Shakespeare for dummies- A crash course for the literature fools

Apoorva Addepalli
4 min readDec 7, 2018
*Photo credit*- Shakespeare blogyr9

Shakespeare’s works are considered some of the finest and greatest plays in the literature world, and I agree- they’re quite good but also pointlessly long, 2000–4000 lines or 2–4 hours long.. (but who’s counting right?). I finally decided to get over my dislike for Shakespeare and go the extra mile by taking one of his classes offered at our school in my last fall quarter of my senior year. I figured, this would be a good way of challenging myself and TRY to appreciate some, if not ALL of his work.

Anyway, 11 weeks of watching 10+ hours of Shakespeare play while constantly thinking to myself “O Shakespeare, why thou/thee/thy no talk properly!”, I am finally here attempting to dissect some of his prominent plays and providing a quick summary for some of my fellow Shakespeare illiterates. I hope by the end of this you are better acquainted with some of his works and feel more socially acceptable in your English class (here’s hoping at least!)

Macbeth:

Before I even delve into this gist, its important to note that most of Shakespeare’s plays are tragedies, having a common background of rise and fall of powerful noblemen! Macbeth for one, is a tragedy.

The key to a lasting marriage is MURDER. Literally the crux of this entire play. But all jokes aside, the play revolves around the lust of political ambition gone crazy leading to utter madness. Macbeth is a grown man who can’t seem to make ANY decision on his own. Constantly influenced by his wife, Lady Macbeth and further instigated by three witches (I know…he’s hopeless!), Macbeth murders Duncan and ascends the throne, kills Banquo, TRIES to kill Banquo’s son, Fleance (who escapes), sees Banquo’s ghost on a drunken night with his friends, goes crazier and dies at the hands of Macduff, a confidant of King Duncan who suspected Macbeth’s actions right from the start!

In a nutshell, consumed with greed and worry over his misdeed, Macbeth wasn’t worthy to be king anyway!

Henry V:

England goes to war with France over tennis balls! OK, not just because of tennis balls, but they played a part in starting the conflict. A dispute over some territory in France between these two countries leads the Dauphin of France to send a “treasure” trove of tennis balls as a “token of peace”, or as kids these days would call it- a savage move! Henry V, clearly insulted and enraged by this “burn”, decides to invade France. So, he marches with his full troupe to France, delivers the best motivational speech a team could ever get from their coach right before they stepped onto the battlefield, thrashes his opponents and marries the French princess- A straight ace for the king indeed!

Did you also notice the tennis puns that I strategically “dropped” in here? Whoops…

All in all, a historical play by Shakespeare, that at least makes us realize that Henry V was clearly more competent as a king than Macbeth was!

Twelfth Night:

Shakespeare’s take on a romantic comedy, that doesn’t involve any death’s for once! A love triangle or square to be precise. It revolves around two separated twins Viola and Sebastian who make their way to the kingdom of IIlyria. Viola disguises as a boy Cesario (ends up looking like her twin brother, Sebastian, instead). Viola/Cesario is now employed by Duke Orsino- who in turn is in love with Lady Olivia (does not reciprocate). The Duke hires Cesario to try and woo the Lady for him, however she ends up falling for Cesario instead. Cesario or Olivia, on the other hand, falls for the Duke in the process.

*Enter Sebastian*

What ensues after is a dramatic set of events to uncover the confusion between these 4 people.

Disclaimer: if you are overwhelmed in a Shakespeare class with the level of complexities in each play and need a breather, this 2+ hour play is the way to go!

Romeo and Juliet:

Here’s the thing, if you take a normal forbidden love story between a young teenage couple and spice it up with fights, blood, poison and hatred of the families, that is Romeo and Juliet for you! Shakespeare’s yet another famous tragedy (shocker..). Set in Verona, the bad blood between the Montagues and Capulets wreaks havoc upon the city. To up the drama quotient, Romeo and Juliet, each a member of the feuding families fall hopelessly in love with each other, ultimately leading to their tragic death.

If you are a romantic at heart, the famous balcony scene would melt your heart.. if not, the deaths would move you to tears!

Hamlet:

Saving the best and the longest play for the last. Considered one of the “best plays written”, Hamlet is a classic dramatic tale of betrayal, murder and revenge. Prince Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father. He basically tells Hamlet that he wants revenge for his death AKA by the killing of his brother, Claudius, who BTW is now married to his ex-sister in law or Hamlet’s mother. Weird, I know… Hamlet thereafter devotes himself to avenging his father’s death. An important personality characteristic of Hamlet is that he is an over thinker - his biggest strength and his biggest weakness as it led him into an apparent madness.

There’s also poor Ophelia (Hamlet’s sweetheart) who falls bait to the madness. The play basically boils down to everyone dying except Hamlet’s BFF Horatio, who lives on to retell Hamlet’s tragic tale.

CONGRATULATIONS!! You made it to the end of this. You are successfully certified a 10% less of a literature fool, when it comes to Shakespeare! This post might in no way serve as a cheat sheet for each of the play, however I’m hoping it does give you an insight into what you should be expecting. For what it’s worth- “Thou is officially above average in the level of Shakespeare knowledge you have post thee blog!”

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