let us pause and reflect. Edward IV was Richard’s brother. Richard wants to marry his own niece.

Richard is, inconveniently, still married to poor Lady Anne, whom he seduced in such bad taste in Act 1. He has her murdered.

Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond and the heir to the Lancaster family’s claim to the throne, hears the news in France about Richard’s murder spree. He raises an army.

The two armies meet at Bosworth in England.

There are some supernatural shenanigans, unusual for such a realistic play, where the ghosts of Richard’s victims haunt him the night before the battle.

During the battle, Richard’s horse dies and he says “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Then he goes around on foot and kills a lot of people anyway.

Henry Tudor kills Richard and becomes King Henry VII of England.

He ends the Wars of the Roses by planning to marry Elizabeth of York (Richard’s niece), uniting the York and Lancaster houses.

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Richard III is a hard play to do live, because you pretty much need Ian McKellen, and how often can you have him? But the 1995 film with Ian McKellen is terrific. Even though they made assorted American actors be in the movie with the top alumns of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which hardly seems like apples to apples.

*From All’s Well That Ends Well. Whenever they talk about health in Richard III, it’s a thinly veiled threat about assassination. Such a quote wouldn’t be very friendly.

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What happens in Henry VI

It’s time for Henry VI this month on What Happens in Shakespeare. At long last, patient Free Folk of Westeros, we kick off the Wars of the Roses.

This Henry somehow merited three plays – Henry IV Parts 1, 2, and 3. We literally go from Henry’s cradle to his grave. But we get Joan of Arc. Witchcraft. Rebel alliances. Dolphins. And a band of oh-so-convenient Shakespeare pirates.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted:

HENRY VI, 1
Henry V-play AND king-is tough act to follow. Not even a genius can hit it out the park every time.

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Like a cricket match and Celine Dion’s love, these Henry VI plays will go on.

HENRY VI, 3
The play so nice he wrote it thrice!

What happens in Henry VI
(King of England from 1422-1461 and again from 1470-1471. King of France from 1422 -1453)

PART 1

King Henry V has died unexpectedly in his prime, leaving his young son to become King Henry VI. Henry’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, will sit on the iron throne until Henry is older.

There is unrest in Orléans, France (England is occupying France). Charles, the French King (technically he is still just the heir and therefore holds the all-Shakespeare champion job title: the Dolphin) hears about a feisty Orléans shepherd girl who is having visions from God about how to defeat the English.

Enter – you guessed it – Joan of Arc. Charles challenges her to a duel. She wins. He puts her in charge of the army.

There is battling. The English representative in France, named Talbot, gets captured, then released, then does sneaky maneuvers to win the battle for Orléans.

Back in England, a petty argument between two nobles, Richard Plantagenet and the Duke of Somerset, has expanded to involve the whole court. Richard and Somerset ask their peers to pick sides and wear a red or white rose as proof of loyalty. Red = Somerset, white = Plantagenet. And that, my lovelies, is the origin of the Wars of the Roses.

Richard visits his uncle, Edmund Mortimer, who is in prison. Mortimer tells Richard the history of their family’s conflict with the king’s family. They had been allies, but the king’s family overlooked them, and then Henry V had Richard’s father executed and his family stripped of all its property. Mortimer believes he is the rightful heir to the throne based on some genuinely plausible family-tree evidence. When he dies, according to his logic, Richard will be the true heir.

Are you hearing the Game of Thrones electronic cello?

Mortimer dies. Richard petitions the by-now-crowned King Henry VI to reinstate the Plantagenet family title. Henry does. Thanks to the arcane English system where everybody who owns land has a kajillion names, Richard is now the Duke of York. We will call him York for the rest of his life, which will not be very long, or didn’t you watch Game of Thrones?

In France, the English win the city of Rouen. The Dolphin is distressed, but Joan of Arc has a plan. She convinces the powerful Duke of Burgundy, who had been fighting for the English, to switch sides and join the French.

Henry goes to France with an entourage that includes York and Somerset. He tells Talbot to handle the Burgundy problem. He tries to get York and Somerset to put aside their conflict, but without realizing what he’s doing, he chooses a red rose (Team Somerset). He leaves each of the bickering lords in charge of their own branch of the English military in France and goes back to England.

The French army traps Talbot. He calls on York and Somerset for backup, but they second-guess each another, don’t send help, and then blame each other. The French destroy the English. Talbot and his son are both killed.

York captures Joan of Arc and burns her at the stake. She is an enjoyable potty-mouth to the end and leaves the world much too soon.

Henry negotiates a not-too-stable peace treaty with France. His advisers think it would be stronger if Henry married a French woman.

The Earl of Suffolk produces just the candidate, Princess Margaret of Anjou. Suffolk lusts Margaret and hatches a plan to marry her up to Henry, keep her as his mistress, and control Henry through her. He and Margaret travel back to England.

PART 2

King Henry and Margaret get married. Suffolk and Margaret are having an affair and making disloyal plans. Gloucester (Henry’s uncle, who is still powerful even though Henry is the king now) stands in their way because Henry trusts him. As do the common people of England, but literally nobody cares about them.

Gloucester’s wife has designs on the throne. She uses necromancy to predict the future, but she gets caught and banished.

Suffolk conspires with Somerset (remember him from the dispute with York?) to bring about Gloucester’s ruin. Suffolk accuses Gloucester of treason and has him thrown in jail, then has him assassinated before his trial.

Meanwhile, York reveals his top-secret claim to the throne to the Earl of Warwick and other allies. They pledge to support him.

Suffolk is banished for his role in Gloucester’s death. He gets killed by some convenient pirates. (These are not the only spontaneously occurring pirates to dispatch an inconvenient character in Shakespeare; visit Good Tickle Brain for a whole list of pirates ex machina.) Suffolk’s head gets sent back to his horrified lover, Queen Margaret.

York wants to take the public’s temperature and see if they would support him as king. He enlists a former officer, Jack Cade, to stage a rebellion as a test. Cade gains ground at first, but one of Henry’s supporters persuades the common people who make up Cade’s army to abandon the revolt. York is back to zero.

There is a bit of subplot having to do with allies on both sides. Then York announces his claim to the throne.

The English nobility take sides. Fun fact: Henry’s side was also known as the House of Lancaster. Making the Stark-Lannister fight oh so reminiscent of the York-Lancaster fight.

There is a battle at St Albans (I don’t know why I keep the place names in and snip so much else out, but I do like place names. They’re a kind of flash card system for remembering history. The Alamo. Wounded Knee. Stonewall). The York side wins.

Margaret persuades the beaten Henry to retreat to London. The York party chases them.

PART 3

King Henry and York meet in the throne room. Henry has admitted defeat and agrees for York to be his heir. That means Henry’s son will not become king.

Queen Margaret, angry about her son losing his chance to sit on the iron throne, leads a military attack on York with the help of some allies. They capture and kill him.

York’s sons, Edward and Richard (we’re going to call him Richard III here to distinguish him from his father, plus, he’s about to turn into one of the most villainous villains in all of Shakespeare next month when he gets his own play), renew their pledge against Henry. They welcome their ally, Warwick.

There is battling.

Henry loses spectacularly and retreats to Scotland. Edward is now the Duke of York. We won’t bother calling him York for short because he immediately claims the English throne. Now-King Edward sends Warwick to arrange a marriage for him with the French king’s sister, but then he falls in love with an English noble, Lady Grey.

Henry comes back to England in disguise, but gets captured and imprisoned.

Richard III announces that he wants to be king.

Margaret and the prince go to France for help, where Warwick’s efforts to arrange a marriage between Edward and the French royal sister have gone down the drain because Edward has now married Lady Grey. Warwick is insulted. He joins forces with Margaret, arranges for his own daughter to marry the prince, and gets Henry out of prison.

George (brother of Edward and Richard III) does not approve of the marriage and switches sides to join Warwick’s forces. They capture Edward and imprison him.

Richard III helps Edward escape. He recaptures Henry.

There is a battle. Warwick dies.

George switches sides again and rejoins Edward’s forces. They kill the prince (Henry and Margaret’s son).

Margaret pleads for death but gets exiled to France instead.

Richard III sneaks around villainously and kills Henry.

Edward and Lady Grey settle in as King and Queen, not having a clue about Richard III and his two-facedness.

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Fun as it would be to litter the Globe Theatre with Game of Thrones characters (Mrs. Gloucester = the Red Woman!), George R.R. Martin only drew inspiration from Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays, he didn’t retell them scene for scene. This story on screenprism sheds light on what’s history and what’s not, but it came out before the TV series ended, so it reaches some conclusions that may give you a drop of nostalgia for your lost innocence as a fan.

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What happens in Henry V

This month on What Happens in Shakespeare, it’s Henry V. It’s gruesome. It won’t make you like Prince Hal any better. In a mock trial in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court debated whether Henry V was justified in his slaughter of French prisoners of war. So you know going into it that the sort-of happy ending comes with a serious body count.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “A king’s gotta do what a king’s gotta do. MORAL: England good, France bad.”

What happens in Henry V
(King of England from 1413-1422)

Prince Hal (you remember him from Henry IV) is now King Henry V.

The Dolphin (you remember him from King John; actually now it’s 200 years later, so this is a different Dolphin, but he’s still the heir to the French throne) gives Henry a chest full of tennis balls. Henry is insulted because the Dolphin clearly thinks he is still the game-playing young idiot he was when he was Prince Hal. He decides to invade France. Yes, tennis is that old.

We learn that Falstaff has died, apparently of a broken heart after Henry rejected him. This is the very last nail in the coffin of the young idiot Prince Hal we knew in Henry IV. It’s all serious King Henry V stuff from now on.

Henry invades France. In the town of Harfleur he gives his troops the famous pep talk every shift manager has given before the Black Friday sales, “Once more unto the breech, dear friends, once more.” The English occupy the town. Henry demands the local government surrender, making a less famous speech where he warns the French in excruciating detail exactly how the English forces will rape the women and murder the children.

At the French court, French people make fun of English people, but the audience is in on the joke because these French are so very weak and effeminate. Princess Catherine of France has an English lesson so she’s ready in case the English win the war. It’s funny but creepy. Shakespeare makes Catherine unknowingly say a lot of dirty words, which gets a cheap laugh. But on another level, Catherine (symbolizing France) is being set up as an active participant in her own conquest (sexual and political). You could see that as not creepy, considering the historical Catherine and Henry had actually been engaged all their lives, and she was a princess and therefore bound to marry somebody or other for political reasons. But the English occupation of France has been described in the language of rape for pages now. Gets uglier the more you think about it.

There is a diverting little subplot with a Welshman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman, but as much fun as it would be to walk into a bar, where we could drown the taste of that horrifying 2nd Harfleur speech, we don’t have time for subplots here on the Shakespeare TLDR.

There is a big battle at Agincourt. This time in Henry’s pep talk to the troops he famously says, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

The English win.

Henry and Catherine seal the new peace accord by getting married.

The Chorus informs us that Henry and Catherine will have a son, who will grow up to be the Henry VI we’ll meet next.

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I love the 1989 movie version of Henry V for Ian Holm’s portrayal of Fluellen, the Welsh soldier. He shows you how a great actor can bring dimension to a small role that looks pretty fluffy (sorry) on the page.

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What happens in Richard II

Richard II is up next on What Happens in Shakespeare, which means we’re almost, almost to the Wars of the Roses, so hold your Dothraki horses. Richard II seems cruel and wackadoodle enough to qualify as the inspiration for an early Targaryen king, but that’s only because you haven’t met Richard III yet.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Absolute power corrupts two in the bush.”

What happens in Richard II
(King of England from 1377–1399)

King Richard II is arbitrating a dispute between Thomas Mowbray and Richard’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (the future King Henry IV). Richard has accused Mowbray of squandering money meant for the king’s soldiers and murdering Bolingbroke’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, believes Richard himself was responsible for the murder. Richard orders a trial by battle between Bolingbroke and Mowbray to sort things out.

The tournament gets underway, but Richard interrupts it, changing his mind and banishing Bolingbroke and Mowbray from England. He sentences Bolingbroke to be banished for ten years, but reduces it to six years when he sees John of Gaunt grieving for his son. Mowbray he banishes permanently.

Creepily, Richard never does anything to really dispel the suspicion that he murdered the Duke of Gloucester.

Mowbray predicts that sooner or later Richard will fall at the hands of Bolingbroke (it’s sooner).

John of Gaunt, who is just about the only nice person we’re going to meet, dies. Richard seizes his property. The nobles get angry and accuse Richard of fining them for crimes their ancestors committed, taxing the commoners (and how noble of the 1% to care), and using Gaunt’s money (which should go to his son, Bolingbroke) to fund the war in Ireland. They help Bolingbroke (remember he was exiled) secretly return to England with a plan to overthrow Richard.

Richard goes to Ireland to supervise the war and probably conduct a little old-fashioned peasant slaughter in person. He leaves the Duke of York in charge.

Bolingbroke seizes the opportunity to assemble an army and invade England. He executes some of Richard’s allies and wins York over to his side.

As soon as Richard returns to England, Bolingbroke lays claim to the throne and crowns himself King Henry IV. He has Richard taken prisoner.

Richard’s allies plan a rebellion against Henry, but York finds them out. They get executed.

An ambitious nobleman who is loyal to Henry murders Richard in prison.

Henry announces his plans to cleanse his soul of any association with murder by going on a crusade to Jerusalem. Apparently it wasn’t realistic for him to give up sex by moving into a brothel. The original, long-lost final line of the play is “hypocrisy and empire go together like peanut butter and chocolate.”

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For more on this barely-known play, there’s an illuminating breakdown of recent performance history in The Guardian’s writeup, “Richard II: a play for today.”

Knight Knights Tournament Competition Lego

 

 

What happens in King John

I’m doing King John this month because it was time to kick off the histories and I needed an organizing system. “The histories,” as no normal person knows, are Shakespeare’s plays about the English monarchy. Don’t get muddled; Antony, Cleopatra, Troilus, Cressida, Caesar, and a man who powerfully resembled Falstaff might have really lived and gotten Shakespeare plays written about them, but only the English histories are “histories.” I decided to go in king order. John was the earliest king who got a play. It would make more sense, maybe, to go in order of publication date, but I didn’t do that with the other plays. Sorting Shakespeare by date written is a game for actual scholars, and the histories were threaded in among the “tragedies” and “comedies” (the tragedies are pretty tragic as a rule, but they usually have jesters or joke-telling nurses. The comedies are not always funny, but they are often deeply disturbing and occasionally tragic) from the very beginning.

On to King John. No one’s ever seen it. There are no popular movies of it. Theater companies can barely sell tickets to it. The two things you might know about the real King John are 1) he signed the Magna Carta and 2) he was the King John in Robin Hood. Neither thing shows up in the play. It’s a dry-ish text and it’s all in verse. No clowns making NSFW jokes in paragraph form here. But the plot is rock-solid, and as everybody who’s ever written a personal essay or a breakup letter knows, telling a true story well is incredibly hard.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “When writing a play about somebody, don’t leave out the most interesting things (Magna Carta) they did.”

What happens in King John
(King of England from 1199-1216)

King John’s nephew Arthur is plotting with the King of France to overthrow the English throne.

The King of France (his name is Philip, but we’re going to refer to him as “the King of France” here because more than one character is named Philip) demands John’s surrender. John responds by invading France.

There is a subplot involving an English Philip, nicknamed “the Bastard” to distinguish him from the other Philip. He’s a wonderful character. But we can’t slow down for subplots on the Shakespeare TLDR, not even subplots from real history.

The English and French armies fight, but neither side is the clear winner. John makes a peace settlement by arranging a marriage between his niece and the heir to the French throne, known hereafter as “the Dolphin.” (If you’re the heir to the French throne in the 1200s, in most histories your title is the super-fancy “Dauphin.” But some Shakespeare editions use “Dolphin” for the purpose of delighting your inner 6-year-old girl.)

John, in the meantime, disobeys the Pope and gets excommunicated. The church is a massive political power in 1200s Europe. Not being on its good side is dangerous.

The Pope’s representative, Pandulph, threatens to excommunicate the French king for making an alliance with England. Pandulph supports the Dolphin and convinces him to break the truce with England. The fighting starts again.

During a battle in France, John captures Arthur (the backstabbing nephew). John orders Arthur to be executed. John’s representative disobeys and hides the boy instead.

John goes back to England and celebrates by throwing himself a second coronation, a confident act of leadership that definitely proves no one is doubting you at all, certainly not the Pope, the Dolphin, or anybody named Philip.

Arthur tries to escape and falls to his death. The English nobles think John murdered him. They defect to the French side.

John, who is now outnumbered and looks like a prat, has no choice but to negotiate with Pandulph. John agrees to reconcile with the Church. Pandulph agrees to convince the Dolphin not to invade England again.

The Dolphin, beefed up by his new English nobles and their troops, totally invades England again.

The nobles hear a rumor that the French king is going to have them all killed when the war is over. They return to John.

Having lost his allies, the French king gets Pandulph to negotiate peace with England. But it’s too late for John, who had gotten sick and gone to an abbey to rest (remember his new bestie, the Pope?), only to have a monk kill him with poison.

John’s son, Prince Henry, succeeds him as King Henry III. Apparently this Henry did not lead the kind of flashy life that merited a Shakespeare play, but assorted later Henries did.

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To find out more about the real King John and how he got his embarrassing nickname, read Marc Morris’ post Why Was King John Known as Softsword?

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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