Tradition has it that William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, based on baptismal records we have. April 23 also happens to be the date that he died in 1616. In many parts of the world he is celebrated in April for this very reason with readings, performances, discussions, and fun activities that honor his life and works. So as a tribute to the Bard, here is a blog post covering four plays that aren’t very well known, possibly not very popular, but are nonetheless great in their own right and deserving of reading. Besides, most of us will probably agree that popular plays such as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet have been discussed ad nauseam, and who wants to read another piece on Hamlet and his skull or Macbeth and his witches or the ill-fated love of Romeo and Juliet!
Vindicta mihi!—vengeance is mine—Hieronimo declares when he realizes that he must avenge the death of his son in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, one of many revenge tragedies that was hugely popular during Queen Elizabeth’s reign. It’s a reference to a Bible passage in the book of Romans, and Elizabethan revenge tragedies often reminded their audience that vengeance belongs to God. But that’s usually not the case in such plays, in which a human protagonist always ends up dishing out cold justice, as we see in Titus Andronicus.
Titus Andronicus, a Roman general, has returned to Rome a victor after fighting a ten-year war against the Goths. He’s lost twenty-one sons, but has captured the Queen of the Goths, Tamora, and her three sons. In accordance with Roman law, he sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son for the loss of his own. This act early in the play sets in motion the cycle of revenge that drives it to its bloody conclusion.
When Tamora is made empress by the emperor Saturninus, she has her lover, Aaron, frame two of Titus’s four remaining sons for the death of Bassianus, the emperor’s brother. The accused sons are beheaded, but this still doesn’t appease her hatred for Titus. She then has her sons, Chiron and Demetrius, defile his only daughter, Lavinia, telling them, “use her as you will; the worse to her, the better lov’d of me” (Act 2, scene 3). They rape her and then cut off her tongue and hands so that she won’t be able to communicate the crime to anyone.
While all this is happening, Titus’s other son Lucius is banished and soon forms an alliance with the Goths to attack Rome. It’s all too much for the old general and he begins to act mad. Tamora thinks Titus has lost his mind and uses the opportunity to trick him by offering him justice if he will persuade Lucius to stop attacking Rome. The madness is a ruse, and Titus turns the trick on Tamora. He agrees and invites her over for dinner, but first he captures her two sons, slits their throats, and then makes meat pies out of them. They say revenge is best served cold, but in this case it’s best served hot.
There are a few more disturbing deaths before the play ends, but you’ll have to pick up a copy of Titus Andronicus to find out who else dies a horrible death in this revenge tragedy that’s full of blood, gore, and gratuitous violence. Obviously this isn’t a play for those with Victorian sensibilities.
In Shakespeare’s days, only men were actors who played both male and female roles, though young boys often were used to act out the latter role. Crossdressing wasn’t necessarily a lifestyle as it was a professional necessity in Elizabethan England. It wasn’t all that unusual to see a man in a dress on stage, and it’s really not all that unusual to see that happen today because we all get what‘s being portrayed and acted out. When crossdressing is a key component of the plot, things can get a bit confusing. Shakespeare wrote a number of plays in which women characters put on a masculine disguise for a variety of reasons. Now imagine a man playing a woman who disguises herself as a man—confusing, huh? That must make for some hilarious acting even if the play wasn’t meant to be funny.
Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s plays that have a female protagonist who masquerades as a boy or young man. Imogen is the daughter of King Cymbeline and is being courted by her stepmother’s son, Cloten. He’s crude and Imogen isn’t interested. She instead has her eyes on Posthumus, a gentleman of low birth but more sophisticated than her stepbrother. Against her father’s wishes, she marries him, and as punishment Cymbeline exiles him to Italy. There Posthumus meets the fast-talking Italian Iachimo who claims that all women are easily swayed and wagers with Posthumus that he can seduce his wife.
Iachimo heads off to Britain and his attempts to woo Imogen fails. Not wanting to lose a bet or admit that his skewed views of women are wrong, he hides in a chest and has it sent to her room, where at night he comes out and takes a bracelet once given to her by Posthumus. He returns to Italy and suggests to Posthumus that he had seduced his wife by showing the bracelet and describing to him the details of her room. Convinced that his wife has been unfaithful to him, Posthumus dispatches a letter to Britain ordering his servant, Pisanio, to kill Imogen. Talk about overreacting!
Fortunately, Pisanio is a bit more level-headed and doesn’t believe Imogen cheated on his master. He persuades Imogen to disguise herself as a boy and find her husband, while he reports back to Posthumus that he’s done the deed. Dressed in boys clothes, Imogen goes on a quest to find her husband but becomes lost. She comes upon a cave where a banished nobleman named Belarius lives with his two sons, though we later learn they’re not really his biological sons. Unbeknownst to Imogen, Cloten—her creepy stepbrother—is in search of her, and he suddenly appears at the cave and ends up being killed by one of Belarius’s adoptive sons. Imogen feels sick about this and drinks a potion her stepmother had given her and falls into a deep sleep. Thinking she had died, her three cave-dwelling friends lay her next to the dead Cloten. When she awakes, she thinks Cloten is her dead husband.
Meanwhile a Roman army has invaded Britain, and the grieving Imogen, still disguised as a boy, becomes a page for the soldiers. She’s not aware that Posthumus is also travelling with the Roman army, and before she can find out, he puts on British peasant clothes and fights against the Romans. When they’re defeated, he switches back to the clothes of the Roman army because he thinks Imogen is dead as a result of his order and hopes that as a Roman prisoner he’d be punished with death.
Near the end of the play, Cymbeline calls the prisoners before him, and so comes forth Imogen, the “Roman page,” and Posthumus, the “Roman soldier.” The misunderstanding is cleared and both are reunited as husband and wife. As if that ending wasn’t happy enough, he also releases all the Roman prisoners and resumes paying Rome a tribute, the main reason they invaded Britain in the first place.
Shakespeare drew a lot from Greek and Roman mythology and history for many of his plays. Julius Caesar, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Cymbeline are just some of the comedies and tragedies that have classical references and shows Shakespeare’s extensive knowledge of the classics and history. Troilus and Cressida is another one, but it’s not just a play with many classical allusions but a prime example of Shakespeare’s adaptation of Greek storytelling. The story isn’t one from antiquity nor is it Shakespeare’s own invention but is actually a medieval tale that’s based on the Greek Iliad. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his own version called Troilus and Criseyde, and Shakespeare relied on it when he wrote his version.
Troilus and Cressida is the tale of two star-crossed lovers caught in the middle of the Trojan War. Sound familiar? Well, they don’t actually die at the end, but their love is destroyed by the circumstances of the war. Troilus is a Trojan prince who falls head over heels for the priest’s daughter, Cressida. Her father, Calchas, has defected to the Greek side, so her life is a bit complicated. She’s being coy and sort of playing hard to get, so Troilus gets the help of her uncle, Pandarus, to introduce her to him. Their love story is only one of two main plots in the play.
The other main plot concerns the Greek warrior Achilles and the Trojan warrior Hector, and the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. Achilles has become disinterested in fighting and even insubordinate, and the Greek military really wants their best warrior to get back in the war. When Hector issues a UFC-style throw down to the best fighters out there, one of the Greek military leaders, Ulysses, uses this opportunity to get Achilles back in fighting mode. He does this by having Ajax, who’s sort of like the proverbial dumb jock, fight Hector with the hope that Achilles would get so jealous at not being selected to fight that he will be motivated to get back on the battlefield.
Meanwhile, back to the love story, Pandarus finally takes Troilus to meet Cressida and right away both hit it off and next thing you know they’re declaring eternal love for each other. But their stay together is short-lived when Calchas has his daughter brought to the Greek side in exchange for a Trojan prisoner. The Greeks send over a sleazeball named Diomedes to escort Cressida back to her father, telling Troilus that he’ll take good care of her.
The Greeks and Trojans later meet to watch the death match between Hector and Ajax, which ends up to be somewhat of a disappointment because after a short while both agree to stop fighting. The Greeks and Trojans then call for a truce and decide to feast together. After the partying and feasting, Ulysses walks Trolius to Cressida’s tent to show him that his amore isn’t as innocent as she claims to be. Hidden, he spies Cressida flirting with Diomedes. As you can guess, he vows to kill this philanderer.
The next day, the Greeks and Trojans are enemies again and Troilus meets Diomedes on the battlefield, yet disappointingly both live to tell about it. There seems to be a number of disappointments in this play, but that’s only because some of the scenes are a bit anticlimactic. The play ends with Hector’s ignoble death and the death of Troilus and Cressida’s love.
Shakespeare is often praised for his great mastery of language because he has this way with words, but his genius really lies in his ability to understand human nature. Though many of the plots and situations in his plays seem implausible or even ridiculous, his characters are authentic in their humanness and are often said to be a reflection of who we are. We can learn much about ourselves and others in reading his plays. They encourage reflection, as great literature often does. Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays (and receives little praise due to its lack of refinement), but it’s a great one in that it makes us think about our relationship with other people. It’s a cautionary tale of sorts that reminds us to be wary of the company we keep, for it asks us how much do we know about the people whom we call friends.
Timon is a rich nobleman who is very generous with his money. He helps his friends when they need a favor and invites them over for lavish parties. When he learns that his friend Ventidius is in jail, he bails him out, and when a trio of salesmen shows up at his door to sell their goods, he happily obliges. That’s just the way he rolls.
He decides to throw one of his popular dinner parties and invites all his friends. At the table, he speaks of his fondness for them and the joy of giving them gifts. His servant Flavius is concerned that he’ll soon run out of money if he continues to spend all his money on friends and parties.
One day three creditors, who are also his friend, stop by Timon’s house and ask for their debt to be paid. Timon wonders why they’re there and tries to dismiss them, but they refuse to leave. Flavius explains the situation to him, and he soon realizes that he’s broke and needs to borrow money quick. He asks his servants to get money from his friends, including Ventidius, but all refuse to help him. Angered at finding out none of his friends are willing to help him after all that he’s done for them, he throws one last party to denounce them and then flees into the wilderness. He vows revenge against his former companions and the city of Athens. But, really, it’s not much of a revenge, and the play ends with no bloodshed. Athens isn’t sacked, and his so-called friends aren’t punished in the way that Dante would have had them punished for their selfishness and greed. The only person who really dies at the end is Timon, a victim of his own generosity and false estimation of those around him.