Well, with April coming to a close as does my William Shakespeare month (though am I ever not talking about Shakespeare?). I’ve really loved focusing on Shakespeare and his works this month. As I said at the beginning of the month, Shakespeare’s works have been so influential to so many, so it’s been awesome to check out works that have been modeled after his as well as reading his works.
Originally my goal was to read all 39 of Shakespeare’s plays by the end of this month, but alas due to just life in general that has not happened. As of now, I’ve read 11 plays, so my goal is to now finish them by June. We’ll see how that goes. While I haven’t read/reread all of his works before writing this post, I do know which plays are my favorites because they’re the ones I always gravitate to and ones that mean a lot to me.
Romeo and Juliet (Tragedy, 1597)
“Two households, both alike in dignity / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene”
I cannot lie to you, that opening line makes me go absolutely feral. I LOVE Romeo and Juliet. I don’t care what anyone says, it is one of Shakespeare’s greatest works and one of the greatest works in literature period. It gets such a bad reputation, and honestly, I think that a lot of people who say they hate it are just jumping on the bandwagon. That’s not to say that there aren’t people who genuinely don’t like Romeo and Juliet because there are and those people are completely valid. But I do think some people hate it because that’s the ~cool thing~ to do. It’s an important story that gets reduced to romance alone and therefore it’s something that is cool to hate.
There’s a reason why Romeo and Juliet is one of the most popular works in literature and theatre, and is constantly adapted and reimagined. The story is timeless. It’s a story that can be set in any time period and still be relevant. The general themes of love, prejudice, and war are universal. I think that when people reduce Romeo and Juliet to “just a love story” they’re doing a disservice not just to R&J but to themselves as well. Romeo and Juliet is not just a love story. In fact, I would say that the love story is secondary to the story about the war between the Capulets and the Montagues. I say that because the root of all the conflict is war. This war controls Verona. You are either a Capulet or a Montague, you cannot be both and you can’t really be neutral.
Yes, Romeo and Juliet fall in love and that is what motivates both of them. That is their primary focus and the love story takes center stage, but right in the peripheral of everything is the war. This war leads two children to kill themselves because they cannot be together. Why would they do that? Because of war, hate and prejudice. Had their families not been at war with one another, their fates would’ve been completely different. I’ve seen people say that it was senseless of Romeo and Juliet to kill themselves because their warring families wouldn’t let them be together. You know what? They’re right! It is senseless. It’s senseless because the Capulet and Montague war is senseless. Why are they at war? No one knows. They just are. There is this hate that these families have for each other and no one knows why. It simply inspires hate and violence in everyone and everyone becomes a casualty of it.
Romeo and Juliet is told time and time again because the ultimate message of it is, when you senselessly hate everyone suffers. I think that message gets lost, which honestly upsets me because it’s an important message. It’s a message that is relevant to the times that we’re currently living in.
Romeo and Juliet will continue to be told time and time again because it’s message and themes are universal, and I will continue to seek it out.
Twelfth Night (Comedy, 1602)
Twelfth Night is actually one of the plays that I had checked out based on a film that it inspired. My favorite movie as a young teenager, and still one of my favorites, is the 2006 film She’s the Man. Because of my obsession with that film, I absolutely needed to check out the source material, and once I read it I loved it.
I honestly just love the characters in this show. Duke Orsino never fails to make me laugh simply because he’s dramatic af. In the first scene he’s confessing his undying love for Olivia, a woman that he does not speak to once throughout the entire course of the show. Though as the show goes on, it becomes clear that he is more in love with the idea of being in love with Olivia, and he definitely has a bit of an ego to him so he loves the attention he’s given while professing his undying love. It’s also interesting that he’s “in love” with Olivia, who is actually very similar to him. They’re essentially mirror images of each other, just like Viola and Sebastian are so it’s funny that they end up marrying female and male versions of the same person.
Twelfth Night is also a show that touches on gender expression and identity and sexuality. From the moment that Orsino meets Viola (disguised as Cesario) he immediately connects with her and opens up to her, and as he believes she’s a man, there is an undertone of homosexuality in their interactions. He continually references Cesario’s beauty even before he knows she’s actually Viola, so it’s heavily implied that Orsino has some attraction to Cesario. There’s also the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio is deeply faithful to Sebastian, even following him to Illyria from where he has been banished. He also very clearly makes his devotion to Sebastian known, he says to him in act 2, scene 1, “come what may, I adore thee so / That danger will seem sport, and I will go” but of course, as this was written in 1602, his feelings are not explicitly stated and are not fully reciprocated.
As Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy, romantic love is the main focus on the show. As Shakespeare tends to do, he depicts many different aspects of love, and in this show he displays that with great love can also come great pain through both Olivia and Viola mourning their brothers. He also shows selfish love through Orsino and Olivia. Both of them love in a way that is self-indulgent as they pine away for someone who doesn’t love them. Many of the characters are also fickle in love, they jump from one lover to another. Orsino goes from Olivia to Viola, Olivia goes from Cesario to Sebastian, and then there’s the case of Sir Toby and Maria’s marriage, which honestly kind of comes out of left field. The only character with a pure love is Viola.
“She pined in thought, / And with a green and yellow melancholy / She sat like patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?”
Viola is just a likable character. Unlike other characters, Viola isn’t self serving, many of the choices she makes are to help others. She doesn’t have any clear faults, which makes her slightly one dimensional, but on the other hand it is nice to have a character that is clearly good of heart when there are many that have ulterior motives. Her biggest conflict throughout the show is her identity. She floats between being Viola and being Cesario and it isn’t until the end when she finds out that Sebastian is alive that she’s able to shed her disguise and be her authentic self. Viola is a great protagonist because her motivations are clear and unselfish, which makes her a character that is easy to connect and empathize with.
Twelfth Night’s cast of likable and over dramatic characters and fun plot line made it my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies the first time I read it and it has continued to be a favorite with every reread. It also reminds me of my college conservatory days, as there were many times when we would quote random lines from the show throughout the day, so the show has a lot of good memories associated with it.
Macbeth (Tragedy, 1606)
I remember reading Macbeth for the first time and being absolutely mind blown. I didn’t know how to process it at first; it’s very overwhelming. Then once I read it a second time I became obsessed with it and now it’s without a doubt one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.
I think it’s one of his most atmospheric works. The way that he weaves together the violence and the weather is so interesting. The show begins with the Witches in a thunder and lightning storm as they make plans to confront Macbeth after a battle, and the imagery of weather and violence continue to intersect from then on out. As the plot gets darker the atmosphere of the show does as well. It’s almost as if the actions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth influence the weather. Setting the first scene the way that he did sets the tone for the entire show. Macbeth is dark and sinister and compelling and the imagery clearly reflects that.
I’m constantly intrigued by the characterization, and I think Macbeth has some of his most fascinating female characters. Lady Macbeth is vindictive, conniving, ruthless and ambitious – qualities that at the time were not often seen in women. In my opinion she’s probably Shakespeare’s most interesting female character. What makes her so interesting to me, is that she is in control from the beginning, and Shakespeare plays on some really interesting gender and power dynamics with her and her relationship with Macbeth. She’s also savage honestly, the way that she convinces Macbeth to do anything is by questioning his masculinity and she is very calculating. Her “out damned spot” monologue is one of my favorites, and I love her descent into madness in comparison to Macbeth’s. She is the real villain of this story and she’s a fantastic one at that. She’s a character that I would absolutely love to play one day – in fact, when I was around 16 one of my directors told me that I would play her well and I was very honored.
“By the pricking of my thumbs / Something wicked this way comes.”
Other characters that I find compelling are the Witches, who right from the beginning, use their prowess to play Macbeth like a puppet by feeding his ambition. They also deliver some of my favorite sets of dialogue in any Shakespeare show. I love that they speak in rhyming couplets as opposed to most characters that speak in blank verse. It’s a great contrast and shows that they are something otherworldly. The Witches are also clearly modeled after the Fates from both Norse and Greek mythology, which is probably part of why I’m so drawn to them.
Macbeth, in my opinion, is the ultimate story about power and ambition and I continue to be endlessly captivated by it.
Taming of the Shrew (Comedy, 1623)
This is a controversial opinion I know. I also know that Taming has MANY problems. While I fully acknowledge these problems and agree with them, I actually really enjoy it. It could also be because I have a bit of a connection to the show. I won’t lie, there are many fascists of myself that I see in Katherine. I also got to perform as Katherine during my Shakespeare class in college and it was some of the most fun I’ve had performing. Taming also inspired two pieces of media that I absolutely love, the 1999 film, Ten Things I Hate About You and the 1948 Cole Porter musical Kiss Me Kate.
Here’s the thing about Taming, I actually think that it is one of Shakespeare’s most relevant plot lines. While the idea of arranged marriages and dowries have mostly fallen out of the norm, women not having full agency in their lives has not.
Kate is seen as difficult because she does not wish to marry, speaks her mind, and argues back. Because she is not obedient to the men in her life and does not defer to them at every moment, she is seen as unladylike and is shown no respect. She is often compared to her sister Bianca, who is her exact opposite and fits the idea of how men think a woman should behave. This is something that women today still struggle with. Most times if you speak up for yourself, voice your opinions, and are not the embodiment of what society has deemed “feminine” you are difficult, or brash, or a “shrew” just as Kate is.
Kate is merely a piece in the men’s game. While Kate is in a large number of scenes in the show, for many of those scenes she is being talked about rather than being spoken to. The story actually focuses more on the men in the story than it focuses on Kate. And when the men are focused on Kate they are only concerned with the fact that she does not behave how they want her to, which they discuss right in front of her. They ignore her because she does not fit what they want her to be. Kate has little to no agency (Bianca has absolutely none) and none of the men show her any kind of “respect” until the end of the show when she has been “tamed” and no longer objects to Petruchio’s wishes. That final monologue that Kate is heartbreaking to me as she says,
“I am ashamed that women are so simple / To offer war where they should kneel for peace, or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway”
However, when I read it again earlier this year, I had a thought. I think that Kate, at that moment, is protecting herself. I personally do not think that Kate has been “tamed”. I think that she has realized that she will not be able to control any part of her life until she starts acting in a way that the men around her want her to. I think that that final moment is a calculated choice. A choice that women have been making every single day to be given barely an ounce of respect that men are given for simply existing. In fact, I would love to direct a version of Taming that plays on that idea and presenting that moment as Kate being more subtly angry and showing that she is now playing the game that the men have been in charge of for the entire show. But that’s another discussion for another day.
In short, Taming of the Shrew may have been published in 1623, but the way that women are viewed in society and how men treat them has not changed in the 398 years since.
Hamlet (Tragedy, 1603)
Hamlet is arguably Shakespeare’s most notable work, in fact it is often considered to be one of the most influential literary works ever written.
Something that I think is really interesting about Hamlet is that throughout the play it makes references to performances – both theatrical and the way that people perform in their daily lives. Hamlet takes advantage of a group of traveling actors and has them perform a scene that reflects how he believes Claudius killed his father – hoping that Claudius will react and the truth will be revealed. Polonius mentions that at university he “did enact Julius Caesar” which could be a reference to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar since it was written around the same time as Hamlet. In act 1, scene 5, Hamlet himself tells the audience that he is going to pretend to be mad, but as the show goes on it gets harder to tell if Hamlet is playing at being mad or if he actually is mad. The thin line between what is real and what’s fake blurs throughout the entire show and by the end the audience isn’t completely sure what was fiction and what was reality.
“The Play’s the Thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.“
While Hamlet is a fascinating character, I’ve always found myself drawn to Ophelia. Ophelia, similarly to many of Shakespeare’s female characters and women of that time, has little agency and her role in the play is focused on her relationships with her father, Polonius, her brother, Laertes and Hamlet. Her father and brother definitely restrict her actions, and in doing so, actually lead her to her death. I always wonder what would’ve happened to her had she not been so controlled by the men around her. Ophelia is one of those characters that I want to wrap in a blanket and just take away from her circumstances and protect her because she deserves better.
Hamlet is often quoted in mainstream media, and was the inspiration for one of my favorite films, The Lion King (1994). Since its creation in 1603, Hamlet has become a huge staple in pop culture.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Comedy, 1605)
“Think you have but slumbered here / While these visions did appear. / And this weak and idle theme / No more yielding but a dream”
So, let’s be real, my preferred aesthetic is to be wearing a soft flowing gown, my hair braided with flowers and dancing barefoot in an open field, which essentially is the aesthetic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I absolutely love the fairytale aspect of it with Titania, the fairy queen and her fairies. They’re very ethereal and captivating and truthfully whenever I read the play or watch a production of it I find myself completely entranced by them.
The magic and fantastical world that this play takes place in definitely drew me to the story initially and I love how magic is woven into the story. Everything is very playful and has a fairly light energy to it with Puck running around throwing love potion at everyone. Love and magic are closely intertwined in this show as the magic from Puck’s love potion and the fairies cause chaos among the lovers of the story.
While I love Midsummer, what does not and has never sat well with me is the storyline of the young Indian prince given to Titania by the prince’s mother. That whole storyline is completely unnecessary and doesn’t add anything to the story. It simply exists to create friction between Titania and Oberon which could’ve been developed without using a child of color as a piece of property.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is definitely one of Shakespeare’s most fantastical and ethereal plays that leaves the audience entranced and entertained.
So there we have it! A list of my favorite Shakespeare plays and why I love these stories. Thank you for indulging me during this Shakespeare themed month, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Whether you’re new to Shakespeare’s works or a long time fan, I’d love to discuss these works and others with you in the comments!