Theatergoer's Guide to Shakespeare


Robert Fallon has written a book for those whose encounter with a play by Shakespeare, either in performance or on the printed page, has left them occasionally puzzled as to what in the world is going on. Shakespeare can be difficult: he wrote largely in verse and not in everyday speech; his plays are set in unfamiliar locales; and his lines abound in allusions that were familiar to Elizabethan audiences but not, alas, to us. His plays move us despite these difficulties, but they would even more so if we had a ...
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Robert Fallon has written a book for those whose encounter with a play by Shakespeare, either in performance or on the printed page, has left them occasionally puzzled as to what in the world is going on. Shakespeare can be difficult: he wrote largely in verse and not in everyday speech; his plays are set in unfamiliar locales; and his lines abound in allusions that were familiar to Elizabethan audiences but not, alas, to us. His plays move us despite these difficulties, but they would even more so if we had a bit of deciphering and knew more about Shakespeare's London. A Theatergoer’s Guide opens a window to that time while illuminating the timelessness of Shakespeare’s plays, their portrayal of the human condition in any age. Written for the general reader “in plain though not inelegant English,” the book is mercifully free of academic jargon or scholarly apparatus. It examines the most frequently staged plays scene by scene, and those less frequently performed act by act, in chapters that may be read in one sitting in anywhere from five to forty minutes. These chapters pursue the sequence of events clearly, but they are much more than tedious plot summaries, and they do not “dumb down” Shakespeare. They provide intelligent readers with incisive and engaging commentary on character, theme, setting, poetry, and stage history, in surveys that will help them follow the action with ease and understanding. Dedicated theatergoers as well as students and teachers unfamiliar with a play will find the book a rich source of pleasure and insight. It is destined to become a standard work in the field.
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Editorial Reviews

American Theatre
A nifty compendium...those who pride themselves on their cultural literacy won’t admit it, but this book is as handy as they come.
— Steven Drukman, University of Chicago, Co-Editor of the Plays for Performance Series
William Kerrigan
Wonderfully reader-friendly.
American Theatre - Steven Drukman
A nifty compendium...those who pride themselves on their cultural literacy won’t admit it, but this book is as handy as they come.
Nicholas Rudall
An eloquent, lucid guide for prospective theatergoers, but also rich enough to enhance digestion when the show is over.
Steven Drukman
A Theatergoer’s Guide provides an act-by-act sequence of events that is distilled without being dunderheaded.... Reader-friendly in the extreme, the book elucidates elusive allusions, provides historical contexts and even offers a brief (albeit tentative) critical assessment for every play.
— Stephen Drukman, American Theater
Jack Helbig
[M]aps out, with faultless accuracy, the twists and turns of every play from King Lear to The Two Noble Kinsmen.
— Jack Helbig, Booklist
Midwestern Book Review
A Theatergoer's Guide To Shakespeare . . . will delight both beginning theater buffs and those studying Shakespeare. Fallon's treatment avoids the usual jargon and presents a clear picture of the play's events and characters, providing lively commentary on the plots and history.
Library Journal
For over 400 years, William Shakespeare's plays have entertained audiences around the world. Recent film versions of both his comedies and his tragedies have proved to be highly popular. Many people, however, are puzzled on their first encounter with Shakespeare, because of his language and allusions to the Elizabethan era. To solve this problem, Fallon (English, LaSalle Univ.; Divided Empire: Milton's Political Imagery) has written a book for the general reader that is free of academic jargon. He provides scene-by-scene and act-by-act plot summaries of the Bard's most frequently staged comedies, tragedies, and histories, furnishing the necessary background for a greater appreciation of Shakespeare's works and their timelessness. The result is an entertaining and accessible book that brings Shakespeare to life. Highly recommended for all libraries, whether high school, public, or academic. Howard Miller, St. Louis Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Fallon (English, emeritus, La Salle U., Philadelphia) provides an act-by-act sequence of the events that take place in 34 of Shakespeare's plays. Written in descriptive, non-scholarly language, the book is intended for Shakespeare students as well as theater buffs. Includes a brief appendix of technical terms. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
From The Critics
A Theatergoer's Guide To Shakespeare provides a companion to the plots, characters and themes of Shakespeare's plays, and will delight both beginning theater buffs and those studying Shakespeare. Fallon's treatment avoids the usual jargon and presents a clear picture of the play's events and characters, providing lively commentary on the plots and history. A recommended picks for a wide range of audiences, from students to drama fans.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781566635080
  • Publisher: Dee, Ivan R. Publisher
  • Publication date: 5/1/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 1,008,285
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 8.94 (h) x 1.29 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Thomas Fallon is professor emeritus of English at La Salle University in Philadelphia. In addition to A Theatergoer’s Guide to Shakespeare (which concerned itself largely with plot), A Theatergoer’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Themes, and A Theatergoer’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Characters, and How to Enjoy Shakespeare (all published by Ivan R. Dee), he has written three books on John Milton. He lives in Lumberville, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


* * *

THE WORDS "tragic" and "tragedy" will appear in this discussion frequently enough to raise a question as to what they mean. Probably the most useful definition for those who wonder why Shakespeare's plays work so well on the stage was written 2,500 years ago by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. The ancient Greeks were great playgoers, so much so that they held festivals in which prizes were awarded for the best group of plays produced; and they must have sat through scores of productions during the weeks of the contest. Aristotle examined the prizewinners to discover if they had features in common that contributed to their success, and he described his findings in a brief work, Of Poetics, which is so packed with insight that it is thought to be a set of notes he prepared for a series of lectures. Generations of scholars have expanded on those notes, speculating on just what he might have said in the lectures themselves.

    The question of the Poetics—why do some plays work and others fail?—is not an easy one to answer. Every year artists who have toiled in the theater for decades troop to Broadway to mount plays that all who are concerned with the enterprise—the producer, playwright, director, and actors alike—are convinced will have a long run to enthusiastic critical acclaim, only to find that they must close after three performances for lack of an audience. Famous Hollywood producers pour millions into films, confident of their appeal, and are dismayed when the public stays awayindroves while some unknown director fills theaters with a film made on a shoestring. It's a mystery, really, and always has been. Aristotle tried to unravel it by dissecting the prizewinners to determine why they worked.

    Aristotle's explanation of what makes a play work is somewhat out of favor today. It is said, among other things, that he laid too heavy an emphasis on plot—and so indeed he did. But it is his few incisive paragraphs on character that are so valuable to our appreciation of Shakespeare's tragedies; and it is to those paragraphs that we turn, seeking some firm ground on which to stand in our encounters with the puzzling figures of these plays.

    Aristotle begins by making distinctions, in the manner of philosophers of any age: A tragedy is a play in which the chief figure, or tragic hero, experiences a change from good fortune to bad; in a comedy the change is from bad to good. The tragic hero, he observes, must be an important person in the community, a king, a queen, a prince, or a famous warrior, a man or woman of substance and responsibility, because that figure experiences a fall, and any fall is more moving if it comes from a great height. It is evident that a figure who tumbles to death from the top of the Empire State Building will have a more dramatic impact than one who trips over a curb.

    You will notice immediately that this quality does not always apply in the modern theater, which is filled with highly effective plays about the tragedy of the common man. Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, is not an important man except to his family, and the play opens upon him at the low point of his life; yet it is a highly effective tragedy. So Aristotle's observations must be taken with some caution—but they are useful. He is simply reporting on plays he has seen; and he observes that the most successful of them are about men and women in high places.

    A corollary to this quality is his further observation that the tragic figure is famous as well, from one of the houses or families with which the audience is already familiar through knowledge of their history or mythology. Again, this quality need not necessarily apply to the modern stage, but it does bring up an important point: the Greek audience already knew what was to happen before the play began. This tends to rule out surprise endings, but it introduces into the action the element of dramatic irony, an essential effect of any successful play, comedy or tragedy. To illustrate: Aristotle's favorite work was Sophocles' Oedipus the King, the story of a famous man who, with every good intention, embarks on a determined effort to find out who his parents were. The Greek audience, familiar with the myth, were aware that unknown to Oedipus he has murdered his father and married his mother. Hence, when he says, "I must unlock the secret of my birth!" the audience becomes emotionally engaged in unfolding events.

    This tragic hero, Aristotle tells us, should not be absolutely evil, since the death of such a figure, being only just, would fail to move the audience; nor should the figure be absolutely good, for his death would violate our concept of right and wrong, evoking not a tragic sense but a feeling of outrage. According to these guidelines, it would be impossible to mount a tragedy based on the lives of either Adolf Hitler, whose death we would feel was richly deserved, or of Jesus Christ, whose crucifixion was a gross miscarriage of justice. The figure must be, rather, an essentially good person, but one who suffers from an "error or frailty" in character—a person, in brief, much like ourselves. Moreover, the downfall of the tragic hero must come as a consequence of that same "error or frailty" in character, traditionally referred to as a "tragic flaw." Thus it may be said that Lear is rash, Macbeth ambitious, Othello passionate, and Hamlet melancholy, each possessed of emotions which we acknowledge in ourselves from time to time, but which these characters manifest to a degree fatal to themselves and those about them. Only thus can we recognize them as profoundly human and be moved by their fate. The tragic hero, in brief, illuminates everyday human choices by raising them to the level of life-or-death decisions, dramatizing the ordinary so that we may see significance in the common events of our lives.

    Central to Aristotle's critique is the idea that something happens in the breasts of the audience as they watch events unfold on the stage. He suggests that we are moved by certain emotions, and he singles out pity and fear as the principal effects of tragedy. At certain points in the action these emotions, he says, having been aroused in the audience, are released, that is, either purged or purified. The Greeks called such a response a catharsis, an experience not unlike the release of grief through tears, or tension through laughter. All successful plays, he finds, include such moments, and if nothing of this sort occurs, the work fails to please. The skillful playwright will elicit this response, again, by placing before us the actions of a recognizable human being, one essentially good, indeed noble in nature, but possessed of an "error or frailty" in character that sets in motion a tragic chain of events. Such figures arouse pity in us, Aristotle explains, because they are flawed human beings; and they excite fear because we acknowledge ourselves subject to the same flaw, one fully capable of growing to an excess of ambition like Macbeth's or of passion like Othello's. Pity and fear may occur at different intervals in the play, but Aristotle seems to imply that they are most effective when they come simultaneously. Commenting on the phenomenon, one scholar asks the reader to imagine walking down a narrow, dimly lit corridor and seeing a pitiable figure approach from the other end, one hobbling on crippled legs, gasping for breath, and dressed in ragged remnants of discarded clothes, and to further imagine drawing near the figure only to discover oneself facing a mirror.

    Oddly, the great tragedies that reflect the qualities Aristotle has described do not leave an audience despairing. They depict the human condition as one in which the tragic hero struggles against all the flaws and follies of his nature and, even though he falls victim to them, achieves a kind of triumph in the end. Shakespeare achieves this effect in his closing scenes by restoring the hero momentarily to his former stature, reminding us briefly of the height from which he has fallen—as with Othello, or Lear, or even the villainous Macbeth. Although the curtain may fall on a stage strewn with the dead, leaving an audience stunned with a sense of loss, they depart the theater aware as well that the terrible events they have witnessed somehow affirm the inherent nobility of the human spirit.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments v
Prologue ix
Tragedy 5
King Lear 9
Hamlet 32
Macbeth 59
Othello 79
Romeo and Juliet 104
Julius Caesar 121
Antony and Cleopatra 138
Titus Andronicus 160
Coriolanus 164
Timon of Athens 168
Comedy 175
The Merchant of Venice (A Tragic Comedy) 179
As You Like It 199
Twelfth Night or What You Will 217
Much Ado About Nothing 234
A Midsummer Night's Dream 248
The Taming of the Shrew 262
The Tempest (A Romance) 279
The Merry Wives of Windsor 297
The Comedyof Errors 308
The Two Gentlemen of Verona 316
Love's Labour's Lost 319
Troilus and Cressida 323
All's Well That Ends Well 328
Measure for Measure 332
The Winter's Tale 336
Pericles, Prince of Tyre 340
Cymbeline 344
The Two Noble Kinsmen 349
History 355
Richard II 359
Henry IV, Part 1 375
Henry IV, Part 2 394
Henry V 397
Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, 3 419
Richard III 426
King John 448
Henry VIII 452
Appendix: Words and Phrases
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