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Shakespeare's Plays

Summaries of William Shakespeare's plays.

Shakespeare's plays portray recognisable people in situations that all of us experience at one time or another in our lives—love, marriage, death, mourning, guilt, the need to make difficult choices, separation, reunion and reconciliation among them. They do so with great humanity, tolerance, and wisdom. They help us to understand what it is to be human, and to cope with the problems of being so.  

Click on a play below for a full synopsis.

All's Well That Ends Well

Helen saves the King's life, he gives her his son to marry, he runs away from her, and she tricks him into impregnating her. Everything ends happily.

Antony and Cleopatra

Antony loves Cleopatra, but marries Caesar's sister so that they can be friends, but then leaves and goes to Cleopatra again, and the Caesar gets mad and everyone dies.

As You Like It

All brothers hate each other for some reason. Rosalind dresses up as a boy and convinces her crush to hit on her while she's a boy. Everyone is married by a Greek god.

The Comedy of Errors

Antiphonus searches for his long lost identical twin brother, Antiphonus, while his servant, Dromio, searches for his long lost identical twin brother, Dromio. Shenanigans ensue.

Coriolanus

Coriolanus hates the people, and they banish him from Rome. Coriolanus loves his mother, and she stops him from attacking Rome. He dies.

Cymbeline

Imogen's fidelity is questioned, everyone puts on some sort of disguise, revelations abound at the end, and only one person dies.

Hamlet

Hamlet sees his dead dad's ghost, pretends to go crazy with revenge, actually goes crazy with revenge (debatable), and everyone dies.

Henry IV Part 1

King Henry IV fights off a growing rebellion while his son drinks and robs people; his son redeems himself.

Henry IV Part 2

King Henry IV is dying; Falstaff is ... Falstaff-ing; Prince John is unethical; and Hal becomes King.

Henry V

Henry becomes king, kills a bunch of his old friends, and conquers the French.

Henry VI Part 1

King Henry is a child, so everyone tries to control him; Plantagenet and Somerset hate each other; after a war, Henry marries a woman he has never met; oh, and Joan of Arc is in it too.

Henry VI Part 2

Gloucester is conspired against and killed; York sends Cade to incite rebellion to see if it works, and it fails; York comes to incite rebellion anyway.

Henry VI Part 3

Henry and Edward can't be friends; Margaret wields a lot of power; they all battle and imprison and exile one another; Edward wins.

Henry VIII

Cardinal Woolsey is shifty; Henry divorces Katherine and marries Anne; Queen Elizabeth is the most extraordinary being ever to be born, praise her.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is warned of the ides of March, ignores it, and dies; plebeians are way too easily swayed; all the conspirators die too.

King John

France thinks that Arthur should be king; they fight; France thinks that Louis should be king; they fight; Henry becomes king.

King Lear

King divides kingdom, snubs daughter, goes mad, there's a storm, and everyone dies.

Love's Labour's Lost

Four men forswear women right before four women arrive to meet them; the men change their minds.

Macbeth

Macbeth hears that he is going to be king; he and Lady Macbeth kill people so he can become king; both of them die.

Measure for Measure

Angelo rules as a religious tyrant, tries to manipulate a nun to sleep with him, is foiled, and ultimately punished.

The Merchant of Venice

Shylock asks for a pound of flesh as part of a loan contract (weird), Bassanio agrees to it (weirder), and Portia saves the day by cross-dressing and pretending to practice the law (perfectly normal).

Merry Wives of Windsor

Falstaff tries to pursue two married women; the women are smart; they put him in a river, dress him as a woman, and bring him to a haunted forest; everyone is happy.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

People get lost in the woods. Puck manipulates their romantic affections and (in one case) anatomical head-shape. They put on a play.

Much Ado About Nothing

Benedick and Beatrice don't love each other but then they do. Claudio and Hero love each other but then they don't but then they do again. Everyone gets married.

Othello: The Moor of Venice

Iago manipulates literally everyone. Othello gets really jealous. (Almost) everyone dies.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Pericles is shipwrecked and finds his wife; he is shipwrecked again and loses his wife and daughter; they all find each other again.

Richard II

Richard wastes money, steals land, and kills political rivals; people are angry and rebel; Henry becomes king.; he kills political rivals.

Richard III

Richard wants to become King no matter who he has to kill to get there; he kills everyone who stands in his way; spooky ghosts appear; Richard is killed.

Romeo and Juliet

The classic story of boy meets girl; girl's family hates boy's family; boy's family hates girl's family; boy kills girl's cousin; boy and girl kill themselves.

Taming of the Shrew

Katherina doesn't want to get married; Petruchio marries her and compels her to be obedient; everyone is happy? The end.

The Tempest

A crew of men are shipwrecked on a magical island and tormented by an old man and his slaves.

Timon of Athens

Timon gets into major debt, gets mad when no one wants to cover him, and pays some person in the woods to destroy Athens.

Titus Andronicus

Tamora plans false incrimination, rape, murder, and mutilation. Titus plans murder and cannibalism. This is not a happy play.

Troilus and Cressida

Troilus love Cressida, but betrays him; Achilles loves Patroclus, but he is killed; no one is happy.

Twelfth Night

Viola thinks her brother is dead. He thinks that she is dead. Everyone thinks that she is her brother. Everyone thinks that her brother is her. Shenanigans ensue.

Two Gentlemen of Verona

Valentine and Proteus are best friends, except Proteus is disloyal to his girlfriend in pursuit of Valentine's fiance. There's a dog. Everyone gets married in the end, though.

The Winter's Tale

King Leontes becomes paranoid about his wife's fidelity; he imprisons her, kills their son, and banishes their infant daughter; years later, a statue comes to life.

Because Shakespeare's plays are written to be acted, they are constantly fresh and can be adapted to the place and time they are performed. Their language is wonderfully expressive and powerful, and although it may sometimes seem hard to understand in reading, actors can bring it to vivid life for us. The plays provide actors with some of the most challenging and rewarding roles ever written. They are both entertaining and moving. 

In the first Folio of 1623, the earliest edition of Shakespeare's collected plays, they are divided into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. Over time, these have been further divided into Romances which include The TempestThe Winter's TaleCymbeline, and Pericles. The term ‘Problem Plays’ has been used to include plays as apparently diverse as Measure for MeasureHamletAll's Well that Ends Well  and Troilus and Cressida

In his history plays, Shakespeare sometimes had the same character appear over and over. For example, the character 'Bardolph' appears in the the most plays of any characters, including Henry IV Part 1Henry IV Part 2Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

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