Friday 23 July 2010

The E14 Guide to Shakespeare

Everyone remembers being forced to study Shakespeare for their GCSEs. Back then it was boring, stupid, and impossible to understand. You either covered love, or (if you got really lucky) you covered racism. It’s when you get to university that everything changes. Suddenly this boring, romantic playwright becomes a complete and utter lunatic.

Seriously, the man created some really disturbing and compelling plots and characters. It’s a good thing the Lord Chamberlain’s Men wanted him in their company, because without the opportunity to vent all this crazy into his plays, Shakespeare would have probably been a murderer. Of course, we’d still be studying him in GCSE...Just in History class, instead.

I’m sure you are thinking “Why on earth are E14 doing a segment on Shakespeare?”. I promise you, we are about to open your eyes to the real Shakespeare, the guy you don’t get to meet until your educators think you are mentally stable enough to deal with him. Shakespeare was popular; writing for the masses. His role as a playwright was to entertain, not to teach. He always gave the audience what they wanted and there is no reason that has to be any different today. The stuff we want and crave is still in there, you just have to know where to find it. That’s where we come in. Here is your E14-Friendly guide to Shakespeare.


If you love a supernatural read or you are a fan of fantasy then you really can’t go wrong with Shakespeare. Check out A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Oberon, the King of the Fairies, and a notorious trickster named Puck create a magical potion to torment the characters of the play. Lovers are hypnotised, hearts are broken, and someone even gets turned into a donkey!

In The Tempest, Prospero is a magician who has taken control of an island and its inhabitants. He has captured a creature, Caliban, who is half man, half monster, and the son of an evil witch. Also helping Prospero on the island is Ariel, presumed to be a spirit or tree nymph, with magical powers including the ability to control the weather, influence the minds of weary travellers and perform illusions (X-Men anyone?).

In Macbeth (the play’s name harbouring superstition even in our modern world) is a play all about prophecies, set out by three witches throughout the play. This one is also famous for the scene where a ghost comes to torment Macbeth at dinner. Lady Macbeth evokes the spirit of manhood and going insane, and Macbeth is haunted by ghostly dagger, presumed to be a symbol of his guilt after murdering the king.

Hamlet has similar ghostly occurrences as the recently deceased King unveils his murderer to his son.


Yes, Shakespeare could not get enough of this. He even wrote The Rape of Lucrece, a poem which literally does what it says on the tin. In Titus Andronicus, Titus’ daughter Lavinia is raped by the Sons of Tamora, Queen of the Goths. As if the poor girl hasn’t suffered enough, they then cut out her tongue and cut off her hands. In The Tempest we learn that the reason Caliban is Prospero’s slave is because he tried to rape Miranda, Prospero’s daughter.

Shakespeare really liked rape.

In The Taming of the Shrew, the rebellious Katherina is firmly put in her place and “tamed”. Petruchio pretty much mind fucks her by starving her and refusing her clothes or company, until she becomes a totally obedient and submissive wife. Of course, the feminists out there like to believe that Katherina is faking.

Fornication is banned in Measure for Measure, which leads to a hell of a lot of fornicating, including pregnancy out of wedlock, trying it on with a nun, and using sex as currency. In Henry VIII Anne Bullen pushes Queen Katherine out of the spot light. King Henry divorces Katherine in favour of the younger model, and treats Katherine rather unfairly. And this stuff is based on real life, so it seems even more scandalous. In Henry V, after defeating the French at the Battle of Agincourt, Henry decides he might as well have the French princess, Katherine, as his prize.

Different Henry, different Katherine. I know these history plays are confusing, but bear with them.


In Titus Andronicus, Tamora’s sons are murdered and fed to her in a pie!!! Even without taking this traumatising scene into consideration, Titus Andronicus is still full of gruesome acts of violence and murder.

Othello is a murder/death extravaganza. What starts off as paranoid spousal abuse eventually leads to Othello suffocating his innocent wife. A number of people are murdered in the final scenes of the play, and the whole thing culminates with Othello topping himself. Shakespeare must have had a really unhealthy fascination with suicide and death, or he just really hated a lot of the characters he created. It is really remarkable how many characters in Shakespeare’s plays kill themselves or otherwise meet their maker.

Romeo and Juliet needs no introduction, and is possibly one of the best known plays for its teen-angst, “emo” lovers and their unnecessary suicide. But they are not the only Shakespearean character’s to take the “easy” way out. Ophelia chucks herself into a lake in Anthony and Cleopatra the lovers drive each other to suicide, and Goneril ends it all in King Lear.


Shakespeare’s plays are full of murder plots, tricksters and selfish acts of treachery. Iago manipulates Othello by pretending to be his friend and confidant, while really just trying to climb the ranks of society and stopping at nothing to do it.

In King Lear, siblings plot to ruin each other out of selfishness and jealousy. Goneril and Regan, two of Lear’s daughters, are not satisfied with owning half a kingdom each, and try to ruin the other at every turn. Edmund becomes so jealous of his brother Edgar that he not only seeks to ruin him, but to turn their father against him and eventually hopes to kill Edgar. Measure for Measure is notoriously known as a play which depends entirely upon deception. The Duke of Vienna wears a disguise throughout the play and spies on his people. Two of Shakespeare’s most well known deception plots, The Bed Trick and The Head Trick, come from this play.

Mental Instability:

King Lear is driven bat-shit insane by his conniving daughters and spends the majority of the play wondering around the marshes in the middle of storms. Ophelia is driven mad when Hamlet kills her father. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth go stark raving mad. Macbeth has hallucinations and episodes of paranoia, while Lady Macbeth wanders the corridors in her sleep spouting molten crazy on everyone. Othello is driven mad by Iago and the characters of Twelfth Night work hard to convince Malvolio he is mad.

Epic Battles/War:

The History plays, basically!

Awesome Bad Guys to Look Out For:

Angelo (Measure for Measure), Iago (Othello), Lady Macbeth (Macbeth), Shylock (The Merchant of Venice) and Tybalt (Romeo and Juliet).

It’s never too late to get into Shakespeare. Don’t think of him as someone to be studied. Just think of him as an entertainer. In fact, start with the movies. Begin your journey into Shakespeare with a few of the modern remakes like Tim Blake Nelson’s modern envisioning of Othello, simply called O, or Baz Luhrmann’s well known Romeo and Juliet.

Alternatively, for a really easy introduction, try some American teen-flicks like She’s The Man, 10 Things I Hate About You and Get Over It, based on Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Next, try getting hold of some of the Kenneth Branagh versions of the plays. Branagh understands the true meaning of Shakespeare and concentrates a great deal on concepts of insanity, treachery and the importance of sub-plot. By the time you get to the really old and boring stuff (Laurence Olivier, anyone?) it shouldn’t seem so boring.

There’s nothing wrong with stopping there, with the movies. After all, Shakespeare was writing plays, not novels. But if you really want to experience Shakespeare with its full impact, read the plays. That way, you won’t miss out on any grizzly details! Don’t let the memories of GCSE put you off a good read. You may not have understood a lot of it when you were a kid, but try again now. It really is just the English language. It’s not double Dutch, and it’s not some sort of elitist code. It’s just words. You will be surprised to find you can probably read it easily, and if not, most editions of the plays come with translations and foot notes anyway! So, there you go; no excuses.

You know what? I have never had a Shakespeare teacher who wasn’t mad. I wonder if they were normal before they delved into the world of Shakespeare. It wouldn’t surprise me.

Words: Kelly Prior

1 comment:

  1. I always saw Shylock as the victim of the piece; they steal his daughter, spit on him and generally torment him until he snaps. Then, when he tries to get his pound of flesh, they go and force him to convert to Christianity and give away his daughter to a horny Venetian who will probably get bored with her after a while.

    Titus Andronicus is good for gore if you get a good theatre company doing it, but the RSC blows even Brannagh out of the water if you watch their versions of Shakespeare's plays. (except the unfortunate 'cast a star to draw a crowd' ones, which can go either way, depending on the star)