One of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, King Lear offers us a protagonist so complex the title role is often considered unplayable. At first glance the plot is relatively straightforward with Lear, King of Britain, wishing to divide his kingdom evenly amongst his three daughters. Easier said than done! A once powerful ruler endures much hardship in this brutal play, finally reduced to a man gone mad.
The sheer carnage in the final scene alone defines Shakespeare’s longest play a tragedy. Technically, Hamlet is a revenge tragedy, popular in Jacobean England, as Hamlet spends much of the play avenging his father’s death. Hamlet is a monumental four-and-a-half hour drama involving a ghost, a play-within-a-play, literature’s most famous soliloquy “To be or not to be”, love, suicide, death by poison, and incest. A soap opera on an epic scale, Hamlet has it all.
A staple in the diet of any good drama student, Macbeth is a violent and murderous play about power and ambition. The title role is a mighty character indeed, but it is the ruthless Lady Macbeth who gives us one of Shakespeare’s strongest female roles. At the outset, the three witches famously foretell most of the drama in a prophecy, in which Macbeth will stop at nothing to become King of Scotland.
Romeo and Juliet
Literature’s most famous love story, Romeo and Juliet centres on a feud between the Montague and the Capulet families of Verona. Equally romantic as it is tragic, Romeo and Juliet is famous for its balcony scene where Romeo hears Juliet whispering his name. In true Shakespearean style, the drama ends with the death of both lovers.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare’s most magical comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream happily intertwines the human and fairy worlds in a drama set in and around the forest just outside Athens. The plot sees Theseus, Duke of Athens, preparing for his wedding to Hippolyta. Along the way we see a subplot of four entangled lovers in the forest. But it is the hilarious actions of the Mechanicals, a group of inept players preparing a performance for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding, who steal the show. A triple wedding at the play’s end seals the drama.
One of Shakespeare’s funniest comedies, Twelfth Night sees the young protagonist, Viola, dress up as a man. Curiously, as women were not permitted to act on the English stage until the year 1660, Viola would originally have been performed by a male actor, dressed up as a female character, impersonating a male! A beautiful romantic comedy, Twelfth Night is full of love, disguise and mistaken identity at nearly every turn. This riotous romcom is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays.
“Now is the winter of our discontent” opens this striking history play whose protagonist is a cruel and murderous villain. Strangely likeable, Richard’s brilliant mind and disfigured body combine to lure the reader in to the activities of a corrupt and criminal tyrant. As evil as it is violent, Richard III is one of The Bard’s most powerful dramas. Not for the faint-hearted!