If one wanted to characterize the work of William Shakespeare, when it comes to his plays, one would probably talk about the idea of hamartia. That is a hero with a fatal flaw. Many of the Bard’s most memorable characters could be labeled this way: Be it Romeo, with his impulsivity, Macbeth with his ambition, or Othello and his jealousy. These qualities almost always lead to their downfall. On this list, readers can find brief descriptions and analyses of a few of his best theatrical works.
Romeo and Juliet
While literary critics may point to Hamlet as Shakespeare’s magnum opus this is probably his most influential piece. It tells the story of two young lovers whose families despise each other. The family feud results in Romeo killing Juliet’s cousin during a brawl, and he is banished. So that they can be together Juliet fakes her death unfortunately Romeo does not get the message and thinks that Juliet is actually dead and so goes to her and kills himself. Juliet upon awakening sees Romeo dead and takes her own life.
Blatantly a propaganda piece Macbeth was likely written to help suppress any thoughts of rebellion against the newly crowned King James the First of England. The reason for this is it showed that a rebellion against the rightful king came with the ultimate punishment. Not only Macbeth’s death but Lady Macbeth’s as well. The inclusion of witches and their premonitions was likely included to appease the king as well who is known to have published a book on the subject. This play is widely studied in the UK in compulsory education.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Demetrius and Lysander are both in love with Hermia. Hermia loves Lysander, but her dad wants her to marry Lysander. This is just the start of the tangled web that is A Midsummer Nights Dream. Lysander and Hermia decide to run off to the woods and get married and a mischievous fairy intervenes and casts love spells on the wrong people with hilarious consequences. The convoluted love triangle plays out and ends on a happy note though.
The Merchant of Venice
This ground-breaking play dared to portray a Jewish character in an occasionally sympathetic light. Shakespeare knew his audience and so did not make Shylock the hero of the piece. Yes, he was still a villain. But not a stock villain by any means. The character was complex and showed real humanity. A lower-class audience might have poured scorn on Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech but for some, it would have been thought-provoking at least. The play is about a Merchant named Antonio who borrows money from Shylock to woo Portia. Shylock does not receive his repayment. The case goes to court and cross-dressing hilarity ensues.
Critically acclaimed Hamlet is the “smart person’s” favorite. A tale of revenge. Prince Hamlet meets with his father’s ghost and plots to take revenge against the man who killed him Prince Hamlet’s uncle who is now married to his father’s widow. His uncle fears for his life, and so he launches a plot to kill Hamlet. The play ends with the king and Hamlet both dying – which says a lot about the nature of revenge. However, Hamlet is granted a military funeral by the new king.
Set in Venice during the war between the Venetians and the Ottoman empire. Othello is a successful Moorish war hero and returns to Venice with his love Desdemona. Iago is jealous of Othello and annoyed he was overlooked for a promotion and so plots to kill him. He uses Casio to sow seeds of jealousy that eventually leads to Othello’s downfall. This play contains ideas about race and jealousy and understandably was well ahead of its time in that respect. Once again, readers see Shakespeare employ a hero with a fatal flaw that eventually leads to their own undoing.
Richard III is another classic example of a propaganda piece. It is questionable if Richard III was as villainous as Shakespeare’s play suggests. Still, there is evidence that he did do some of the things in the play. However, most people’s views of the monarch come from the ideas propagated by Shakespeare which shows the power of writing.
Much Ado About Nothing
A fine comedy about a group of lovers who are feeling low because of war: they decide to all stay at Leonato’s house for a month to help with the weariness. Benedick and Beatrice have an entertaining relationship and constantly make fun of one another. Claudio is in love with Hero but can’t seem to find the words to tell her. Don Pedro tries to woo Hero in disguise. The play uses familiar ideas about mistaken identity seen in The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as everyone is playing tricks on everybody else, and the results are quite hilarious.