John Webb's Guide to the Work of Shakespeare

John Webb's Guide to the Work of Shakespeare

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John Webb's Guide to the Work of Shakespeare

This page gives a simple introduction to each of Shakespeare's plays, and points out a few of the ideas in each of them. All the plays are presented here, in approximate chronological order [the dates of the plays used on this page are from Bloom's Invention of the Human].

Shakespeare's first 4 plays (Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III) tell the story of a troubled chapter of English history, around 150 years before Shakespreare's own time, known as The War of The Roses. One the most important figures in the action was the Earl of Warwick, whose home, Warwick Castle, is very near Stratford. The complicated historical background to these plays, and Shakespeare's other historical plays, is described on my page Historical Background.

Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3

In Part 1, Henry VI becomes sovereign while still a child. His title is not secure because his grandfather had stolen the crown from Richard II.
Part 2 shows the growing struggle and contention for the crown amongst Henry's nobles.

Part 3 tells the story of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the Kingmaker (shown right) who, first supporting the House of York opposed to Henry, deposes Henry. Richard Neville then changes sides, and briefly resores the crown to Henry, before Henry's murder in the Tower of London.

Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their sheep
Than doth a rich embroidered canopy
To kings that fear their subject's treachery

Henry VI was a pious and studious man. He can be described as a contemplative philosopher-king. The plays contrast his spiritual philosophy, with the worldly, materialistic and ambitious nobles beneath him.

The contempative philosopher-king reappears in Shakespeare's subsequent plays - as the exiled Dukes in As You Like It and Measure for Measure, as Timon of Athens, and as Prospero.

Shakespeare subsequently wrote several further history plays, in all telling the whole story of English history for the 250 years up to his own time.

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But Shakespeare's stories are more than an objective retelling of history. Shakespeare attempts, through his presentation, to see meaning in history. Starting from the deposition of Richard II, through the 100 years of civil strife, and culminating with the marriage of Henry VII, which healed the division between the houses of York and Lancaster, Shakespeare presents a view of divine judgement and providence. The theme of a rightful ruler disposessed, ensuing anarchy, and then providential redemption, recurs in several of his other plays. Shakespeare is using the entire story of English history as a mirror for that idea.

Richard III


Follows historically where the Henry VI plays finish. Richard is an ambitious, willful, clever, and unscrupulous manipulator. Richard murders Henry VI, and then his brother's son (Edward V), and various others, securing the crown for himself. His downfall occurs at Bosworth Field where he is defeated by Richmond (heir to the Lancastrian line) and who becomes Henry VII.

Portrayed brilliantly by Olivier, with his limp, hunched back, and shifty eyes.

Henry VII mends the rift between the Houses of Lancaster and York, by marrying the eldest daughter from the House of York. He then establishes the stable Tudor dynasty, which continued into Shakespeare's own day.

Two Gentlemen of Verona

Two men, Valentine and Proteus, are close firends. Proteus falls in love with Julia, while Valentine decides to travel. In Milan Valentine meets and falls in love with Silvia, daughter of a Duke. The father of Proteus orders his son to Milan, where he also falls for Silvia, despite being betrothed to Julia. Proteus contrives to betray his friend to Siliva's father, and Julia, and to steal Silvia. But Silvia resists his advances. Meanwhile Julia disguises herself as a man and goes to Milan, seeking Proteus, where she sees Proteus' unfaithful behaviour. Following Proteus' plan Silvia's father expels Valentine from the city, but Siliva goes after Valentine, pursued by Proteus. In a wood Proteus tries to force himself on Silvia, and she is saved by Valentine. Proteus then repents, and Julia reaveals her identity. The 2 couples return to Milan and all ends happily.

Sometimes seen as contrasting the deceiptful man with the noble one, but also as a comment on "gentlemen" in general. When Shakespeare uses the term "gentlemen" in other plays he is usually scornful, implying that being high-born or acquiring a classical education does not in itself confer nobility of mind.

The Comedy of Errors

In a shipwreck, 2 pairs of identical twins are separated from each other, and their parents. After 10 years one set goes looking for the other. A farce develops involving mistaken identities. In the end the twins, and their parents, meet and all are reunited.
Although one of Shakespeare's ealiest plays it uses several themes which recur throughout his later works: a shipwreck as starting point, acts of fate and coincidence, references to witchcraft and sorcery, a tale of two brothers, families being separated and reunited, and lovers finding their right partners.

Titus Andronicus

The play is set in Rome. The eldest son claims right to the empire by right of birth. The younger son claims superior worthiness, and right through election. As a third choice the people choose Titus a valiant soldier. Titus himself chooses the traditional Engish model, inheritance by the eldest son. The sons of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, rape Titus's daugter Lavinia. They cut out her tongue, but she writes their names in sand. Titus kills the sons and feeds their remains in a pie to their mother.

The Taming of the Shrew

A rich nobleman has two daughters, Katharina and Bianca. The eldest appears ill tempered and on the shelf, while the younger appears charming and has many suitors. Their father insists that the elder must marry first which seems impossible. Petruccio rashly agrees to marry Kate without meeting her. In the event Petruccio and Kate discover their similar and strong characeters, and they become true lovers. In contrast, Bianca, after her own marriage, reveals a spoiled character. At the end of the play Kate offers advice on letting a man think he has the upper hand.

Sometimes perceived as a chauvinistic play. But Shakespeare is no chauvinist, for in all of this other works, Shakespeare is always sympathetic to his heroines.

Love's Labour's Lost

King Ferdinand establishes a high-principled monastic study centre with austere rules for the study of philosophy. He and his 3 companions swear to forgo the companyy of woman and other worldy entertainments to devote themselves to study. But as soon as 4 young women arrive, the men all immediately, and break their vows, and with justification. The women play games around the men, and all agree to marry the men if they will each undergo some penance for a year.

Leaning and study have no value without a woman's love. The theme of love and learning here has parallels to questions of love and duty - the subject of Antony and Cleopatra (see below), in which Shakespeare demonstrates a similar view.

King John

This is a clever echo of some dynastic and constitutional issues involving Elizabeth I. Shakespeare draws similarities between issues at the time of King John and Elizabeth. These include the lack of an heir, and the comparing the death of Mary Queen of Scots with the death of Arthur in King John.

Richard II

Richard II and the Henry IV and Henry V plays which follow, tell the period of English history which preceded The Wars of the Roses, and from which those troubles originated.
Richard II is a rightful king, but he murders his uncle, and robs John of Gaunt of his property. Gaunt's son Bolingbrooke tries to retrieve his father's property and, joined by other nobles, seizes the crown. He is a better king but lacks the right to rule. The troubles that follow make the Henry IV story.

Romeo and Juliet

There is a bitter feud between two Italian families, the Montagues and the Capulets. Romeo, only son of the Capulet faimly, sneaks into a ball being held by the Capulets, where he sees Juliet. The two fall in love at first sight. After the ball there is a quarrel between two other youths, in which one is killed. The murderer is then killed by Romeo.

Romeo is banished from the town. Juliet's parents decide to marry her immediately to someone else whom she does not love. Juliet seeks the help of a Friar. He gives a drug to fake her death, with the plan that she will be buried alive, and may then escape and elope with Romeo. But Romeo does not know of the plan, and finds the grave prematurely, and thinking Juliet to be dead, kills himself. When Juliet comes round, she kills herself too.

Love, in Shakespeare's plays, frequently occurs at first sight, and here, as in Othello and Cleopatra, there are intimations of a transcendental reunion of the lovers.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

It is the occasion of the marriage of the Duke of Atens. A group of yokels plan to present a play to honour the Duke, and go to a wood at night to rehearse secretly. There too are an eloping couple, and of course, the King of Queen of the wood, Oberon and Titania. There is a disagreement between Oberon and Titania over a changling boy whom Oberon needs. As a pank Oberon's messenger, Puck, turns one of the yokels, Bottom the weaver, into an asses head. To play a prank on Titania, Oberon makes a spell to make her fall in love with whoever she sees on waking, which happens to be Bottom.

Oberon also instucts Puck to use the spell to secure the love between a pair of lovers in the wood, but Puck inadvertently puts the spell on the wrong man. Puck undoes all his mischief. When Oberon has secured the changling boy, the spells are removed, and all the pairs of lovers, at all levels of the play, marry their correct partners.

An underlying belief is that the relation between the King and Queen is reflected in the state of the world:

This same progeny of evils comes
from our debate, from our dissension
We are their parents and original
And the twists of fate that affect the earthly lovers, for good or ill, are mediated by unseen spirits, agents of the King of the Wood.

The hero of the play is Bottom, the only human privileged to see the characters of the fairy world. Bottom is a weaver and in the medieval world, fate and language, Shakespeare's own craft, were both believed to be woven.

The Merchant of Venice

Bassanio needs a loan to woo rich lady Portia whom he loves. Antonio is a Christian merchant, much hated by the Jewish money-lender Shylock. Bassanio secures a loan, from Shylock, which Antonio underwrites. As surity Shylock demands a pound of Antonio's flesh, if the loan is not repaid in time. Portia's father has a test for Portia's suitors - to choose the right one of 3 caskets, gold, silver and lead. Bassanio chooses the lead box and wins Portia. Antonio's ships are fatefully delayed and have not returned by the due date, and Shylock demands his due. Portia disguises herself as a lawyer to defend Antonio, She makes a speech about the nobility of mercy, and urges Shylock to be merciful, Shylock demands his due. Portia then argues that Shylock may take his pound of flesh, but must not spill one drop of blood. Portia then accuses Shylock of wanting the death of Antonio. Shylock sues for the mercy that he denied Antonio.

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

Although titled Henry IV, this play is mainly about his son, Prince Hal, and Sir John Falstaff. Prince Hal spends his time, not at court, but in the drinking houses of the East End. The main active influence on Prince Hal is gourmandiser and womaniser Falstaff, who represents vices, in all their forms.

The play is sometimes described as the battle between vice and virtue for the soul of a King, and although Hal banishes Falstaff, Falstaff, and all that he represents is incorporated into the play with affection and sympathy. Falstaff's philosophy offers an alternative view to the serious and the rational.

Elements in the play are particularly broad ranging incorporating themes from the entire English national life, from the country to the town, and from lowly drinking houses, to an intimate knowledge of the problems and responsibilities of kings. The breadth of material covered reflects itself in Shakespeare's own experience - the country boy from Stratford, now lodging, and writing his plays, in the taverns of London, and presenting them to the monarchy.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

Follows the fortunes of Sir John Falsaff after his fall from favour with Prince Hal, now Henry V.

In Merry Wives, Falstaff schemes to obtain money from the rich wives of two gentlemen of Windsor, Page and Ford. The wives discover Falstaff's plan, and decide to play a trick on him. Falstaff tries to enlist the help of two friends in his scheme, but they inform the respective husbands. Page treats the matter as a joke but Ford is outraged. Ford disguises himself, and offers to pay Falstaff to introduce him to Ford's wife. Falstaff agrees and discloses his plans for a meeting with Ms Ford. Mr Ford then interputs the meeting, but Falstaff escapes in a landry basket. Falstaff then sets up another meeting, is again interupted, and once again escapes. The husbands discover the two wives have been fooling Falstaff, and they all agree on a final humiliation. Falstaff is lured into Windsor Park at night, where he is confronted by fairies and imps, to scare him, and by the wives and their husbands.

Much Ado About Nothing

Echoes some themes from Taming of The Shrew. Beatrice and Benedict are two strong personailites, who look down on members of the opposite sex. Their friends arrange to trick each one into thinking that the other loves them, with the required outcome.

Henry V

This is the same Prince Hal we last saw in the taverns of London, now leading his army to heroic victory in France.
Persuing his ancestral claim to the French crown, he invades France. A few thousand English soldiers defeat 60,000 French at Agincourt 1415.

After his victory at Agincourt, Henry retired briefly to Kenilworth. He built a large pleasure garden at the far end of the great mere.

This play is seen by some as glorifying patriotism and war. But Shakespeare's perception is more mature than that, and the same theme is explored further in his Troilus and Cressida (see below).

Julius Caesar

The period of the Roman Empire when its citizens offered a crown to its general Julius Caesar to become its first Emperor. This movement to a form of monarchy is seen as a threat to republican liberties. Victorious generals are not rightful kings. Brutus assasinate Caeser, but Brutus' rational ideas fail to secure the will of the people.

As You Like It

The rightful Duke, one of a pair of brother, is exiled from the court to live a simple life in the Forest of Arden. Orlando, son of a friend of the exiled Duke, takes part in a wrestling contest, which he wins, and falls in love with Rosalind, daughter of the rightful Duke. On discovering his relation to the exiled Duke, the Duke plans to murder him, and Orlando flees to forest. The Duke also banishes Rosalind, who also flees to the forest taking with her her close friend Celia. For safety Rosalind dresses as a youth. In the forest Rosalind comes across the lovesic Orlando, and in her disguise, persuades him tell her of his love for Rosalind. Orlando's bother Oliver falls for Celia. All the lovers are united with their proper loves.

This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play
All the world's a stage
And all the men and women merely players
And one man in his time plays many parts

Contrasts the idylic life in Arden with that of the court.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage was on the edge of The Forest of Arden. Most of the forest has since been cleared, though isolated patches of woodland remain.


The court is celebrating the marriage of Hamlet's mother to his dead father's brother. His father's ghost appears to tell him that his death was foul play. He kills his beloved's father. This drive Ophelia mad. His felow students contrive to take Hamlet to England to be killed there, but he contrives their own deaths. In a duel with poisoned swords both Opehila's bother and Hamlet are killed.

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Tis an unweeded garden, that grows to seed
things rank and gross in nature Possess it merely.
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of

Hamlet is in an introspective and melancholy mood, seeing the wrongs done to his father, and the pointlessness of living. He wonders if there is a life beyond this one, and if it will be any different, but cannot know.

Twelfth Night

Twins, a boy Sebastion and girl Viola, are separated in a shipwreck. Viola dresses as a young man, joins the court of Duke Orsino, and becomes his page. Viola falls in love with the Duke. The Duke is in love with a rich widow Olivia. The duke asks Viola to help woo Olivia on his behalf, in course of which Oilvia falls in love with Viola, believing her to be a young man. Another suitor for Olivia, Sir Andrew Arguecheek challenges Viola to a duel. The duel is interupted by Antonio, the captain who saved Viola lookalike brother Sebastion from the shipwreck, believing Viola to be Sebastion. Olivia marries Sebastion, and Viola marries the Duke.

Some are born great
Some achieve greatness
And some have greatness thrust upon them
People may become successful in any of those ways - by birth, through personal effort, or through fate. Shakespeare himself succeeded through ALL THREE - he had the innate talent, fortune lead him from Stratford away to London, and he made a great labour to create his plays.

Troilus and Cressida

Set during the Trojan War, a war fought for honour over a woman, Helen of Troy. The story tells of of 2 Trojans lovers, Troilus and Cressida. Cressida's father is a seer, and defects to the Greek side. As part of a prisoner exchange, the Greeks agree to release a Trojan prisoner, in exchange for Cressia, whose father is in Greece. At their parting Troilus and Cressida swear vows of undying love. The war is fought according to a gentlemanly civalric ethic, and the Greeks entertain some of the Trojans. Trolius discovers that Cressida is unfaithful. On the following day, Hector, the leading Trojan soldier is killed. Troilus looses all his faith, in women, in his country, and in the honour of war.

The play raises views about connections between sex and violence and the common passions that both stem from their close relation.

All's Well That Ends Well

Helena is daughter of a learned doctor. She loves Bertram, upper-class son of the household where she is living. He thinks she is beneath him. With the help of her father's art she cures a sick king, who grants her a wish - which is to marry Bertram. But he runs off. Helena follows Bertram, and tricks him into bed with her. Bertram then agrees to marry her.

Measure For Measure

The Duke of Vienna proposes to tighten laws against sex outside marriage. He entrusts this task to his deputy. Isabella joins an order of nuns which has a prohibition against speaking to men. Isabella's brother is caught for having illicit sex and sentenced to be executed. Isabella pleads with the Duke's deputy for leniency. The deputy tries to seduce Isabella. In the end everyone is paired off in marriage.

The play demonstrates that judges have the same frailties as those they judge.


Shakespeare contrasts a noble black Moor, Othello, with a vilainous white soldier, Iago. Othello marries Desdemona. This inflames Iago, who sows seeds of jealousy in Othello's mind. Othello kills his wife, and then takes his own.

King Lear

King Lear has 3 daughters and announces he will divide his kingdom between them and their husbands, in return for a declaration of their love. He intends to live with his favourite Cordelia to whom he intends to allocate the largest share. But she refuses to make the declaration and he banishes her. Lear then goes to live with each of the two other daughters in turn, but their proclamations of love had been false, and believing him to be powerless, they each turn him out. Lear is driven mad through elemental storms. Cordelia helps rescue her father. The two other daughters kill each other, and Cordelia.

Lear is a tyranical king, unaware of his own tyrany. He likes everyone to make favourable remarks about his kingship, which everyone does. But his two daughters praises are demonstrated to be false. Repeating a belief from Midsummers Nights Dream, the elements reflect the king's mind, and his fury over his daughters is reflected in the mighty storm in which he is caught. At the end of the play, when Cordelia lies murdered, Lear repents. If Shakespeare's historical plays are about men who became kings, then Lear is a play about a king who became a man.


On Elizabeth's death in 1603, the crown passed to James VI, who became the new patron of Shakespeare's acting company. Macbeth was written to honour James' ancestors, and to reflect James' own fascination with witchcraft. James had written a treatise on the subject, from a strongly Catholic viewpoint, in 1597.

Macbeth is a general under Scots King Duncan. On returning from a valiant victory, Macbeth comes upon 3 witches who tell him he will become Thane of Cawdor, and then king. The witches are giving voice to a hidden desire in Macbeth's mind. King Duncan discovers that the Thane of Cawdor has been treacherous, and in gratitude to Macbeth awards Macbeth the title. Macbeth then wonders about the 2nd of the witches prophecies. Macbeth has a conscience and tries to dismiss any idea of his usurping the throne, prefering to allow fate to work its course. But his wife, Lady Macbeth is ambitious and unscrupulous, and urges Macbeth to murder the king. The opportunity soon arises when the king comes to stay at Inverness Castle, Macbeth's home. Macbeth does murder the king, and the king's servants, and following that, other claimants to the crown. Duncan's sons flee to England, and eventually return, with an army to defeat Macbeth, and to restore the rightful line of succession.

The 3 witches don't take part much, beyond their prophecy. There is little "supernatural" in the play. The most malevolent, and witch-like character is actually Lady Macbeth, a woman exerting influence over a powerful male figure to effect an end. A central subject is regicide. Given Shakespeare's divine viewpoint about kings, regicide might be considered a far more serious matter than mere homicide. Although his history plays deal with the deposition of kings, Shakespeare doesn't dwell on this act. Witchcraft is presumably a complex subject about which the Elizabethans would have been more knowledgeable than we are. From some viewpoints, some of Shakespeare's other characters, like Puck, or Prospero, might be considered to practice similar arts.

Antony and Cleopatra

A sequel to Julius Caesar. Contrasts Roman politics with Egyptian love. In Julius Caesar, Antony is portrayed as a clever politician ruled by his emotions, in contrast to Brutus, ruled by reason. Anthony can move crowds through the power of emotion. He has Roman wife, but chooses stays in Egypt with Cleopatra. He wife dies and he returns briefly to Rome, but cannot give up Cleopatra, and eventually returns to her.
About the apparently conflicting demands of love or duty. Rome and all that it stands for represents reason and duty. Egypt represents the intuitive female and mystical side of life, and the eternal. The play is dominated not by Antony but by Cleopatra. There are suggestions of lovers reuniting beyond the grave.


A political play, in the 20th Century sense of left and right wing politics. Background is of food riots, reflecting food shortages in 16th century Warwickshire. Views the conflict between the patricians of Rome who own and produce, and the ordinary people, demanding their democratic share. Coriolanus is a popular warrior who has saved Rome single handed. His friends want him to stand for senator but he scorns the democratic process. Coriolanus refuses to flatter the mob, and is cast out of the city he once saved. He goes to his former enemies and returns with an their army. His former friends cannot persude him not to destroy Rome, but he ignores their pleas. His mother persuades him not to destroy Rome. He dies at the hands of the alien army.

Timon of Athens

Tells the story of a rich Athenian, Timon. His generosity is exploited by his friends until he renounces them all. An introspective debate about life and materialism. Timon renounces life and dies.

Pericles Prince of Tyre

A shipwreck in which Pericles is separated from his wife and daughter. The daughter survives many perils, including a stay in a brothel. The family are eventually reunited.


Cynbeline is a king in ancient Britain. His two sons are abducted, leaving his daughter, Imogen, as heir to the kingdom. Cymbeline remarries, and his new wife wants to make her own son heir, by marring her son to Imogen. Imogen loves Posthumus, another child Cymbeline had had adopted, and who had grown up with Imogen. The new queen persuades Cymbeline to banish Posthumus. Imogen and Postumus swear fidelity before they are parted. An Italian, Iachimo, makes a wager with Postumus that Imogen will not be faithful, and that she will fall for him. Imogen resists Iachimo, but to win the bet Iachmo steals a bracelet from Imogen and returns to Posthumus. Posthumus pursades his servant to lead Imogen to wood, and their kill her. But instead if killing her, the servant gives her a man's clothes. She gets lost and meet her long lost brothers. The Queen's son comes looking for Imogen and is killed by the brothers. In a battle the brothers assisted by Posthumus help save Cymbeline, and win his gratitude. Cymbeline's family, and Imogen and Posthumus, are reunited.

A Winter's Tale

The King of Bohemia, Polixenes, is visiting the ruler of Sicily, Leontes. Leontes believes his wife is pregnant by the King of Bohemia. Leontes orders her child to be abandoned on the seashore. An Oracle pronounces her to be innocent, but just as Leontes hears this, he also hears his child is dead, and its mother. In fact the child has been saved by shepherds. 16 years elapse. Fate brings together the child and son of Polixenes. The Oracle had said that all would be well once the lost child is found, and so it is.

The Tempest

Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan is deposed by his worldy brother Antonio, and marooned on an island with his daughter, Miranda. Prospero masters two native sprits on the island, Ariel and Caliban, to be his servants. Prospero's magic secures the shipwreck of his usurping brother and the King of Naples. Antonios's son Ferdinand meets Miranda and they fall in love. Antonio's party plans to murder the King and claim the crown, but this is thwarted by Ariel. Everyone is brought to Prospero, and the King restores his Dukedom. Michael Hordern as Prospero

Now does my project gather to a head
My charms crack not; my spirits obey

I have bedimm'd the noontide sun
Call'd forth the mutinous winds
Graves at my command have waked their sleepers, by my so potent art

These our actors were all spirits and are melted into air
And like the baseless fabric of this vision
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself
We are such stuff as dreams are made on

The references to Prospero's magic arts raise tantalising questions about Shakespeare himself, and his own "art", and the extent to which Shakespeaere's art was, or is, "magical" and the effects it may have in the real world.
Some ideas in the play were popularised in the Science Fiction film Forbidden Planet. Dr Morbius is a student of arcane languages marooned on a planet with his only daughter. The fateful events which befall his visitors are effected by some form of magic exercised by Morbius.
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