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The Best of Shakespeare - Part Two

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Continued from "Best of Shakespeare" Part One.

6) King Lear:

I may have mentioned on more than one occasion that while watching the ending of Romeo and Juliet I have a a scarcely controllable urge to rush the stage and tell the star-crossed lovers not to commit suicide. (In my mind I am screaming, "She's not dead, you idiot!") Well, I must confess that I have a similar sensation when watching the tragedy of King Lear; however, my urge to shout at the characters happens in the play's first act.

The conflict begins when the aging king relinquishes his power, dividing his kingdom up and offering it to his daughters. First, listens to the words of praise and devotion from his older daughters Goneril and Regan, and then parcels out his land to each. (This is the part where I want to yell, "Don't do it old man! They don't really love you!").

But poor old Lear believes he is saving the best part of his kingdom for his youngest daughter Cordelia. Much to his chagrin, Cordelia -- who's the only daughter who truly loves him -- doesn't pay him lip service, instead she is concerned about his well-being and the wisdom of his actions. (At this point in the play I want to shout at her: "Give the old coot a break, Cordelia. Just stroke is ego, and we'll have a very short, happy play!")

But happy events rarely happen in tragedies. King Lear becomes enraged at Cordelia, feeling that her response is impudent and treasonous. She is banished. Lear is miserable, especially when he realizes that he has bequeathed his throne two a pair of evil, ungrateful daughters! Madness, literal and figurative, ensues.

The final three acts of the play conjure some of theater's most powerful images: an old king howling in the wind, a loyal subject's being tortured for his faithfulness, a fool who is the sole voice of wisdom, and let's not forget one of the coolest, most verbose insults in Shakespeare's canon. Check out how one of the good guys in this tragedy (Kent) dissing on a numbskull:

KENT: (Thou art) a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver'd, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mungril bitch

5) Twelfth Night (Or, What You Will):

Of all the Shakespearean cross-dressing comedies, Twelfth Night is the merriest and the cleverest. Like The Tempest, the plot begins with a storm, but this one tosses a young woman upon the shores of Illyria.

Believing that her twin brother has perished, Viola decides to protect herself by disguising as a man and becoming a servant of the local Duke. It's a terrific plan until she realizes that she has fallen in love with the Duke (who thinks she's a dude). Things get worse when the Duke wants Viola to court the beautiful widow Olivia on his behalf. But of course, Olivia falls for Viola dude-disguise and falls in love with her.

The romantic misadventures and gender-bending humor are the high points of the play. Yet some of the subplots of Twelfth Night are wonderfully hilarious in their own right. The play's centerpiece prude is a puritanical servant named Malvolio. He becomes the victim to Feste the fool's cruel prank. When the normally drab, grave-faced Malvolio wrongly believes that his mistress Olivia is in love with him, he dresses in ridiculous yellow stockings to please her. The brilliance of this humorous scene is that the audience cannot help but experience simultaneous bouts of pity and laughter.

I have witnessed Twelfth Night live on stage more than several times, and with each production I have been impressed with the flexibility of the staging. The setting of Illyria can be portrayed as a tropical island in the Pacific, a colonial outpost in the Carolinas, a 1930s den of iniquity off the coast of Morocco, or (perhaps truer to the Shakespeare's intention) an aged kingdom set along the Adriatic Sea. Feste and other characters sing throughout the play, and depending upon who composes the melodies, the musical sequences can be the most hypnotic components of this romantic comedy.

Read Part Three of "The Best of Shakespeare."

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