Antony and Cleopatra

William Shakespeare
Acts: 5. Scenes: 42. Roles: Male (32), Female (6), Neutral (0).

Shakespeare’s telling of the famous love affair between Marc Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra is a drama of international politics as well as intimate passion. This depiction of the volatile lovers, whose entanglement affects the government of the Roman world, encompasses ideas of politics, moral judgement, theatrical unity and the mechanisms of tragedy.

Antony and Cleopatra was probably completed at the end of 1606 or early in 1607, and only survives in the Folio text.

Antony is captivated by Cleopatra, and neglects his political duties as one third of the Roman triumvirate to tarry with her in Alexandria. When unrest threatens Rome, he must leave Cleopatra in order to solidify his power against threats from Pompey and fellow triumvir Octavius Caesar. In the wake of continued power struggles, Antony returns to Egypt, where he and Cleopatra crown themselves absolute king and queen. The ensuing war between the lovers and Octavius Caesar engulfs the Roman world.

The relationship between Antony and Cleopatra has a long tradition in both history chronicles and literature. Recounted in detail by Plutarch, this and other such stories from the classical world enjoyed enormous popularity during the Renaissance. Other writers also dramatized their romance, which appeared frequently onstage in early modern England.

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside

Thomas Middleton
Acts: 5. Scenes: 14. Roles: Male (13), Female (9), Neutral (0).

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is Middleton’s masterpiece of Jacobean city comedy, rich in irony and wordplay. Middleton welds together the themes of corruption, money and sex into a complex whole, in which comedy is mingled with disgust.

Moll Yellowhammer is in love with Touchwood Junior, but her avaricious parents have betrothed her to the rich knight Sir Walter Whorehound, just as they have set up their son Tim to marry a rich Welsh heiress. Sir Walter is conducting an open affair with Mrs Allwit, while her happily cuckolded husband congratulates himself on finding an adulterer to support his household. Meanwhile, Sir Oliver Kix and his wife hope to get their hands on some of Sir Walter’s property, but Lady Kix has been unable to conceive, so they employ the ceaselessly fertile Touchwood Senior (the brother of Moll’s lover) to make Lady Kix pregnant any way possible.

The play signals its ironic nature even in the humorously ironic title: Cheapside maids were not noted for their chastity. London’s busiest commercial area is shown to be a crucible of mercantile greed, where money is more important than either happiness or honour, the most coveted commodities to be bought with it are sex and social prestige, and even true lovers must trick their way to marriage.

The play was probably first performed in 1613 at the Swan theatre, possibly by the Lady Elizabeth’s Men and the Queen’s Revels together.


William Shakespeare
Acts: 5. Scenes: 29. Roles: Male (12), Female (3), Neutral (0).

Coriolanus was first published in the First Folio of 1623; we have no recording of a first performance contemporary with Shakespeare. As a result, dating the play has proven to be a difficult task, with most modern critics placing the writing of the play in the second half of the 1610s.

Affording Coriolanus a genre is similarly tricky: it is ‘The Tragedy of Coriolanus’ in the First Folio, but it is deeply indebted to the sub-genre of ‘Roman plays’ that form a significant part of the Shakespearean oeuvre. As with Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare draws on Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans for both historical detail and literary tropes.

The exploration of the public voice and the body politic in Coriolanus is immediately displayed in the play’s opening, where Roman citizens are rising up against the mounting price of grain. (It has been argued that this is a contemporary reference to the Midland Revolt of 1607, where peasants in the Midlands of Britain rioted against the enclosure of common land.) Menenius, a wise old Roman generally respected by the people, recites a parable narrating the breakdown of the body when its individual parts are not in accord. For the body politic to function, the head (here, the General; in Shakespeare’s England, King James I) and the belly (the people) must support each other.

One of the play’s central explorations, that of the battle between public and private identity, and political and personal duty, is encapsulated in the figure of Coriolanus, much as it is in other Roman figures (e.g. Brutus in Julius Caesar and Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra). His identity is unfixed, and manipulated by the patricians and his ambitious mother, Volumnia.

Unlike other Shakespearean tragic heroes, Coriolanus only has one lengthy soliloquy, in which he laments the ‘dissension’ and ‘bitterest enmity’ to which ‘friends now fast sworn’ have turned. As his affinity shifts from Romans to Volscians, his own identity gets lost, until he cries at the end of Act IV that ‘only that name remains’ – the irony being that ‘Coriolanus’ is not the name he started off with at the beginning of the play (he was ‘Caius Martius’ until he was granted the toponym Coriolanus, after his defeat of the town of Corioles). He is murdered at the end of the play in a bloody attack perpetrated by conspirators, mirroring Caesar’s death in his eponymous Roman tragedy. The opacity of the play’s central figure has rendered theatrical and cinematic interpretations of Coriolanus manifold in the past century especially: Laurence Olivier (twice), Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Ian McKellan and Ralph Fiennes have all portrayed the general.

The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster
Acts: 5. Scenes: 18. Roles: Male (13), Female (5), Neutral (0).

One of the most haunting tragedies written in the Jacobean period, The Duchess of Malfi is a violent and macabre story of lust, madness, cruelty and revenge.

Webster adapts the true story of a noble Italian widow who secretly marries her steward and has children with him. Her two brothers, enraged by this act of female self-determination across class boundaries, begin to spy on the family in a conspiracy against her happiness that ends in psychological torture, mutilation and murder. Unlike his sources, Webster does not condemn the Duchess for lasciviousness – she remains one of the most fascinating and complex female characters of the early modern stage. Webster’s rich and violent play is one of the major tragedies of the period and continues to prompt both new adaptations and critical interpretations.

This edition, with its notes and commentary, is from the New Mermaids series.

Hamlet (The First Folio, 1623)

William Shakespeare
Acts: 5. Scenes: 19. Roles: Male (28), Female (2), Neutral (0).

In the 400 years following its composition, Hamlet has become enshrined amongst the classic plays of Western literature. Written about by luminaries from Samuel Johnson to Sigmund Freud, from Voltaire to T.S. Eliot, the study of Hamlet has engrossed great minds since its inception.

Simultaneously, the role of Hamlet is considered both the pinnacle and the challenge of an actor’s career, as he strives to take his place amongst classic Hamlets of the past such as Richard Burbage, David Garrick, and Laurence Olivier. Hamlet continues to fascinate readers and audiences to this day, as each new generation discovers that, in the words of critic William Hazlitt, ‘it is we who are Hamlet’.

In the wake of his father’s death and his uncle’s ascension to the throne, Prince Hamlet has struggled with his grief, as well as his sense of outrage over his mother Gertrude’s quick remarriage to Hamlet’s uncle, the new king. When Hamlet’s father appears to him as a ghost to reveal that he was, in fact, murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, the prince sets himself on an ultimately tragic path towards vengeance.

William Shakespeare’s play emerged from the classical tradition of revenge tragedy, which enjoyed a particular popularity around the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the play was first written and performed. Its first performances were probably staged by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s company at the time. Although it shares certain plot similarities with other revenge tragedies – a secret murder, a ghostly apparition, a bloody resolution – the ambiguities of Hamlet allow it to defy strict classification, enabling every actor, reader, or theatregoer to consider the play anew upon each new reading or viewing. The straightforward story of a son determined to avenge his father’s murder is complicated and enhanced by the many questions that arise throughout the play regarding unanswered plot points as well as philosophical conundrums.

Due to the survival of three early, distinct versions of the text of Hamlet, the process of editing Hamlet has required its editors to consider which of the texts – known as Quarto 1 (Q1), Quarto 2 (Q2), or Folio (F) – is truly ‘authoritative’. For the Arden Third Series edition of Hamlet, editors Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor chose to reject the traditions of elevating one text above the others or creating a composite text from all three versions. Instead, Arden offers clear, modernised versions of all three texts.

The Folio text of Hamlet first appeared in the 1623 Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, assembled by his colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell, fellow actors and shareholders in the King’s Men. Similar to Q2, the Folio text nevertheless contains a number of stage directions and lines of dialogue not seen in the other texts.

King Lear

William Shakespeare
Acts: 5. Scenes: 24. Roles: Male (13), Female (3), Neutral (0).

King Lear is an anguished tragedy of man’s cruelty to man. The play is extremely rich, encompassing every level of society and the extremes of emotion in the human experience. The play is shaken by a radical instability that is political and existential – a vast backdrop to the figure of the mad king, broken by politic flattery and injustice, howling into the wind.

In King Lear, family relations are continually called into question, as the text is concerned with the strength of blood in determining loyalty. The play itself has a corresponding plot and subplot, wherein Lear’s relationship with his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, is mirrored in Gloucester’s relationship with sons Edmund and Edgar.

Critics have commonly focused on the juxtaposition of Edmund, Regan, and Goneril’s valuation of power, property, and inheritance, with Cordelia and Edgar’s familial devotion. The characters assess the importance of family by different means, but they are not immediately ‘greedy’ or ‘moral’, as a result. Moreover, the strain of kinship in the text can be seen as a transition from an old order to a new one; the younger generation is at ideological odds with their elders, explaining their difficulty to connect with one another.

King Lear is thought to have been composed in 1605-6. Two, exceedingly different versions of the play text survive: the Quarto of 1608 and the First Folio of 1623. The choices of the Arden text rely mainly on the Folio, but the editor has also included lines from the Quarto which are not found in the Folio, and has thoughtfully explained such textual variations.


William Shakespeare
Acts: 5. Scenes: 15. Roles: Male (11), Female (3), Neutral (0).

Quite apart from the brilliance of its language and characters, Othello is remarkable amongst other early modern plays for its inversion of traditional, racially-defined roles in tragedy – the black man, Othello, becomes the hero, whereas the white man, Iago, is the obvious villain. Although ‘black’ characters were common on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, a black hero was unique.

More recent criticism has also expanded this discussion by considering Othello’s identity not just as a Moor, but as a Muslim. In doing so, it allows modern readers to examine the larger question of ‘otherness’ in relation to race, religion, and culture. Othello is now studied as part of a wider tradition of ‘Turk plays’, which also include Philip Massinger’s The Renegado and Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. This critical lens allows scholars to expand their understanding of the relationships between early modern European countries and the Ottoman Empire.

Despite the tendency of modern audiences to focus on the racial element, however, Othello is only partially about race. It is also a deeply moving and tragic depictions of the consequences of passion and the effects of jealousy. The insidious Iago has become the archetypal agent provocateur, and the shocking final scene is one of Shakespeare’s greatest.

The Arden edition prefers to date the play to late 1601-1602, (it is traditionally dated to 1603–4). Two early texts of Othello survive – a Quarto from 1622 and the text in the First Folio of 1623. This edition preferences the Quarto text, but in instances of textual cruxes, the editor has produced a carefully thought-out meditation between the two texts.

The Tamer Tamed

John Fletcher
Acts: 5. Scenes: 21. Roles: Male (14), Female (5), Neutral (0).

Petruchio, the celebrated tamer of shrews, has married for a second time, to an apparently innocent and docile young woman named Maria. But Maria has a surprise for him on their wedding night.

Nearly twenty years after Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Fletcher wrote a mischievous reply, in which Petruchio finds out what it is like to be on the receiving end of a taming campaign. Maria turns the tables on Petruchio and quickly takes control of all aspects of their marriage, from sexual relations to interior décor. Meanwhile, her sister Livia attempts to avoid marriage to the elderly Moroso and win back her nervy fiancé, Roland.

Often described as a feminist or proto-feminist play, The Tamer Tamed (also titled The Woman’s Prize) is a free-wheeling and witty comedy in which the place and status of women, and the nature of marriage, are subjected to sustained interrogation. Fletcher’s dazzling theatrical craftsmanship, spiked with beautifully weighted comic obscenity, creates both a fascinating appropriation of Shakespeare’s work and a hilarious and thought-provoking play in its own right.

The Tempest

William Shakespeare
Acts: 5. Scenes: 9. Roles: Male (12), Female (5), Neutral (1).

The endlessly arguable nature of The Tempest’s mysterious island and its inhabitants has made it fertile ground for appropriation and interpretation; the play has most often been considered as a text about imperialism and colonialism, but has also taken on different shapes through feminist, socio-political and psychological criticism.

The play was first printed in the 1623 First Folio, upon which this text is based.

The Tempest begins with a storm at sea. Antonio Duke of Milan, Alonso King of Naples and their courtiers are shipwrecked on one part of a mysterious island; Antonio’s son Prince Ferdinand is shipwrecked on another part; and the cook and the jester on another part.

The storm was created by the sorcerer Prospero, with the help of the spirit Ariel. Prospero explains to his daughter Miranda how he was the Duke of Milan, and his dukedom was usurped by his brother Antonio, with the help of Alonso. Prospero and the infant Miranda were marooned on the island, where he found Ariel and Caliban, and made them his servants.

Now Prospero has brought those who conspired against him to face a reckoning; he torments them with all the mysteries of the island. Meanwhile Miranda and Ferdinand are falling in love; Prospero sets Ferdinand exhausting tasks in order to test his mettle. And Caliban is leading the cook and the jester in a rebellion against Prospero.

All of the parties are brought together. Prospero’s dukedom is restored. Ferdinand and Miranda are married with an accompanying masque. Ariel is freed, and the island is left to Caliban. Prospero burns his magic books before returning to Milan.

The Winter's Tale

William Shakespeare
Acts: 5. Scenes: 15. Roles: Male (24), Female (5), Neutral (0).

The Winter’s Tale is a romance with a daring generic shape – a tragedy and a comedy held together at the play’s mid-point. Shakespeare hinges fatal jealousy in a courtly setting against a topsy-turvy pastoral world, and explores childhood dreaming, time, wonder, disguise, and the links of nature and death to art.

The play opens in the palace of King Leontes of Sicily and his wife, Queen Hermione, as they are entertaining King Polixenes of Bohemia. This domain is hallmarked by strong governmental order, demonstrated by Leontes’ paranoia, tyrannical wielding of power, and unfounded imprisonment or banishment of even those closest to him. The court of Sicily is juxtaposed with the peaceful, shepherded countryside of Bohemia, where the parallel plot of the play is set. Here, nature takes precedence over human rule, with the personified oracle Time determining the configuration of the realm. The two, seemingly conflicting worlds come together in Act V – both in the arrival of Perdita and Florizel from Bohemia to Sicily and, more importantly, in the statue sequence during which Hermione overcomes human artifice with nature’s everlasting rule.

Scholars have often focused on Shakespeare’s potential sources for the pastoral aspect of the play, drawing links between The Winter’s Tale and contemporary works such as Greene’s Pandosto, Sidney’s Arcadia, and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. There is also a school of criticism that positions the play in the Christian allegorical tradition, giving it a much weightier moral purpose than considering it mere folklore or a fairy tale.

The Arden edition of The Winter’s Tale is based on the earliest text of the play, from the 1623 First Folio. It is known to have been performed in early 1611 at the Globe, and has been dated between 1609 and 1611.

The English theatre during the reign of James I (1603–25) was known as Jacobean theatre. Although Shakespeare was still writing major works until around 1611, the leading dramatist of the era was Ben Jonson. Other noted Jacobean playwrights included John Marston, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Heywood, John Ford, Thomas Dekker (c. 1570–1632), Cyril Tourneur (c. 1575–1626), and Samuel Rowley (c. 1575–1624).

In comedy, the Elizabethan concerns with characterization and romantic love began to give way to a vogue for harsh satire and increased realism from about 1610. Jacobean tragedy shows a similar obsession with the idea of moral corruption; examples include Webster’s The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1619), as well as Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy (1610). The plays, which are often horrifically violent, display a generally cynical and pessimistic outlook on life. From 1605 Jonson collaborated with Inigo Jones to create the extravagant and scholarly court masques beloved by James I and his queen.

Although James was an enthusiast for the theatre, he imposed strict regulations on companies, specifying in which theatres they could play. One effect of this was to bring public performances into the cities of London and Westminster; before 1608 all theatres had to be outside the municipal boundaries. The leading troupe of the day, the Chamberlain’s Men, became the King’s Men on James’s accession. Similarly the Blackfriars Boy Company became the Children of the Revels of the Queen, although the popularity of child actors came to an end during the Jacobean era. Other features of the period include the growing influence of neoclassical theories from the Continent, increasingly violent opposition to the theatre from the Puritans, and a general decline in audience numbers.

from Jonathan Law ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011).