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.

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.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare
Acts: 5. Scenes: 9. Roles: Male (17), Female (4), Neutral (1).

When four lovers escape the confines of Athens by fleeing to the forest, they find themselves caught up in a supernatural power struggle between Oberon, the faerie king, and his queen, Titania. In the forest, all the rules of society vanish, and they find themselves and their actions transformed by the forces around them. Through their struggles, Shakespeare demonstrates the illusory nature of love, as well as of art itself. The lovers, Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius, and Helena, are so similar as to be interchangeable, and indeed, under the influence of magic, they transfer their affections from one to another throughout the play.

Meanwhile, a group of Athenian commoners has entered the forest to rehearse a play for the Duke’s wedding celebrations. In the midst of their bumbling rehearsals, the fairy queen becomes magically enchanted with one of the actors, Bottom, who has been given an ass’s head by the irrepressible spirit Puck. The actors’ eventual performance of their production of Pyramus and Thisbe is one of the finest moments of the play.

This text is based on the First Quarto from 1600. A Second Quarto from 1619, but falsely dated 1600, also survives, in addition to the text of the 1623 First Folio.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and is probably his most performed work to this day. Peter Brook’s 1970 production of the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company was a landmark in the history of Shakespearean production. It has been regularly adapted for film and television, beginning with a silent film in 1909.


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.

A Woman Killed With Kindness

Thomas Heywood
Acts: 0. Scenes: 17. Roles: Male (19), Female (3), Neutral (0).

A woman struggles to survive, and then struggles to die, in Heywood’s startling domestic tragedy about the possession and punishment of women, probably first published in 1607.

The marriage of John Frankford, a middling country gentleman, and his wife Anne is comfortable, if uneventful, until he gives his friend Wendoll the free use of his table and purse. Wendoll takes even more than was offered, and confesses his desperate love to Anne, who takes pity on him, and they commit adultery. When they are discovered John banishes his wife to a distant manor, forbidding her to see their two children, and it is in the comfort of her exile that she will starve herself to death. In the subplot, a woman devoted to her brother is offered as payment for his debts.

Usually considered to be a domestic tragedy, A Woman Killed with Kindness is complex in its didacticism, as Heywood explores the boundaries of marital punishment, and the moral weight of mercy.

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).