Shakespeare for Dummies

Shakespeare for Dummies

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by John Doyle, Ray Lischner
     
 

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Shakespeare For Dummies is exquisite.”
—from the Foreword by Dame Judi Dench, star of “Mrs. Brown” and "Shakespeare in Love"

“What the film Shakespeare in Love has done to make Shakespeare the man accessible to a general audience, this book will do to make Shakespeare the writer enjoyable.”

Overview

Shakespeare For Dummies is exquisite.”
—from the Foreword by Dame Judi Dench, star of “Mrs. Brown” and "Shakespeare in Love"

“What the film Shakespeare in Love has done to make Shakespeare the man accessible to a general audience, this book will do to make Shakespeare the writer enjoyable.”
—Charlotte J.Headrick, PhD, Professor and Director, Theater Arts, Oregon State University

Does the thought of sitting through A Midsummer Night’s Dream give you nightmares? Did Romeo and Juliet seem like a foreign film—without the subtitles? As John Doyle and Ray Lischner prove in this uniquely accessible guide, Shakespeare is not only the greatest writer who ever lived, he’s also a great entertainer—once you get a handle on his wild plots and witty wordplay. Under their guidance, you’ll:

  • Go inside an Elizabethan theater—and find out how they managed with almost no seats, no roof and no women onstage
  • Get a handle on Shakespeare’s language—including all those racy puns and jokes
  • Maximize your enjoyment of his plays and poetry
  • Identify contemporary idioms and phrases that come from Shakespeare’s plays
  • Find Shakespeare festivals and performances in your area
  • Catch ten of the best show ever made of the Bard’s plays and meet ten of the greatest Shakespearean actors of all time

In simple, straightforward language, this friendly guide eases you into the wild, wonderful world of Shakespeare. With the help of snappy summaries and scorecards that help you keep track of who’s who, who’s in love with whom, and who’s killed whom in every play, it helps you:

  • Understand Shakespeare the person, his life and times and what makes him so special
  • Make sense of Shakespearean language and why it sounds the way it does
  • Get the inside track on the kinds of stories, characters and settings found in Shakespeare’s plays
  • Appreciate Shakespeare’s sonnets and other non-dramatic poetry

A royal feast for the head and heart, Shakespeare’s works have been thrilling audiences for four centuries, as they will four hundred years from now. Now let Shakespeare For Dummies help you to enjoy one the world’s great literary treasures.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This latest "Dummies" discusses all areas of Shakespeare study, including Shakespeare's life and world and his use of language. Sections cover the plays and poetry, examine plots and settings, identify major characters, and summarize each act as well as the major sonnets. The text offers little criticism. Baseball-type scorecards are included to engage people in watching the plays, which may invite writing in the book. Written in standard "Dummies" format, with cartoons and icons, the text contains all the basic information about Shakespeare and will appeal to those who think Shakespeare is too old-fashioned for the computer age. The authors emphasize Shakespeare's influence on today's world. Doyle has been artistic director of several regional British theaters, and Lischner, an amateur actor and director, teaches and writes about computer programming at Oregon State. Recommended for public libraries.--Shana C. Fair, Ohio Univ., Zanesville Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780764551352
Publisher:
Wiley
Publication date:
01/28/1999
Series:
For Dummies Series
Pages:
384
Sales rank:
412,472
Product dimensions:
7.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Meet William Shakespeare

In This Chapter

* Facts and fables about William Shakespeare

* A look at Shakespeare's plays as entertainment, not literature


A bout 400 years ago, a small-town actor and writer made it big in the theaters of London. His plays were popular, and he earned his share of fame and fortune. He and his colleagues never suspected, though, that he would gain immortality as one of the great masters of English literature. After all, he wasn't writing literature, just popular entertainment. William Shakespeare (shown in Figure 1-1) was simply doing his job — as an actor, director, writer, and partner in a successful acting company.

It turns out that Shakespeare was good at his job. Really good. So good that he changed the face of drama, and that 400 years later, we still consider his plays to be among the best ever written. Shakespeare is also the most studied playwright in history. Book after book has analyzed and explored his life, his mind, and probably a lot of other things you don't want to know about.

Shakespeare's plays are a lot of fun to watch, read, and perform. Sometimes, the fun gets lost in pedantic analysis of Shakespeare and his plays, but don't let the scholars get in your way. Take a new look at his plays, putting aside the analysis and concentrating instead on having fun.


Ye Olde Hollywood


The scene is dark. The murderer unwisely sits with his back to the door. The hero walks by and sees the murderer — now's his chance to avenge his father's foul and unnatural murder. Asthe hero creeps forward, the audience members hold their breath, waiting to see what will happen next. Will the murderer turn around? Will the hero achieve his vengeance?

Is this scene from the latest Hollywood thriller?

The boy and girl are from different families, from different walks of life. He is destined to lead, and she to follow. Her father forbids her from seeing her love, but that's okay because her lover is going mad anyway. In his madness, he kills her father, which drives her to madness and then to suicide. Her brother returns from France and demands justice.

Is this just another soap opera?

The answer to both questions is "Yes," but the scenes are also from a play written 400 years ago — Hamlet, Prince of Denmark — the story of a young man (named Hamlet, naturally) and some really crazy goings-on in Denmark. You can read more about this play in Chapter 15.

Shakespeare's plays are full of lovers and warriors, heroes and villains, and even a wicked stepmother — all the ingredients for box office success. His plays quickly became big hits in his day, and they have remained popular ever since.


Shakespeare, the Man


William Shakespeare grew up in the small village of Stratford, on the banks of the Avon River, but we don't know much else about his early life. We don't even know when he was born — only that his christening took place on April 26, 1564. He was probably born a few days before then, and the modern world conveniently uses April 23 as the anniversary of his birth for the somewhat macabre reason that he died on that day in 1616.

William was the third of eight children of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden. Three of his siblings died in infancy — an all-too-common fate in those days. We know almost nothing of William's childhood, but we do know that in November 1582, William married Anne Hathaway — who was eight years his senior — and they baptized their child, Susanna, on May 26, 1583. You do the math.

Anne later bore twins, a girl named Judith and a boy named Hamnet, both named after family friends. After that, William again drops out of the history books. Did he still live in Stratford? Did he move to London? We just don't know. All we know is that he surfaced seven years later, in 1592, as an actor and playwright living in London. E-mail hadn't been invented yet, so any aspiring playwright would have to live in London — that's where the theaters were. He was successful enough to draw the attention and ire of a competing playwright, Robert Greene, who called Shakespeare "an upstart crow."

Not everyone was so jealous of Shakespeare's success. Most of his other contemporaries recognized his genius. In a prefatory poem to The First Folio, which is the first published collection of Shakespeare's plays, Ben Jonson—also a well-regarded playwright — wrote:


Thou art a Monument without a tomb,

And art alive still while thy Book doth live,

And we have wits to read, and praise to give.

...

He was not of an age, but for all time!


Acting, writing, and directing paid the bills, but then as now, the real wealth came to the person in charge. Shakespeare didn't earn much money from writing plays, but from his share of the ticket receipts. He was part owner of an acting company and of the theater where that company performed: the Globe Theatre.

Shakespeare's plays at the Globe Theatre were so popular that he became a wealthy man. Shakespeare dutifully sent money back to Stratford, but we know little about his relationship with his family.

He purchased one of the largest houses in Stratford, where he and his family eventually lived until his daughters married and moved out. He invested in real estate around Stratford. He even purchased respectability in the form of a coat of arms. Pretty good for the son of a glove-maker.

Hamnet died in childhood, Shakespeare's his daughters grew up and had children of their own (Judith's children died young). Susanna's only child, Elizabeth, was the last of William Shakespeare's descendents.


Shakespeare, the Myth


Because we know so little about the true history of William Shakespeare, many stories have arisen surrounding his life. The most enduring myth is that Shakespeare did not write the plays that bear his name. Another interesting fable is that Shakespeare helped write the King James Bible.


Will the real William Shakespeare please stand up?


Some people claim that Shakespeare didn't actually write his plays. Instead, they say, someone else wrote the plays, and this mysterious person wanted or needed to remain anonymous. No one can prove these claims, and different people offer different mysterious candidates as the "real" William Shakespeare. Most of their arguments are similar, though:


* Shakespeare's education was limited, so he couldn't have had such an excellent command of English. Therefore, someone with a better education must have written his plays.

* Shakespeare didn't travel and see the world, so he couldn't have written plays that discuss such varied places as Egypt, Syracuse, and Italy.

* Shakespeare knew little of foreign languages, so he couldn't have written plays that contain passages of Latin and French.

* The plays often depict intimate details of the lives of kings and — queens a world unknown to the commoner Shakespeare.


The most popular contenders for Shakespeare's throne are Francis Bacon; Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford; and Christopher Marlowe — although the complete list of candidates is quite long, including such far-out suggestions as Queen Elizabeth and Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife. Take a quick look at some of the facts.

The Earl of Oxford died in 1604, but some of Shakespeare's best plays were written later than that. For example, Shakespeare wrote The Tempest in 1611. You need to come up with some convoluted explanations to account for this little problem.

Christopher Marlowe was also an excellent playwright, but he was killed in 1593, before Shakespeare wrote most of his plays. If you don't believe that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays, you won't accept Marlowe, either.

That leaves Francis Bacon, who was a prolific writer. His style is different from Shakespeare's, and we have no reason to believe that he wrote any plays using "Shakespeare" as a pseudonym.

Consider some additional facts. We don't know all the details of Shakespeare's life, but it's indeed likely that he never visited Italy, the setting for many of his plays. Therefore, he never visited the landlocked city of Milan, and he never knew his mistake when he wrote Prospero's lines that describe how he and his daughter, Miranda, were kidnapped one night:


... they hurried us aboard a bark,

Bore us some leagues to sea; where they prepared

A rotten carcass of a butt, not rigg'd,

Nor tackle, sail, nor mast; the very rats

Instinctively have quit it: there they hoist us,

To cry to th' sea that roar'd to us; to sigh

To th' winds, whose pity, sighing back again,

Did us but loving wrong. (The Tempest 1.2.144-51)


Milan is far from the sea, a major river, or anywhere a bark or other ship could land, but that didn't bother Shakespeare. He knew that the poetry of the moment was more important than getting the geographical details just right.

Similarly, an educated gentleman would know that church bells were a medieval invention, but Shakespeare has bells ringing in ancient Rome.


No funeral rite, nor man in mourning weed,

No mournful bell shall ring her burial. (Titus Andronicus 5.3.195-96)


Shakespeare's plays are full of similar mistakes. These little slips don't affect the plays, and you probably won't even notice most of them, but they reveal an author who lacked a college education. In other words, they tell us that William Shakespeare, not Francis Bacon and not the Earl of Oxford, wrote these plays. A few people will never be convinced that William Shakespeare, from the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote the plays attributed to him. A few people believe that the Earth is flat, too.

If it were proved that a thousand monkeys, scrawling randomly with a quill, accidentally produced the works of Shakespeare, it would be a miracle, but one that does not in any way diminish the quality of the plays. They would remain masterpieces of entertainment and literature. When you settle into your seat in the theater and watch the armies of France and England march across the stage in King Henry V, you can enjoy the characters, the excitement, and the play, secure in the knowledge that William Shakespeare, the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, was the literary genius who wrote his plays.


Shakespeare as biblical scholar?


Shakespeare was a master of the English language; there's no question about that. King James ordered a new version of the Bible to be written in the common English tongue so that everyone could read and understand it. Somehow, someone mixed these two facts together and came up with the remarkable conclusion that Shakespeare must have participated in the creation of the King James Bible.

This wild rumor almost isn't worth taking the time to disprove, but it persists in pockets here and there. Today, we consider Shakespeare to be a master of the English language, but in his day, he was just an actor and a playwright. You can be certain that King James did not call for entertainers — no matter how famous — to aid this holy undertaking.


Entertaining the Masses


Shakespeare didn't have time to help translate the Bible, anyway. He was busy writing some of his best plays: Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, The Tempest, and more. Shakespeare and other entertainers had their own role to fulfill in early England: entertaining the masses. There was no cinema, no television, no football. If you were wealthy enough, you could bring the entertainment to your home by hiring musicians, actors, dancers, and fencers (precursors to the modern sport of fencing). Everyone else, however, had to find entertainment elsewhere, and in London, the theater was a favorite.

If you want to hang out with your friends today, you might go to a movie and then to a bar or nightclub. Four hundred years ago, you might have watched a play and then headed to a nearby tavern. Even the theater was a relatively modern invention. Traveling entertainers would visit the towns and taverns to perform music, dance, and plays, but the best plays were staged only in London. London was a small city by today's standards (London's population has grown to about 60 times what it was in Shakespeare's day), but it was big enough to propel a young playwright to stardom and immortality.

Shakespeare includes traveling and amateur actors in several of his plays. The rustics in Midsummer Night's Dream and the players in Hamlet are the best known, but the opening of The Taming of the Shrew best illustrates the traveling actors. They arrive at an inn and perform the play The Taming of the Shrew. (Read a complete summary of this wild play in Chapter 13.) Although the superficial trappings change — we have light bulbs and light beer, for example — people change much more slowly. We still enjoy a good show, a good drink, and the company of good friends. That's what Shakespeare's plays offered then and continue to offer now.

Sometimes, it's hard to believe that a play written four centuries ago can still be entertaining. If you don't believe it, watch Baz Lurhmann's version of Romeo and Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. A modern setting, an ear-splitting soundtrack, rapid-fire editing, and Shakespeare's words all come together in this fast-paced, action-packed movie. When you leave the theater (or turn off the VCR), you may not realize that you were watching Shakespeare's play and hearing Shakespeare's words. Who said that Shakespeare has to be dull?


On the wrong side of the river


The western world has long had a curious attitude when it comes to entertainers. On the one hand, some of our greatest celebrities were and are entertainers — from Richard Burbage in Shakespeare's day to the popular stars of film, stage, and television today. On the other hand, the entertainment business has always had a seamy side.

Take a trip through any supermarket checkout lane, and you can see that the public never seems to get enough gossip about our stars. Their lives and loves are headline news, and their fans always want more, but not too much. The lifestyles of the rich and famous are fun to watch and read about. You might even imagine yourself living the high life, but then reality sets in — the divorces, affairs, and scandals. You wouldn't want your child to marry a star and join the notorious Hollywood scene. The glossy entertainment world is something to be admired from a distance.

Shakespeare's day wasn't much different. Theaters were disreputable and were banned from London. That didn't stop the actors — they merely built their theaters just outside of town. As shown in Figure 1-2, Shakespeare's theater, the Globe, was on the south side of town, across the Thames River, in Southwark (pronounced "SUH-therk"). It was the red-light district of London, populated by prostitutes, charlatans, and actors. The city leaders even prohibited women from acting in a misguided attempt to limit the "immorality" of actors and acting. This restriction meant that boys played women's roles, a fact that Shakespeare often used to his advantage by having the female characters disguise themselves as boys. Read more about boys playing girls playing boys in Chapter 8.


The Globe Theatre


Until recently, we didn't know much about Shakespeare's theater. Historians have been able to assemble bits of information here and there to come up with some educated guesses about the appearance and use of Elizabethan stages. The most famous description of the Globe Theatre came from Shakespeare himself. In the prologue to King Henry V, he tells us about the circular theater that was the Globe when he asks:


... may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques*

That did affright the air at Agincourt? (Prologue.12-14)

*helmets


Suddenly, in 1989, everything changed when construction workers accidentally discovered the site of the original Globe Theatres. (Two Globe Theatres were built. Shakespeare used the first one, which burned down in 1613. It was rebuilt soon after in the same spot and used for several decades before being torn down in a fit of Puritanical excess in 1644.)

Archeologists swooped onto the scene, but modern London isn't the most convenient site for archaelogical digs. In particular, an existing building sits on top of most of the Globe's foundation, which makes it hard to study. modern technology lets us examine the foundation from a distance, and a new Globe Theatre arose not far from the original. The new theater opened in 1997 and quickly became a major tourist destination. See Chapter 19 to find out more about this top-ten theater for seeing Shakespeare's plays.

The circular, outdoor theater — the "wooden O" — was about 100 feet (30 meters) across. The stage was about 50 x 25 feet (15 x 7 meters), and it jutted out into the audience, so the actors had spectators on three sides. Around the stage, spectators stood to watch the play. The spectators who stood on the ground — called groundlings — paid the least. For an extra fee, you got a seat in the galleries that formed the walls of the theater. Special box seats cost even more. The original Globe Theatre admitted about 3,000 attendees — much more than most theaters today.

Without artificial lights, plays took place outdoors during the day. We don't know what the sets and costumes looked like, but the sets were probably simple. An actor might have carried in an ornate chair for a throne, but that would be all to suggest the court of King Henry VI, for example. There were no intermissions or other interruptions for stagehands to change the scenery. Instead, one scene flowed into another without stopping. They spent a lot of money on costumes, though, and we have their financial records to prove it. It was important that the king look like a king.

Anyone who has read Romeo and Juliet knows that a balcony existed above the main stage. Underneath the balcony was a small curtained area used for dramatic revelations, such as Hermione's "statue" in The Winter's Tale. (See Chapter 13 for a description of the statue scene.)


The Blackfriars Theatre


The Globe wasn't the only theater that Shakespeare used. The Blackfriars was an indoor theater, smaller than the Globe, and tickets were much more expensive. Perhaps the exclusivity is why the city leaders allowed the theater to operate so close to the city center. Shakespeare started using the Blackfriars around 1608, late in his career, but the new theater was clearly important. He purchased a house nearby and probably lived there when he was in London.

The actors used the Globe during the summer and moved to Blackfriars for the rest of the year — when the weather wasn't amenable to outdoor performances. We know even less about the Blackfriars than we do about the Globe, but the stage was probably smaller than the Globe's, perhaps as small as 30 x 20 feet (about 9 x 6 meters).

To fully appreciate the size of Shakespeare's stage, try this experiment. The next time you're in a theater or even a cinema, try measuring 30 feet (about 10 large paces) across the front. (Most theaters won't let you onstage, but you can pace back and forth in front of it — if you don't mind the occasional odd stare.) You can visually estimate 20 feet of depth. In a professional theater, the stage in front of you will probably be larger, sometimes a lot larger. Schools and small theaters may use a space that's similar to what Shakespeare had in his theaters. Shakespeare and his fellow actors managed to fit a lot of play into a small space.

Meet the Author

About the Authors John Doyle, former artistic director of four renowned theater companies in Britain, has directed more than 160 professional productions, including Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, and Much Ado About Nothing. Ray Lischner helped form TACIT (Theater Arts at the California Institute of Technology) and participated in every production. He has performed in several Shakespeare plays, including Romeo and Juliet, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Titus Andronicus.

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Shakespeare for Dummies 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Shakespeare for dummies should be a prereqisite for every one that reads Shakespeare for enlightenment or school. It gives a brief and concise annotation to each play. Hitting the high points, but with a light touch for easier understanding of the play.This then frees the reader to comprehend more of what Shakespeare is about because they have a basic outline of the play before they start reading it. This book is also full of information about the Shakespeare era that any one at almost any level can use to enhance thier Shakespeare experience .