Shakespeare 101 – Part One

As I have my Shakespeare ‘ead on this holiday, and mostly I will be writing about Titus Andronicus at a blog near you in the near future, I thought I would re-post my Shakespeare 101 posts from aeons ago.  I prove how much of a Shakespearean expert I am in this post by totally failing to mention any of the History Plays.

That will be addressed in my next reposting:

Before we embark upon another précis of a Shakespearean epic I thought we would have a canter through the world of Shakespearean plays in general.  This will set the scene for future forays into the plays and avoid confusion later on.


Shakespearean plays come in several flavours.  These are:


  • comedies
  • tragedies
  • romance.


Some people like to add a fourth category which is cunningly titled; ‘problem plays’.


There are crucial things that you, as an audience member/reader need to know about these categories and that will help you to understand what the bloody hell is going on.  I will share these nuggets of wisdom with you forthwith:


The key thing to remember about comedies is that they are called comedies but this does not necessarily mean that they are funny.  Measure for Measure for example is mainly about rape, but in a jolly way. ‘Oh how we laughed when we discovered a Tudor version of rohypnol made from extract of eel’s eye’, that sort of thing.  This light hearted jesting about brutalized sexuality qualifies it as a ‘comedy’.


The only criteria for a Shakespearean play to be labelled a comedy is if it has a ‘happy’ ending.  It is not always clear to us modern audiences what constitutes happy.  For example, we might think that happy is marrying the man of your dreams.  In Shakespearean comedies happy may well be not having your head chopped off by the local tyrant and being glad that some random spirit has hypnotized the man you have stalked relentlessly into thinking that marrying you is a good idea and that all will be well.


What you need to understand is that to your average Tudor personage, happiness is symbolized by dancing. Dancing is always a sign that things have gone well and that all is good. The more dancing there is at the end, the funnier the preceding events will have been.  A true side splitter of a play will be roughly 50% rape or torture/50% dancing. My, how we laughed.


Comedies are made more hilarious by the extraordinary amount of cross dressing which occurs during the times of hanging, disembowelling and disowning.  The hilarity quotient rises if you add twins, which is always excellent value, and/or reverse cross dressing. i.e. man dressed as woman dressed as man, dressed as woman.  Nothing titillates a crowd as much as a man in a frock apparently, which is why Paul O’Grady has such a successful chat show.


The key thing to remember about tragedies is that although they are very, very sad and there is much wringing of hands and alacking the day, they are often quite amusing.  If you laugh immoderately you are probably watching a tragedy.  Titter into your handkerchief and you are watching a comedy.


Sometimes the only way to know if you are watching a tragedy is to wait for the end.  If it ends in a welter of blood and intestines it is a tragedy.  If they dance about in the blood and intestines it is a comedy.


Tragedies quite often have a lot of ribald bawdiness and references to sex.  This is to remind us that sex and death are pretty much the same thing and people pull much the same faces during both instances.


Tragedies also have hilarious scenes where peasants with one brain cell and a pitchfork unwittingly make poignant points about the nature of mortality whilst chewing on a mangel wurzel.  This leads key characters to weep into their beards and bewail their fate while the puzzled peasant chews placidly on.  These scenes generally take place over the gaping maw of a grave oozing blood and eyeballs while some random extras have sex in the background, just in case you may have forgotten the whole sex/death riff whilst unwrapping your Werther’s Originals.


There is always a lot of blood and death, death and blood, which sobers everyone up pretty sharpish and is very difficult to get out of white linen tunics.  The more blood, and the higher the body count the more moving things are apparently.


The other thing that distinguishes the tragedies is the length of the death scenes.  The longer it takes someone to die, the more important they are and the more sad we are meant to be.  Hamlet dies for about forty five minutes which is why Hamlet is the most important of the Shakespearean tragedies.  Shakespeare used the egg timer scale with which to time his death scenes.  Anything under a fifteen egger is considered comedic.


The Romance plays are everything else Shakespeare wrote.  Don’t be fooled by the label.  There is not a lot of romance in the Romances.  A Winter’s Tale is classified as a Romance play.  Those of you who have read my gripping insights into the play will realise just how unromantic it is.  For Romance it would be perfectly acceptable to substitute the words ‘Confusing Mess’.  We do not use this term in public because we are kind and because Shakespeare is still a good money spinner for us Brits.  We do not like to admit that he had his off days.


The Romances will be a bit Carol Vordemann on Countdown. ‘I’ll have one from the top please Carol, two from the middle and one from the bottom. While you’re at it, could you make me some tea and chuck in a biscuit.’  It is my considered academic theory that Shakespeare had a lot of leftovers from previous plays that didn’t make the cut and that when he was tired and bored he would throw them all together and create a play. Ta Dah!


My theory is borne out by the fact that the Romances are mostly the plays he wrote at the end of his life.  People say they are complex and confusing because he was maturing and had experienced life’s rich tapestry blah, blah.  I think it was because he was fed up and wanted to stay at home and listen to Radio Tudor and muck about riding pigs and annoying his wife. Hence the liberal use of leftovers and the wildly unsatisfying endings.


The Romances generally have some marriage and a bit of light petting.  There may be dancing, but it will be country dancing rather than courtly dancing.  It will be the ‘shuffling your feet from side to side. Do you really call that pathetic manoeuvre dancing?’ school of dancing.  Plays like this include Cymbeline, which is frankly bonkers, and The Tempest, which is not much better.


We still use the term problem plays these days.  We keep it for those plays which modern audiences have a problem with.  Tudor audiences would have had no such problems, but we are kinder and more in touch with our inner liberal do gooders than they were.  Plays such as The Taming of The Shrew which was clearly a full on side splitter are now called problematic because of its treatment of women.  The Merchant of Venice, which has a lot of dancing and is therefore hilarious, is now problematic because it is not very nice to Jewish people, and Othello which ends with stabby, stabby, spurty, spurty tragedic gore is now problematic because it is not very nice to black people.  Twelfth Night will soon become a problem play because of its unfair treatment of shipwrecked twins and transvestites.


By 2020 all Shakespearean plays will have been reclassified as problem plays thus solving all thorny issues of where to stick plays which include dancing, shagging, torture, nuns, twins and the exploitation of wild bears.  What a relief.

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