Introduction: Beyond the Bard

This book is designed to assist upper secondary school and university students in their reading and understanding of Shakespeare’s plays. We have selected for discussion plays that students are likely to encounter in their early Shakespearean adventures. As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are discussed in Volume I.

Each section places the play discussed in Shakespeare’s life story and summarises what is known of its composition, early performances and publication. Interactive exercises are designed when completed to assist students to understand and remember the plays’ characters, plots and structures. Guidance is provided on issues raised by each play, and approaches suggested on which students can build original ideas and insights. The book provides access to free full text copies of the plays. Our aim is to empower students to read Shakespeare’s plays in their original language and form.

Since their performances in his lifetime, Shakespeare’s plays have been endlessly adapted. Every new production, and even every new performance, is an adaptation, if that word is strictly defined. Radical, or deliberate, or clearly conceived, adaptations have been staged for differing (and usually mixed) reasons. They include: artistic integrity; to convey an ideology or a moral message; for  popularity; for profit; and for fame. Moreover directors, actors and writers have adapted the plays in accordance with what they see (not always correctly) as the limits of audiences’ patience and understanding. Yet other adaptations have been for political advocacy. Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V (1944) called for patriotism and confidence during dark days in England in World War II. Characters assumed by Shakespeare and his audiences to be white have long been performed by black actors and actresses. Female actors have triumphed in male roles, and (less frequently) male actors in female roles. In 2023 an adapted Twelfth Night was produced and performed in North Queensland with the purpose of encouraging understanding of regional ecosystems under threat: Gretchen Minton – What Country, friends, is this?  Adapting Shakespeare in Coastal North Queensland.

Intended as a first step, Shakespeare’s Major Plays seeks to assist students with reading and understanding Shakespeare’s plays as they might have been performed in his lifetime. Reproductions and photos of performances included in the commentaries provide an entry point for students who want to explore adaptations and theatre history.

Shakespeare’s London Theatres

Beginning in 1588 with Titus Andronicus and Henry VI (Part 1), Shakespeare’s early plays were performed at The Theatre (founded in 1576) and at The Curtain (founded 1577).  Both theatres were located in Shoreditch, north of the jurisdiction of the city authorities. The district was inhabited by prostitutes, gamblers, ‘tavern haunters,’ vagabonds, and beggars. Robberies and brawls were frequent (see Porter 186, 194). Foundations of The Theatre were discovered in 2008 and those of The Curtain in 2012. This website discusses facts revealed in 2018 by the excavation of The Curtain.

This 1574 map shows the location of all the London theatres in Shakespeare’s time.

In 1597, after the lease that the Chamberlain’s men held on The Theatre expired, the company went on producing plays at The Curtain, which was the less satisfactory of the two theatres. On 28 December 1598, the players dismantled The Curtain and shipped the timbers across the Thames. In Southwark, with the help of a carpenter and other skilled artisans, they used the timbers to construct a new theatre—The Globe (Porter 214).

The Swan Theatre had been built in Southwark between 1594 and 1596.  In 1596 a Dutch visitor, Johannes de Witt, sent a sketch of the interior to his friend Arendt de Buchel, who copied it into his commonplace book (a diary of ideas and pictures interesting to the writer). De Witt’s is the only surviving contemporary sketch of the interior of an Elizabethan playhouse.  The public London theatres where most of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed—The Curtain, The Theatre and The Globe—would have been similar.

Figure 1. A performance in progress at the Swan Theatre in 1596 by Johannes de Witt. Public Domain.

tectum=roof; porticus=gallery; sedelia=bench, seat; orchestra= a place for the musicians; ingressus=entrance; mimorum aedes= actors’ [preparation?] room; proscenium=‘apron’ [jutting-out] stage; planities sive arena=flat surface or sandy arena [for the ‘groundlings’ or general audience]


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Shakespeare's Major Plays Copyright © 2024 by Cheryl Taylor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.