Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups: Everything You Need to Know About the Bard

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9780147515360: Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups: Everything You Need to Know About the Bard

An essential guide to Shakespeare, from the international bestselling authors of Homework for Grown-Ups

The Bard was so incredibly prolific that even most Shakespeare scholars would welcome the occasional refresher course, and most of the rest of us haven’t even got a clue as to what a petard actually is. Fear not, the bestselling authors of Homework for Grown-Ups are here to help. For parents keen to help with their children’s homework, casual theatre-goers who want to enhance their enjoyment and understanding, and the general reader who feels they should probably know more, Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups includes information on the key works, historical context, contemporaries and influences, famous speeches and quotations, modern day adaptations, and much, much more.

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About the Author:

E. FOLEY and B. COATES are editors at Penguin Random House in the UK. They live in London. They are the international bestselling authors of Homework for Grown-Ups.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION

William Shakespeare is without question Britain’s greatest literary hero. His work has spoken to countless generations, nationalities and cultures, and to men, women and children alike. His plays have been translated into every language under the sun and performances of them can be seen from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. But how much do you really know about the man and his wondrous words?

For many of us, our first experience of Shakespeare can be intimidating and (whisper it) a little wearisome. And if you have a bad start with the Bard, chances are that will affect your grown-up encounters with him too. Do you find yourself dozing off during The Winter’s Tale? Does all that thumb-biting in Romeo and Juliet perplex you? Find it hard to stomach the jokes in The Taming of the Shrew? Lost by the language of the famous monologues from King Lear and Othello? Worry not, you aren’t alone. And although today every schoolchild will encounter Shakespeare’s work at some point in their English lessons, the majority of UK adults will only be properly familiar with one or two plays at most. In fact, a recent poll showed that 5 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds think Shakespeare’s most famous play is Cinderella, and 2 percent from the same group think the man himself is a fictional character. That’s why this book is essential reading for anyone who feels they should know more about our greatest poet, or, indeed, anyone looking to revive their acquaintance with him, or even just help their children with their homework.

As well as taking an in-depth look at the most-loved, -studied and -performed plays, we will take you on a journey through the different genres Shakespeare made his own—the Comedies, Histories and Tragedies—and we’ll show you how to decode his enigmatic sonnets. We’ll also show you that there is much to be treasured and enjoyed in his less familiar works.

We don’t claim to be Shakespeare scholars; we are ordinary readers who were curious to learn more about our greatest national poet, and we became passionate about passing on the most interesting facts we discovered. The aim of this book is to give a solid understanding of Shakespeare’s genius and to arm you with the tools you need to enjoy him with confidence and insight. In addition, we’ll peruse some of the more perplexing problems that have agitated academics over the years: Did Shakespeare really write his plays himself? What exactly is the First Folio? What would it have been like to see one of his plays at the time of its first performance? What does “hoist with his own petard” actually mean? Who might the sonnets’ Dark Lady be?

Between these covers you will find nuggets on a broad range of topics, including the historical context of Shakespeare’s writing; his personal life, contemporaries and influences; his language and poetic skill; the key themes of his oeuvre; his less well-known works and characters; his most famous speeches and quotations; the phrases and words that he invented, and much more.

The world is a far richer place thanks to this glove-maker’s son from Stratford and his unparalleled influence over our imaginations and language. His “eternal summer shall not fade . . . So long as men can breathe or eyes can see” and we hope that by the time you finish this book you are as filled with admiration and enthusiasm for his work as we are.

“Brevity Is the Soul of Wit”
All Shakespeare’s Plays in One Sentence Each

Obviously a close reading of the plays will richly reward any student of Shakespeare, but we understand if you need a quick cheat’s guide. We’ve set out each one in a sentence so you can always be ready to impress with extensive knowledge of the whole back catalogue of Will’s works.

COMEDIES

The Tempest

The magician Prospero shipwrecks the enemies that originally ousted him from Italy, but when Ferdinand, the son of his archrival Alonso, falls for his daughter Miranda he finally faces them down and learns to forgive.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Proteus, who loves Julia, is friends with Valentine, who loves Silvia, but their friendship deteriorates when Proteus gets Valentine outlawed in order to pursue Silvia himself, much to the dismay of his page Sebastian who is actually Julia in disguise, until, after much trouble, everyone ends up with their original beloved.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

Falstaff’s cynical seduction of two wealthy women goes awry when they find out about each other and decide to return the compliment by making him a laughingstock.

Measure for Measure

In the Duke of Vienna’s absence, his frosty deputy Angelo resurrects arcane fornication laws but is busted—by the Duke in disguise as a friar—trying to blackmail a nun into sex.

The Comedy of Errors

Separated in a shipwreck as babies, friends Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse head to Ephesus to search for their twin brothers, the helpfully named Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus, leading to much confusion for wives and friends until their parents appear and sort everything out.

Much Ado About Nothing

In Sicily, Claudio and Hero are cruelly tricked and parted while Benedick and Beatrice fight and fall in love before deceptions and disguises are uncovered by a hapless nightwatchman and harmonious order is restored with marriages and jigging.

Love’s Labour’s Lost

The King of Navarre and three friends inconveniently swear off women for three years just before a beautiful princess and her ladies arrive for a visit, inspiring all of them to break their oaths after many love-letter mix-ups and other shenanigans.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Mistaken administering of love juice results in Titania, Queen of the Fairies, falling for the ass Bottom, while two sets of couples get confused in the woods, before the natural order of things is restored.

The Merchant of Venice

Antonio makes a risky deal: putting up a pound of flesh as collateral against a loan to fund his friend Bassanio’s pursuit of Portia, and when the moneylender Shylock calls in his debt, Portia, dressed as a man, successfully fights Antonio’s case in a court of law with an ingenious defense.

As You Like It

The exile of brothers, dukes, fathers, daughters, cousins and clowns to the benign bubble of the Forest of Arden leads to disguise, gender-bending and, finally, happy marriages for all.

The Taming of the Shrew

Stroppy Katherina stands in the way of her more pliable sister Bianca’s marriage, so Bianca’s suitors persuade fortune hunter Petruchio to marry Katherina and embark on a campaign of mental cruelty that “tames” her and leaves everyone content and happily married.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Orphan Helena is determined to have her man Bertram—even if he doesn’t want her—and tricks him into impregnating her by pretending to be Diana (whom he does fancy), a tactic that makes him appreciate Helena and vow to be a good husband to her.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will

Twins Viola and Sebastian lose each other after a shipwreck and, each believing the other to be dead, become the servants of amorous Illyrian nobles, but after much disguise-inspired confusion and a yellow-stocking-themed subplot, they are finally reunited.

The Winter’s Tale

King Leontes’ jealous madness leads to the demise of his children and the death-by-grief of his wife, but happily many years later it is revealed that his wife and daughter are actually both alive and all are reconciled.

Pericles

Pericles competes for a wife and then loses her and his newborn daughter in a shipwreck before, many years later, reuniting with them after his wife has become a priestess and his daughter, Marina, a virginal prostitute.

The Two Noble Kinsmen

Friends Palamon and Arcite fall out over their love for Emilia but an unbiddable horse means Palamon eventually gets the girl.

HISTORIES

King John

King John is threatened by an angry nephew, the King of France and a cardinal, and is finally murdered by a malcontent monk.

Richard II

Proud, long-serving King Richard is finally undone by ambitious Henry Bolingbroke, his own vanity and a penchant for land-grabbing.

Henry IV, Part 1

Henry Bolingbroke is now King Henry, but his complete enjoyment of his reign is undermined by worries about his wayward son Hal and his associations with the drunkard Falstaff, and the rebellion of Henry Percy, gloriously nicknamed Hotspur, who’s eventually killed by Hal.

Henry IV, Part 2

Hotspur’s father avenges his son’s death by threatening to cause civil war, news that makes Henry’s health decline, until on his deathbed he makes up with his errant son Hal who rejects his pal Falstaff and prepares to accept the crown as a more sensibly named Henry V.

Henry V

Henry decides to start his reign with a rather punchy request to rule France, which is rejected, but after glorious victory at Agincourt, Princess Katherine of France marries him and the countries are bound together.

Henry VI, Part 1

Young Henry struggles to live up to his heroic father despite dealing successfully with Joan of Arc (although less successfully with his own dastardly dukes).

Henry VI, Part 2

Henry fails to control his nobles—cue War of the Roses.

Henry VI, Part 3

Henry loses his throne, regains it, soliloquizes on a molehill, loses the throne again and is stabbed to death by the future Richard III.

Richard III

Hunchback ubervillain has his brother drowned in a barrel of wine, his nephews (the “Princes in the Tower”) murdered, poisons his wife, is surprised when people start to turn against him, and then gets killed in battle by the future King Henry VII after inconveniently losing his horse.

Henry VIII

Henry meets and falls in love with the beautiful Anne Boleyn at one of Cardinal Wolsey’s parties and ousts his current wife, crowning Anne as Queen and allowing Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to predict great things at the birth of their daughter Elizabeth.

TRAGEDIES

Troilus and Cressida

Troilus (Paris and Hector’s brother) falls in love with Cressida (the daughter of a Trojan priest) and after a single night of passion loses her to the Greeks waiting outside the city’s walls—cue much teeth-gnashing and revenge.

Coriolanus

Martial hero Coriolanus saves Rome from Volscian invasion, is persuaded to run for consul by his manipulative mother, banished when the people turn on him, dissuaded from enacting revenge on his former home by his family, and finally murdered by those vexing Volscians.

Titus Andronicus

Roman general Titus is infuriated when his archenemy and former captive, Tamora, Queen of the Goths, marries the emperor: murder, rape, mutilation, cannibalism and infanticide leave pretty much everyone dead.

Romeo and Juliet

Unsupportive relatives ruin young lovers’ bliss, leading to a fatal fake suicide mix-up.

Timon of Athens

Generous playboy Timon gets into debt and leaves Athens to make his home in a cave, whereupon he discovers mounds of gold, and dies after realizing his only true friend is his servant Flavius.

Julius Caesar

Worthy Roman Brutus, concerned about his dictator friend’s political intentions, gets caught up in a conspiracy that ends with him stabbing a disappointed Caesar before being driven to suicide by his rival Mark Antony’s superior oratory and tactics.

Macbeth

The Thane Macbeth receives a prophecy from three “weyard sisters” that he’ll be King of Scotland, and his murderously ambitious wife helps him to achieve his dream, but at the very worst price.

Hamlet

Listless student prince Hamlet, traumatized by his villainous uncle Claudius’ fratricide, is inspired by the ghost of his father to feign insanity, sending his girlfriend Ophelia loopy and resulting in a catastrophic poison-and-fencing bloodbath.

King Lear

Old King Lear makes a terrible mistake in trusting his bad daughters and exiling his truest child, Cordelia, before going mad on a stormy heath and dying with Cordelia’s expired body in his arms.

Othello

Moorish Venetian general Othello skips off to Cyprus with his beloved wife Desdemona and apparent best friend Iago, who makes it his mission to destroy their lives using only a handkerchief and a lot of insinuation.

Antony and Cleopatra

Mark Antony, one of Rome’s three leaders, neglects his duties in favor of a passionate affair with Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, incurring Caesar’s wrath and resulting in their bloody double suicide, by sword and, more inventively, by asp bite.

Cymbeline

British King Cymbeline, encouraged by his evil Queen, banishes his daughter Imogen’s secret husband Posthumus, and annoys the Romans, but thankfully Imogen resists various ensuing attempts on her life and it all gets sorted out in the end.

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn”
What We Know About Shakespeare’s Life

Tantalisingly, we know very little about William Shakespeare’s life. His thoughts on love, marriage, politics, children, death, sin, temptation and sexuality were never recorded, apart from in his works, of course, which are open to endless interpretation. Despite the best efforts of archivists and scholars, Will remains an enigma, a blank canvas on which countless biographers have painted their own vivid and often fanciful pictures. Despite how familiar you may feel you are with the Bard’s visage, there are only a handful of portraits of him in existence and historians still squabble over which are most likely to be accurate. The one above is the Chandos portrait from the National Gallery in London, attributed to painter John Taylor, which was said to have been originally in the possession of writer William Davenant, Shakespeare’s godson (and, as rumor had it, according to John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, his illegitimate son).

So what do we know about Shakespeare? There is a record of his baptism at Holy Trinity Church in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564, and, given that in Elizabethan times children were typically baptised between two and four days after their birth, many people hedge their bets and take our national poet’s birthday to be April 23, which is also, rather conveniently, St. George’s Day. His father, John Shakespeare, was a glove-maker (and, pleasingly, a municipal ale-taster), and his mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a well-known and respected landowner. Shakespeare was probably educated at the King’s New Grammar School, where he would have been coached extensively in the rigors of Latin and rhetoric: you can see him flexing those classical muscles in the plays where certain characters use magnificent rhetoric and persuasion to manipulate the action—think of Iago in Othello, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth and Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Older boys spoke Latin in class, and they would have had a good knowledge of classica...

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