Sensational Shakespeare: Must-Reads This Summer
“The play’s the thing.”
Wondering what to read this summer? Shakespeare (1564-1616) has it all! For lovers of classical plays, sonnets, and literally every subject imaginable, give Shakespeare a go. Complete with storms at sea, shipwrecks (“The Tempest”), existential dilemmas, an ill-fated young prince who simply cannot make up his mind (“Hamlet”), witches, a mad would-be king with delusions of grandeur (“Macbeth”), and magical fairies (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), it’s difficult to fathom that one man wrote this prolifically.
“He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul.”
–John Dryden (1631-1700), Essay on Dramatic Poetry of the Last Age
For Romance Lovers
“O happy dagger!”
- Romeo and Juliet (first published in 1597): We’re all aware of the thwarted, tragic young lovers the play is named for. Whether we’ve actually read the play or not, Shakespeare (and this play in particular) is ubiquitous in popular culture, i.e., Juliet on the balcony, the sparring, disapproving families trying to keep the lovers apart, and, of course, the inevitable, over-the-top ending where both main characters die in each other’s arms.
For lust and love, read…
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-1596) is ideal for readers looking for lighter fare. A magical comedy focusing on several intertwined plots that all take place in a magical fairyland under the light of the moon, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” reminds us why we fall in love and why whimsy is so important! With Titania—the fairy queen—her king, Oberon, Puck—the prankster sprite—and Bottom, whose head is transformed into that of a donkey, and Cupid’s arrow hard at work, there’s no play that is more fun, mystical, or romantic. One of the most famous lines from the play, uttered by Puck, reminds us of the folly that usually accompanies lovers’ trysts: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
“Words, words, words…” (Hamlet to Polonious when asked what is he reading)
- Hamlet (1599-1601): For intrigue, introspection, existentialism, and the ultimate Shakespeare play, one simply has to read “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” It features the most famous soliloquy of all time and begs to ask the fundamental question: “To be or not to be.” Should I go on, or shouldn’t I? It really is the existential dilemma. Hamlet must avenge his father’s death (who was murdered by his uncle, Claudius, who then married Hamlet’s mother to usurp the throne).
Of course, we attribute all sorts of famous lines and phrases to Shakespeare (more than anyone else) and many come from “Hamlet.” Whenever we see a skull, we may think, “Alas, poor Yorick,” or, when something is tricky and gets in the way of our carefully made plans, “There’s the rub” seems to fit like no other turn of phrase. When we see a tragic young heroine in literature, Ophelia is undoubtedly referenced, and, of course, if something malicious is afoot, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” springs to mind.
Of course, plays are meant to be seen on the stage, and, if you’re lucky enough, you can see Shakespeare in the Park in NYC’s Central Park, something on or off Broadway, or something at your local community playhouse. If this is not possible, watch a film! Laurence Olivier on the silver screen as Hamlet is something to see. Watching his masterful performance helps make the play a bit more accessible.
Then there’s the magnificent rest of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy when he contemplates whether to go on living or the alternative: “To die, to sleep; to sleep, perchance to dream—for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil.”
The play infamously ends, after a great deal of drama, death, and indecision, with “The rest is silence.”
- Macbeth (1623) is the bad luck play; actors won’t even say the name aloud. It is a story of power, those who desire it (most explicitly Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth, who wish for him to become King of Scotland), and what befalls them. It is famous for many things, including Shakespeare’s now-infamous Three Weird Sisters (or “Three Witches”) who chant “Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble!” and Lady Macbeth’s infamous “Out, damned spot!” that reveals her murderous guilt.
Other Shakespeare classics for your consideration:
- King Lear (1606): The story of a king who divides his kingdom among his daughters and eventually goes mad is essentially about power and family.
- Julius Caesar (1599): Another political tragedy of Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar” tells the story of the title character, his rise to power as the ruler of Rome, and assassination on March 15, 44 BC (this is where the term “Ides of March” is derived).
Lesser Known Works
We’ve all heard of the aforementioned plays, and some of Shakespeare’s works, although lesser known, are just as beloved as the others, such as “Twelfth Night” and “The Merchant of Venice.” Some are even lesser well-known and not read all that often; that includes, mostly, the gory “Titus Andronicus.”
- Titus Andronicus (1594) tells the story of a Roman general who returns from war and must suffer the revenge sought against him and his family.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are some of the most famous and well-regarded in history: the absolute pinnacle of poetic verse.
- “Sonnet 18” (1609) is one of Shakespeare’s most well-known and beloved poems; he published over 150 sonnets. It begins with the line: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” “Sonnet 116” is also a favorite, especially for lovers, and makes for a wonderful toast at weddings: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.”
- The songs from Shakespeare’s plays are also admired for their beauty and poetic rhythm (such as the ones sung by Ariel in “The Tempest,” including “Full Fathom Five” and “Where the Bee Sucks, There Suck I.”)
To learn more about Shakespeare, where to begin (it may seem overwhelming as there is so much material and far too many plays to even mention in one blog), and how to comprehensively read his works, check out the following texts (complete with thorough footnotes):
- “Shakespeare A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Plays, His Poems, His Life and Times, and More” by Charles Boyce and David Allen White (Editorial Consultant), 1990
- “Essential Shakespeare Handbook” by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding
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