Around the Globe (Theatre) with Shakespeare18th April 2023
To read or not to read, that is the question! When you think about plays or playwrights, there’s a pretty good chance that one name in particular will pop into everyone’s minds – William Shakespeare. He was the superstar of the Elizabethan period, racking up an impressive total of at least 38 plays and over 100 poems and sonnets! Despite all of his famous works, some people may think that they don’t actually know any of Shakespeare’s plays or poems, but believe it or not, most of us are quoting his work daily. Ever been ‘on a wild goose chase’? Mercutio did in Romeo and Juliet! Have you ever told a knock-knock joke (I know I have!)? Well, ‘knock, knock! Who’s there?’ said the Porter in Macbeth whilst guarding the Gates of Hell!
William Shakespeare wrote comedies and tragedies, historical pieces, complete fiction, and everything in between. His influence in the literary world is incomparable to that of any other playwright - and he is actually a record breaker for this! He is the most-read playwright, with his work being translated into many different languages and he is also one of the most filmed authors having hundreds of TV and film adaptations of his work. I mean, Hamlet was even translated into Klingon!
We are quickly coming up to the unofficial-yet-celebrated birthday of William Shakespeare, although no one actually knows his exact date of birth. Historians know that the 26th of April 1564 is the date that he was baptised, and so, historically speaking, three days prior to this should mark his date of birth. In true dramatic fashion of a playwright and actor, Shakespeare also sadly died on his birthday 52 years later (1616) in Stratford-upon-Avon, which just so happens to be his birthplace too. So happy birth/death-day for the 23rd of April, William!
Historians don’t quite know exactly when Shakespeare’s writing career began, but we know that records show some of his work being performed on stage in London in 1592. Richard III and all three parts of Henry VI are thought to be his first recorded plays in the early 1590s and a lot of inspiration for his earlier works seems to play on villainous rulers and corrupt justice from some of the Tudor rulers before his time. Some of Shakespeare’s works were rather controversial with how he criticised the powerful leaders of the time. So, being the genius that he was, he set some of his plays outside of England, which avoided him getting into any bother and facing repercussions for the negative image he was known to paint of important leaders. Many of his works were in exotic lands, despite there being no record of Shakespeare actually leaving England in his 52 years! So how does he know so much about all of these exotic places? Some people have argued that Shakespeare could have asked some of the French and Italian travellers who moved to London about these places for research. He also read books and so would have heard about foreign countries through other stories that he had read. Perhaps all of these exotic lands are really representations of English locations. It’s been argued that Venice in The Merchant of Venice is meant to represent London, for example.
To paraphrase a line from one of my favourite plays, As You Like It, ‘All the world was Shakespeare’s stage, and all the men and women merely players’, and so to celebrate the Bard’s birthday, join me on an adventure around the Globe with William Shakespeare!
Stop one: Scotland!
For our first stop on our trip around the Globe with Shakespeare, we arrive in lovely Scotland! This play is set in various Scottish locations, from Macbeth’s castle in Inverness, to Castle Forres where Duncan resides. Back in the 11th Century where Macbeth was set, Scotland was not a part of the United Kingdom, nor did they have any plans of joining forces with the English. As this was the most northern point of our little island, Scotland is portrayed to be gloomy and depressing and the most perfect location for evil plots to take place up north under the cover of darkness.
The Scottish general, Macbeth, is told by three witches that he is to become the next King of Scotland. Convinced by what they have told him, Macbeth and his ambitious wife decide that they will do whatever it takes to ensure he takes the crown. This is one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies and very prominently shows the theme of greed throughout the play. We watch the downward spiral of Macbeth as guilt, greed and paranoia consume him and, spurred on by his wife, we see the effects of madness settle in.
Next stop: Denmark!
Now, we jump across into northern Europe to Elsinore (or Helsingør) – a port city in eastern Denmark to visit Hamlet. Shakespeare refers to the castle that this play is set at as Elsinore Castle, when in reality the only castle that has historically existed in this area was Kronborg Castle. The whole of Hamlet is set inside the castle, except for a little bit just outside the castle gates.
This is another tragedy written by Shakespeare where the ghost of the King of Denmark tells his son (Hamlet) to kill the new Danish King – Hamlet's uncle - and avenge his father’s murder. Hamlet declines into madness as he seeks revenge against the King. It has been considered as one of the most powerful and influential tragedies in the English language.
Next stop: France!
As You Like It
Travelling back west across Europe, we visit France. As You Like It is predominantly set in the Forest of Arden – a mystical (and made-up!) forest in the duchy of France. It may be an imaginary forest, but it feels real with all of the green and the freedom within it - although the lionesses running around in France may give it up as a made-up place!
As You Like It is a romantic comedy that features a cross-dressing heroine, Rosalind, and her cousin who are in hiding after being exiled from her father’s court. However, whilst dressed as country boys, they meet some real boys who have also been exiled (but who they wouldn’t mind having a happily ever after with!). We follow their comedic journey as they figure out how to reveal their true selves to their true loves.
Next stop: Austria!
Measure for measure
Next on our tour of the Globe we visit the Catholic city of Vienna in Austria! The characters in this play seem to have slightly Italian, or perhaps Spanish, sounding names, but Measure for Measure is the only Shakespeare play (that we know of) to be set in Austria!
For the more adult readers – Vienna is full of brothels and moral decay. The Duke leaves his deputy, Angelo, in charge of cleaning up the city and leaves disguised as a friar so that he can observe the goings on. Seemingly reluctant at first, Angelo takes up this responsibility but then exploits this new power by threatening a young gentleman called Claudio with death for immoral behaviour. Angelo offers to save Claudio’s life by asking if he can spend time with his sister, Isabella. This play is considered to be a comedy with its use of irony and witty wordplay, but it does also feature quite tragic plots and some serious speeches. Claudio’s speech in this play is considered to be on par with Hamlet’s – one of the most famous soliloquies in Shakespeare’s works.
Next stop: Italy!
Romeo and Juliet
We now arrive in the Italian city of Verona for Romeo and Juliet. We are taken to a few different places in Verona, and I feel this really sets the mood for each scene of the play. One of which is the famous balcony scene which sees tourists flying to Verona from all corners of the globe just to get a glimpse of where Romeo won over Juliet.
I think that all of us know what happens in this play as there ‘never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.’ It is the pioneer of forbidden love. Romeo sneaks into the Capulet Ball where he lays eyes on the beautiful Juliet – instantly falling in love with her. But the Montagues and the Capulets are sworn enemies and so this love could never work. We see the families fight over this new love connection and it all goes terribly for the two young lovers. Arguably so much so that it has become Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy.
Next stop: Spain!
Love’s Labour’s Lost
The next play, Love’s Labour’s Lost is set in the kingdom of Navarre in northern Spain. The whole play takes place outside, which in Shakespearean comedy means three things: freedom, play and sexual attraction. As I don’t know too much about Navarre, other than it is the host to the Festival of San Fermin every year, I thought I’d dazzle you with some facts about the play instead!
Fun fact about this play – it includes the longest scene, the longest speech, and the longest word ever used in Shakespeare’s plays. The longest word is ‘honorificabilitudinitatibus’, which (after a quick Google search) is Latin for “the state of being able to achieve honours” and I have no idea how to pronounce it! Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies – so it is much lighter reading than the last play. Ferdinand, the King of Navarre, and his three friends vow to avoid women for three years to help them focus on their studying. The Princess of France and her three attendant ladies travel to Navarre and subsequently, we see the men falling for these women. Breaking their oath to one another, they try not to get caught out by their peers, whilst still trying to woo the women. There is laughter and arguments and love – a proper romantic comedy from Shakespeare.
Next stop: Croatia!
Twelfth Night is set in the Dukedom of Illyria. Okay, okay, I know that this is made up, but it is imagined to be on the Adriatic coast. This is a pretty big coastline, but it is thought to be near Croatia to be a bit more specific. Many people in Elizabethan England didn’t get the chance to travel too far away from their homes - let alone somewhere as exotic sounding as Croatia. Shakespeare knew of some real places here and so wrote this play with reference to actual places as well as aspects that he imagined. At one point, he references a place as ‘The Elephant’, which just so happened to be a pub near to the Globe Theatre. Perhaps he took this actual venue that existed and added it to this imaginary kingdom to make it feel more real. Shakespeare wrote for Illyria to be full of famous dukes and heiresses – like an Elizabethan Hollywood! When Viola and her twin Sebastian arrive, their boat has been wrecked and they both believe the other to have drowned at sea. As a disguise, Viola dresses as a young man (Cesario) and starts working as a servant for the Duke. We then see love triangles emerge through the mistaken identity of Viola and a whole lot of confusion hits everybody! This is one of my favourite ever Shakespeare plays, a comedic/romantic story – what’s not to love?
Final stop: Egypt/Rome!
Antony and Cleopatra
For our final play, we have quite a few different locations. In Antony and Cleopatra, the play travels all over the Roman Empire. From Parthia (which is modern-day Iraq!), Athens, Syria and many battles in the middle! Predominantly, however, we follow Caesar in Rome, and Mark Antony and Cleopatra in Egypt. Some have criticised this play for being a little bit erratic as there are lots and lots of little scenes rather than big sections. It is actually ranked as the highest number of scenes in Shakespeare’s works with 42 altogether! Rome is portrayed to be a very reasoning setting here, with a lot of political talk and bureaucracy, whereas Egypt is shown as natural and free.
Roman Leader, Mark Antony is head-over-heels in love with Cleopatra – the Egyptian Queen. This, obviously, leads to people gossiping about the scandal of these two great leaders and once word gets around – we see a lot of fighting and death. One slight problem here; Antony already has a wife back home (awkward!). He receives a message one day that his wife has sadly died, and so he leaves his affair with Cleopatra to return to Rome. Once back in Rome, Antony marries Caesar’s sister in order to prove his loyalty to him and their alliance. When Cleo found out about this, she wasn’t too happy and wages war on pretty much everybody involved.
And with this we conclude our adventure through the works of William Shakespeare! We have journeyed across the Globe through his writings, and there is no record that the bloke even left the country. The impact that he has had on our world as we know it is astounding. It is most likely that we owe all of our favourite books to this man in some way as his influence over all of English literature is out of this world. So, why not pick your favourite play and give it a go as we celebrate the great William Shakespeare’s (unofficial) birthday. As I finish this Shakespeare blog, let me leave you with a few fun ways that we have seen goodbyes in some works of Shakespeare:
“Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me” – Hamlet
“Peace, ho!” – As you Like it
“Parting is such sweet sorrow” – Romeo and Juliet
And my personal favourite “[EXIT, PURSUED BY BEAR]” – The Winter’s Tale
Kat, Content Selection Team
Want to explore more? Our Shakespeare page contains fantastic resources – from collections for Primary-aged pupils, resources for GCSE and A-Level, DVDs to Graphic Novel retellings for reluctant readers.