As the weather heats up, Shakespeare festivals will be popping up all across the country. If you are looking for something theatrical to do while taking advantage of the great weather, head out to one. Even if you’ve never read the plays or feel intimidated by the language, have no fear! The Bard’s great speculative fiction is fun for the whole family. Even Shakespeare novices come away from the live experience fully entertained. The acting helps you follow each story without difficulty. Sometimes directors put their own spin on the play, changing up the location or even gender-swapping characters. So, whether you know Shakespeare by heart or have never even heard of him, there is something for you at your local festival.
Want to attend but unsure what to see? Don’t worry! Similar to our past summer reading recommendations and horrendous Valentine’s Day suggestions, here are some recommendations from the Fiction Unbounders to get you started.
Danyelle C. Overbo recommends Hamlet
Elevator Pitch: Betrayal, revenge, ghosts! This show has it all. As Shakespeare’s longest play, Hamlet tells the story of a prince out for revenge on his uncle after discovering (via the ghost of his recently deceased father and king) that his uncle murdered his father for the throne. That is a mouthful for sure. There are many murders and lots of mayhem, and even lost love and lunacy. What more could you ask for?
Why you’ll love it: Action! Death! See it for the awesome theater fight choreography alone. Your local Shakespeare company won’t let you down.
Favorite Line: As with almost all of Shakespeare’s plays, this one is chock full of phrases we still quote today. Most people will remember “To be or not to be…” the most, but my favorite lines are by Ophelia. “There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts.” Methinks mad Ophelia wasn’t as mad as they thought.
Reasons to hate/love it: It is long. And, like Game of Thrones, your favorite character is likely to die.
Death Rating: This is a dark one with 9 deaths total. Not Shakespeare’s darkest play by any means, but it is up there.
Action Rating: 8 out of 10 - good fight scenes towards the end, but the build up does take a bit.
What snacks to bring: Gummy skulls and ghosts or Halloween candy in general.
Lisa Mahoney recommends A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Elevator Pitch: When Hermia’s father orders her to marry Demetrius instead of Lysander, her love, the couple runs away into the woods, a fantastical faeryland, to elope. Demetrius chases them, followed by Helena, who pines for him. Meanwhile, when the faery queen Titania refuses King Oberon’s unjust demands to hand over her changeling, he humiliates her by dosing her with a love potion that makes her fall in love with a low-born actor with a jackass head. Along the way, Oberon and his faery henchman, Puck, interfere with the Athenian love quadrangle with varying results.
Why you’ll love it: Well-articulated musings upon why chasing after someone who does not love you inevitably drives them ever further away, and vice-versa. Is this the original stalker story?
“Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.” - Oberon
“O, when she's angry, she is keen and shrewd! She was a vixen when she went to school; And though she be but little, she is fierce.” - Helena about Hermia
Reasons to hate/love it: Shakespeare demonstrates the unjustness of laws allowing fathers to dictate marriages for their daughters, but he stops short of condemning a husband, Oberon, for irrationally demanding property belonging to his wife, Titania. After she lucidly explains that the human changeling lad was offered into her care by a dying worshipper, Oberon acts as stubborn as the jackass she is made to fall in love with. He suffers no penalty for humiliating her and tricking her into giving the boy up.
Death Rating: 1 of 10. This is a [spoilers] comedy, after all. No deaths.
Action Rating: 2 of 10. Dark chase scene wherein Demetrius threatens Helena with rape if she continues stalking him. Humorous chase scene wherein would-be dualists are led around by the nose by the mischievous Puck.
What snacks to bring: wild thyme, oxlips and the nodding violet; luscious woodbine, sweet musk-roses, and eglantine.
Mark Springer recommends MacBeth
Elevator Pitch: After saving Scotland from a foreign invasion, thanes Macbeth and Banquo are visited by the Weird Sisters, three witches who are very weird indeed. The witches prophesy that Macbeth will be king of Scotland, and that Banquo will beget a line of kings, though he won’t be king himself. The cleverly worded, seemingly contradictory prophecy sets Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth, down a dark and bloody path. The pair take the witches’ words to heart and murder King Duncan. Macbeth indeed becomes king, but guilt and paranoia drive him to ever-greater extremes of violence as he attempts to preserve his ill-gotten crown (RIP, Banquo and many, many others).
Why you’ll love it: It’s a classic story about the corrupting influences of political ambition and power, written 400 years before a certain fantasy epic tackled the same theme.
“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
William Shakespeare, Macbeth (5.5.17-28)
Reasons to hate/love it: Shakespeare’s depiction of how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are corrupted by ambition stands in stark contrast to the much-criticized “twist” in the final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Unlike in Thrones, where a beloved character suddenly pivots to mass murder and tyranny with a single impulsive decision, the Macbeths’ transformation from respected if unremarkable nobles into ruthless murderers is rendered in painstaking detail, and feels wholly earned. That’s not to say the play is flawless, however. Modern audiences might detect undercurrents of patriarchal misogyny in Shakespeare’s treatment of Lady Macbeth, who is portrayed as usurping her proper gender-defined role of dutiful and subservient wife, when she essentially bullies Macbeth into acting on the witches’ prophecy. This violation of the “natural” order between man and woman is the play’s original sin, which begets every bloody deed that follows, and for which “fiend-like” Lady Macbeth is twice punished, first with madness, and then with death by suicide. Not a deal-breaker, but worth noting as yet another example of how deeply rooted are the unwarranted gender-based double standards that continue to pervade Western culture.
Death Rating: Maximum. While not Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy (looking at you, Titus Andronicus), Macbeth is undoubtedly among the Bard’s darkest. Nine named characters are murdered in cold blood or killed in combat, but that’s not the full tally. In the end, the body count includes women and children (Act IV, scene iii is not for the faint of heart), plus hundreds, if not thousands, of dead and wounded on both sides of the climactic battle at Dunsinane.
Action Rating: A proper performance of Macbeth will have you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. The opening scene sets the tone, with the witches promising foul play. Soon enough, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are plotting an assassination. Once the murdering starts, the violence continues, on stage and off, until the final lines. It’s a wild ride, and best experienced in an open-air theater at night, if you can find a performance that starts around sunset.
What snacks to bring: Poisoned entrails in a bubbling cauldron.
Amanda Baldeneaux recommends The Tempest
Elevator Pitch: He’s a wizard, Harry! Ok, no one is named Harry. But Prospero is a duke-turned-magician stranded Gilligan-style on an island with his daughter, a magical sprite, and the son of a deceased witch. All is balmy until the man who usurped Prospero’s dukedom goes sailing by, and Prospero conjures a little storm to beach the ship on his shores.
Why you’ll love it: Because the alternate name is “Four Betrayals and a Wedding”
Favorite Line: “my library / Was dukedom large enough.” - a man after my own heart.
Reasons to hate/love it: Miranda marries the first man she sees that isn’t only part-human or a blood relative. The girl could have had some more agency in her life. Ferdinand should find his position precarious when she gets back to Italy and sees other humans exist.
Death Rating: Prospero essentially enslaves Ariel, which is very dark. But no one dies. It’s a rom-com.
Action Rating: Swords are drawn, lives are threatened, but most of the action is driven by weather and wits.
What snacks to bring: Pack a seafood buffet and a few coconuts.
See anything you like? Wondering where to go from here? Look up the website of your local Shakespeare festival to learn more. You’ll be able to check out which plays will be available near you this summer, find a calendar to choose the best dates and times, and all you have to do is buy the tickets and show up.
Your turn! Share with us in the comments below what your favorite Shakespeare play is and why.