Plays

The Tamer Tamed

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed acts as a sort of ‘sequel’ to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1590-4). Written nearly twenty years after Shakespeare’s violent Padua comedy, Fletcher’s city comedy relocates the ‘tamer’ Petruchio to London for his remarriage to the seemingly docile Maria, after the death of his shrewish first wife, Katherina. Maria, however, 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.

Recent decades have seen a desire to bring Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s plays together in performance, such as Greg Doran’s 2003-4 RSC productions, which changed the names of some of the later play’s character in order to heighten the continuance of the narrative, and thus highlight Petruchio’s rise and fall and the similarities of the social backdrops of London and Padua.

Whereas Shakespeare’s play focuses on the ‘taming’ of an individual ‘shrew’ (a wayward, over-talkative, sexually available woman), Fletcher’s reworking reaches out to the wider cultural co-ordinates of early modern misogyny and proto-feminism. Written at a time when the London theatre scene was abounding with plays about ‘excessive’, transgressive women, shortly before the battle of the sexes would heat up with the ‘pamphlet wars’ of the 1610s, the play inverts commonplace gender hierarchies to put women – at least, temporarily – on top. Maria and her fellow ‘shrews’ dominate the stage spatially, verbally, and sexually. Dramaturgically mimicking rural customs such as the charivari and the skimmington, the coming-together of the city and country wives in support of Maria overturns the play’s patriarchal agenda with a jubilant carnival of women’s noise. In the face of this seeming celebration of female empowerment, then, critics and theatre-goers alike have found the play’s ending, as that of Shrew, hard to swallow: Maria vows to Petruchio that she will dedicate her life ‘in service to your pleasure’.

The Tempest (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Tempest has long been regarded as Shakespeare’s swan-song. Critical readers from Coleridge onward have interpreted Prospero’s epilogue, ending ‘Let your indulgence set me free’, as Shakespeare’s own farewell to the stage; however, this interpretation has since been queried by more recent chronologies that suggest the playwright went on to compose Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen after The Tempest.

In its first publication (in the First Folio of 1623), The Tempest appears in the ‘Comedies’ section. In modern criticism, it is more likely to see The Tempest described as a ‘late play’ (written towards the end of what we perceive to be Shakespeare’s writing career, c. 1607-13) or a ‘romance’ – a group of plays set in an unspecified time and/or place, whose loose plots revolve round familial reunion and fantastical happenings.

Prospero, a magus and the usurped Duke of Milan, and his spirit-servant Ariel, conjure a storm that casts Prospero’s treacherous brother (the current Duke of Milan), the King of Naples and their courtiers onto an unnamed island. The king’s son, Ferdinand, now alone on the island, meets Prospero and falls in love with his daughter, Miranda. Meanwhile, Caliban, the deformed offspring of the island-witch Sycorax, encounters Naples’ jester Trinculo and butler Stephano, who desire to overthrow Prospero and become kings of the island themselves. All parties are eventually reunited, and Prospero forgives his brother and reclaims his dukedom. Miranda and Ferdinand are married, and Ariel is set free, whilst Caliban is castigated for his actions.

The first recorded performance of the play is in November 1611 before King James I at Whitehall. A year previously, in 1610, word had reached England of the shipwreck of an exploratory vessel, the Sea Venture, in the Bermudas. One survivor, William Strachey, wrote a lengthy letter home narrating their encounter of the ‘dreaded I[s]land . . . given over to Devils and wicked Spirits’. His account has been seen as a major influence of The Tempest, along with the essay ‘Of the Caniballes’ by sixteenth-century French humanist Michel de Montaigne, whose Essais (translated into English by John Florio in 1603) have been perceived as a significant influence upon Shakespeare’s Jacobean oeuvre.

The play’s dramatic opening (with the stage direction ‘A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard’), its abundance of music and its lavish masque suggest that The Tempest was written for the indoor theatre at Blackfriars, which Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, had taken over in 1608. Unlike the ‘wooden O’ of outdoor amphitheatre venues such as the Globe on Bankside, Blackfriars offered a much darker, more intimate space, suited not to the large battles of Elizabethan plays such as we see in the Henriad, but to the psychological drama and fantastical set-pieces of ‘romances’ such as The Winter’s Tale.

The trajectory of responses to The Tempest has moved from a Restoration emphasis of the centrality of the patriarchy, to Romantic enthusiasm for the individual creative genius represented by Prospero, to post-colonial readings of the enslaved native Caliban, to feminist re-appropriations of the play’s only living female character, Miranda.

video The Tempest (Donmar)

Donmar Warehouse
Type: Video

The final instalment in the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeare Trilogy sees Harriet Walter take on the role of Prospero in this evocation of the eternal struggle for freedom, morality and justice.

Directed for both stage and screen by Phyllida Lloyd. Set on an isle ‘full of noises’, this magical production features a glowing score by Joan Armatrading. Critics celebrated the original staging as ‘A glorious reminder that genuine diversity offers astonishing creative benefits’.

The Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy began in 2012 with an all-female production of Julius Caesar led by Dame Harriet Walter. Set in a women’s prison, the production asked the question, ‘Who owns Shakespeare?’ Two further productions followed: Henry IV in 2014 and The Tempest in 2016, all featuring a diverse company of women. The Trilogy enthralled theatre audiences in London and New York and was shared with women and girls in prisons and schools across the UK. The film versions were shot live in a specially built temporary theatre in King’s Cross in 2016.

For teacher resources, visit this page.

For more videos about the trilogy, visit this page.

video The Tempest (Globe on Screen)

Globe on Screen
Type: Video

Twelve years ago, Prospero, formerly the Duke of Milan, was usurped by Alonso, King of Naples, and Alonso's brother, Sebastian and cast adrift with his three-year-old daughter, Miranda. They now live on an island. Desiring revenge, Prospero uses his powerful magic to cause a great storm which shipwrecks his enemies. Stage director: Jeremy Herrin. Screen director: Ian Russell. Featuring: James Garnon, Jessie Buckley, Roger Allam, Jason Baughan, Sam Cox, Pip Donaghy, Trevor Fox, Peter Hamilton Dyer, Will Mannering, Joshua James, Colin Morgan, Sarah Sweeney, Amanda Wilkin, Matthew Raymond.

Timon of Athens

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Timon of Athens combines de casibus tragedy and urban satire, and ends in fury and bitter pathos. This probable collaboration between Thomas Middleton and Shakespeare produces a virulent and allegorical critique of the barrenness of economic relations, mocking greed and social pretension with a corrosive irony. First appearing in the ‘Tragedies’ section of the 1623 Folio, it is thought that the play was originally composed around 1606-7.

The brief story of Timon appears in one of Shakespeare’s most frequently used sources, Plutarch’s Lives (translated into English by Thomas North in 1579), in the ‘Life of Antony’, Shakespeare’s principal source for Antony and Cleopatra. It is unknown whether the anonymous Inns of Court revel Timon, based on Lucian’s dialogue on ‘Timon the Misanthrope’ (whose Latin translation by Erasmus was widely used as a school text in early modern England) pre- or post-dated Shakespeare and Middleton’s work. The play’s focus on the destructiveness of economic relations in fifth century Athens simultaneously explores the burgeoning world of transaction, credit and debt in the nascent capitalist society of early modern London; the play’s key themes of money and alienation have ensured that the play has interested Marxist and psychoanalytic criticism throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Timon is the most generous man in the city of Athens, handing out expensive gifts and loans to all who befriend and flatter him. He gives a banquet for the Athenian lords, as well as the cynic Apemantus, who mocks Timon and his fawning companions, and Alcibiades, a military captain.

Timon’s steward Flavius is beset by Timon’s creditors, who are calling in the many loans he has taken out; Timon has been spending far beyond his means, despite Flavius’ warnings. Timon sends to Lucius, Lucullus and Sempronius, but all of them refuse to lend him money, finding various excuses. Timon invites his ‘friends’ to a second banquet, but serves only lukewarm water, and accuses them. He leaves the city in disgust. Alcibiades begs the Senators for mercy for a fellow soldier who is condemned to death; they refuse to revoke the sentence and banish Alcibiades.

In the woods outside Athens, Timon digs in the ground for food and discovers a cache of gold. He gives some away to Alcibiades, who is going to attack Athens, to the whores Timandra and Phrynia, and to some thieves. Apemantus and then Flavius find him in the woods. Having heard the rumour of his wealth, the Poet and the Painter, and then the Senators hoping for help against Alcibiades, seek out Timon, but he drives them away.

A soldier in the woods finds Timon’s tomb. The senator’s surrender to Alcibiades, who promises justice.

There is no record of a performance of Timon contemporary to its authors, and its loose ends and unrefined structure may suggest that it never appeared on the early modern stage. A series of adaptations operatized the tragic pathos of Timon’s situation in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, until George Lamb restored much of the original play in the early 1800s. The twentieth century’s onstage response to Timon was manifold: it has, in different decades, been performed as theatre of the absurd, as a response to various banking crises, and as an apocalyptic nightmare.

Troilus and Cressida

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In staging the famous story of the Trojan war and the doomed relationship of Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare stages the demystification of the classical heroes and the deflation of their chivalric ideals. The play is generically indeterminable, combining history, comedy and tragedy into a sceptical analysis of war-politics, potent sexuality and disillusionment.

Troilus and Cressida was written around 1601-2, in the aftermath of the abortive rising of the Earl of Essex. The play’s earliest extant text is the 1609 Quarto, whose preliminary pages exist in two states; this text is based on the 1623 First Folio, supplemented and corrected from the 1609 Quarto.

The city of Troy has been besieged by the Greek army for seven years. The Trojan prince Troilus is preoccupied by his love for Cressida; Cressida’s uncle Pandarus is assisting him. In the Greek camp outside the city walls, the commander Agamemnon complains about his army’s listlessness; Ulysses blames the renowned warrior Achilles, who spends all day in his tent with Patroclus instead of fighting. Hector sends a challenge to single combat, and Ulysses suggests choosing Achilles’ rival Ajax.

The Trojans debate whether keeping Helen (who eloped with the Trojan prince Paris from her husband the Greek Menelaus) is worth the lives that have been lost, but Troilus persuades his brother Hector that it is the honourable thing to do. Pandarus has arranged for Troilus and Cressida to meet privately, attended by himself. But Cressida’s father Calchus, who defected to the Greeks, arranges an exchange: Cressida will come to the Greek camp and the Greeks will release their Trojan prisoner Antenor.

After the lovers’ farewells, Cressida is escorted out of Troy by the Greek Diomedes. The Trojans arrive at the Greek camp for the combat between Hector and Ajax, but it is interrupted because they are cousins. Achilles swears to meet Hector in battle the next day. Having accompanied Hector, Troilus sees Cressida being familiar with Diomedes, and furiously vows to kill the Greek. In battle the next day, Troilus fights with Ajax, Patroclus is killed, and Achilles treacherously kills Hector.

video Troilus and Cressida (RSC)

The Royal Shakespeare Company
Type: Video

Filmed live in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in November 2018

“Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery: nothing else holds fashion”

Troilus and Cressida swear they will always be true to one another. But in the seventh year of the siege of Troy their innocence is tested, and exposed to the savage corrupting influence of war, with tragic consequences.

Virtuoso percussionist Evelyn Glennie collaborates with RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran to create a satirical futuristic vision of a world resounding with the rhythm of battle.

For teacher resources, visit this page.

CAST
Priam: Ewart James Walters
Hector: Daniel Hawksford
Andromache: Gabby Wong
Paris: Geoffrey Lumb
Helen: Daisy Badger
Troilus: Gavin Fowler
Cassandra: Charlotte Arrowsmith
Helenus: Mikhail Sen
Polyxena: Esther McAuley
Aeneas: Amanda Harris
Pandarus: Oliver Ford Davies
Cressida: Amber James
Clachas: Helen Grady
Alexandra: Leigh Quinn
Paris' servant: Nicole Agada
Agamemnon: Suzanne Bertish
Menelaus: Andrew Langtree
Ulysses: Adjoa Andoh
Nestor: Jim Hooper
Achilles: Andy Apollo
Patroclus: James Cooney
Ajax: Theo Ogundipe
Diomed: Daniel Burke
Thersites: Sheila Reid

CREATIVES
Stage Director: Gregory Doran
Designer: Niki Turner
Incidental Music: Evelyn Glennie
TV Director: Robin Lough

The Two Noble Kinsmen

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Shakespeare and Fletcher rewrite Chaucer’s A Knight’s Tale as a tragicomedy of the limits of chivalry and friendship. Other than discussing the mechanics of the collaboration, critics have examined the play’s treatment of heroism and chivalry, its attitudes to courtly love and sex, its use of Chaucer, and its abrupt reversals and generic ambivalence.

The play is generally dated to 1613-14. This text is based on the 1634 Quarto – the play was not included in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works.

In Athens, the wedding of King Theseus and Hippolyta is interrupted by three queens, who beg Theseus to make war on Thebes’s ruler Creon, who will not allow them to bury their husbands who were killed in battle. The Theban cousins Palamon and Arcite are resolved to fight for Thebes, despite their hatred of Creon. They are both wounded in the battle, which Theseus wins; they are captured by the Athenians.

From their prison, they see Emilia walking in a garden, and both fall in love with her. Arcite is released and banished by Theseus; he disguises himself and triumphs at a sporting competition, allowing him to meet Emilia. Palamon is released by the Jailer’s Daughter, who has fallen deeply in love with him; he hears Arcite boasting of his meeting with Emilia and they agree to a duel. Theseus, coming across them, declares a tournament instead, at which the winner will marry Emilia and the loser will be executed. Arcite is victorious, but is thrown from his horse, and Theseus declares that Palamon will marry Emilia instead.

The Daughter, who has been driven mad by her love for Palamon, appears to be cured when her devoted Wooer dresses up as him.

video The Two Noble Kinsmen (Globe on Screen 2)

Globe on Screen
Type: Video

Inspired by the play’s Morris language and references, The Two Noble Kinsmen is set in pastoral ‘Merrie England’ and brought to life with original music composed by acclaimed folk musician Eliza Carthy, and dance choreographed by Ewan Wardrop.

How long is forever? When the imprisoned Palamon and Arcite vow eternal friendship, they don’t expect that anything will come between them. But then from their cell window they see the beautiful Emilia, and their priorities take a sudden and violent turn. In this late romance, Fletcher and Shakespeare examine love in all its fluid and complex forms.

The Village  

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Village life for Jyoti is simple: the people work hard, sing and live off the earth. She would rather devour a delicious meal than think about a suitable partner. But when the Inspector and his men arrive in town, things begin to sour. The Inspector's reign of terror sees him commit unspeakable acts against the village with young Jyoti in his sights, pushing everyone to breaking point.

De Vega's Fuenteovejuna is transported to contemporary India and set against a backdrop of political unrest in this adaptation by April De Angelis.

The Village premiered at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, in September 2018.

video Volpone

Stage on Screen
Type: Video

Volpone has long been a popular choice as a set text for students. Written by Ben Jonson, it was first produced in 1606 and billed as a comedy, although it also includes elements of tragedy and even animal fable (Volpone is Italian for 'fox'). In essence, it's a dark satire on greed and lust, and remains Jonson's most performed work.
The action takes place in seventeenth-century Venice, over the course of one day. The chief characters are Volpone, a rich libertine and conman, and Mosca, his self-seeking servant. They cause chaos with an audacious fraud designed to part the city's wealthiest from their fortunes. The tale twists and turns, as all the characters attempt to deceive each other, until the whole scheme finally collapses, with disastrous consequences for Volpone.
A great choice for students and theatre lovers
There are themes galore to explore in Volpone, a key reason for its popularity in schools and colleges. One of the most important is the power of stagecraft - Volpone doesn't merely lie, but turns his deception into a whole production, complete with make-up, wardrobe and props. This is therefore truly a play to be seen, not just read.
In addition, it's an excellent play to study alongside Shakespeare. Jonson and Shakespeare were contemporaries, although their approach to drama was quite different.
Of course, whether you're a teacher, student or simply a theatre lover, Volpone, is, quite simply, great fun - its messages clearly resonating today.
Not surprisingly, Volpone is Jonson's most performed work. As the inscription over his Westminster Abbey grave states: 'O Rare Ben Johnson' (sic) – and this play is indeed a rare treat to study and watch.
Director: Elizabeth Freestone.
Featuring: Richard Bremmer, Mark Hadfield, Conrad Westmaas, Harvey Virdi, Edmund Kingsley, Tim Treloar, Maxwell Hutcheon, Tim Steed, James Wallace, Aislín McGuckin, Peter Bankolé, Brigid Zengeni

Volpone or the Fox

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Volpone is the sharpest, funniest play about money and morals in the seventeenth century – a play still wickedly relevant four centuries later. Jonson’s comedy depicts selfishness thinly veiled by sanctimonious speeches, lust and possessiveness poorly disguised as love and marriage, and cynical legalism passing itself off as pure justice – as well as examining snobbery, class warfare, and greed.

Volpone is partly a rewriting of beast fable, with the cunning ‘fox’ Volpone pulling the strings at its centre. He is a Venetian gentleman, who pretends to be dying in order two dupe three men into making him extravagant presents of plate, money, gems – and in one case, a beautiful daughter. Assisted by his wily servant Mosca, the two tricksters keep a dozen conventional plots spinning in the minds of their dupes, and when their amazing juggling act finally unravels, there are yet more twists – and an even deeper cynicism – to Jonson’s skilful satire.

Volpone was first performed by the King’s Men at the Globe in 1606, and was printed in quarto in 1607.

The Witch

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A lurid and sensational tragicomedy, Thomas Middleton portrays a court mired in sexual intrigue and deception, and the gruesome witch who keeps them well supplied with love charms and poisons.

At the start of the play, Sebastian returns from abroad to find his fiancée Isabella married that day to Antonio. (Antonio’s courtesan Florida is also upset about the marriage.) Antonio determines to prevent the marriage being consummated so he can claim Isabella back, and asks the witch Hecate to make Antonio impotent. Meanwhile, the Duchess is plotting revenge against her husband the Duke, incensed by his use of her father’s skull as a drinking cup. The courtier Almachildes asks Hecate for a charm to make the Duchess’s woman Amoretta fall in love with him. And Francisca, Antonio’s sister, is panicking about her illegitimate pregnancy. These multiple intrigues pave the way for a tangled combination of bed tricks, misfiring love charms and murders.

The story is twisting and highly complex – possibly because the play’s emphasis is not on plot, but upon topical satire, referencing the contemporary witchcraft scandal of Frances Howard, Robert Carr and Sir Thomas Overbury.

The court tragedy is counterweighted by the lusty, ghastly antics of Hecate, her son Firestone and her familiars. Cooking dead children, practising voodoo, having sex with her cat-spirit and cooking up foul potions, Hecate is the black, potent heart of Middleton’s play.

The Witch, which survives in manuscript form and was not printed until 1778, is thought to have been written between 1613-1616 and performed by the King’s Men at the Blackfriars.

A Woman Killed With Kindness

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

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.