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400 years of Shakespeare

Updated Monday 21st March 2016

2016 marked 400 years since Shakespeare died, but his works still 'play on' today. Explore the life, times and legacy of the Bard of Avon...

William Shakespeare 400 image It's been 400 years since the world's most famous and well-respected playwright died and to mark the anniversary there’s an abundance of celebrations and commemorations of Shakespeare and his work.

To honour this huge event, we've compiled a fantastic range of free resources on the Bard and his plays, sonnets and more. In addition to this, The Open University is involved in three different co-productions with the BBC on his life, work and legacy. To get started and 'cheer thyself a little' you can:

See how Shakespeare is perceived across the globe

Read up on what Shakespeare's life was like

Dig into the details of Shakespeare's work

Explore various Shakespearean texts and genres

The The first collected edition of Shakespeare’s works, referred to by critics as the ‘First Folio’, appeared in 1623, seven years after his death. The Folio splits Shakespeare's plays into three categories: comedy, tragedy and history. You can explore each category in more detail in the tabs below. There's an additional tab conveying for Shakespeare’s notorious love poems, the sonnets (and for poetry in general). We've also provided the free eBook An Introduction to Shakespeare's First Folio to give you the low-down on the background to this amazing book.

Select a tab to begin...

The Comedies

Shakespeare was a master of comedy and audiences across the globe today still laugh out loud at the double-entendres, wit and confusion between characters that light up works such as The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. It’s not all hilarity, however. Even Shakespeare’s sunniest comedies have their darker side, addressing topics that still worry us today: alienation; loneliness; sexual identity; madness; lust.

The rich and mysterious ‘late plays’ that Shakespeare wrote towards the end of his life, like The Tempest  and The Winter’s Tale, are often described as ‘romances’ rather than as  ‘comedies’. They are full of magic and special effects, taking full advantage of the sophisticated staging possible in the new indoor theatres of the period.

Use the resources below to explore the way Shakespeare used comedy in his plays and find out more about the genre of comedy itself. You can also discover the complexity of romance and marriage in Shakespearean comedy by listening to our podcast Midsummer Nights Dream: Love and Feminism and rediscover The Taming of the Shrew, the play that became a template for all the “battle of the sexes” comedies to follow.

Transcript

Narrator
The year is 1599. William Shakespeare is at the palace of Queen Elizabeth I of England. The Queen has ordered Shakespeare to write another play.

Queen Elizabeth I
Mr Shakespeare. Tell me about my new play.

Will
Your Majesty, The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy, in which Sir John Falstaff tries to trick two married ladies into giving him money behind their husbands' backs.

Queen Elizabeth I
Falstaff! Hahaha! He is such a wicked man... that's why I like him. Or maybe he reminds me of our dear friend Sir Walter Raleigh, who brings me treasure from around the world. Look at my pearls, taken from a Spanish ship by Raleigh and brought to me as a gift.

Will
They are beautiful, your Majesty. Whoever could guess that such a creature, deep in the ocean, could contain the most beautiful, precious treasure: a pearl?!

Queen Elizabeth I
Yessss... to Raleigh, the whole world is an oyster... full of treasure, ready for the taking. By force if need be... he is not afraid to use the sword to bring me my treasure.

Will
Mr Raleigh is your loyal servant, your Majesty, as am I.

Queen Elizabeth I
To Falstaff. What of his trickery?

Will
Your Majesty, while Falstaff is trying to get money from the wives, his friend Pistol is trying to get money out of him!

Queen Elizabeth I
Hahaha! Does he get it?

Will
Falstaff tells Pistol he won't give him a penny. Pistol becomes angry and says he'll get his sword and open up Falstaff's money bag - or any money bag he can find - like he's opening an oyster with a knife! It goes like this. I will not lend thee a penny...

Thomas Swann as Falstaff
I will not lend thee a penny.

Robert Harley as Pistol
Why, then the world's mine oyster.
Which I with sword will open. 

Queen Elizabeth I
The world's mine oyster. It's full of money and treasure. Quite right, Mr Shakespeare, quite right.

Narrator
We'll leave them there for now. The Merry Wives of Windsor was Shakespeare's only comedy to be set entirely in England, and it's considered to be his most realistic portrayal of the daily lives of ordinary people. Think of it as the original 'Real Housewives'. In Shakespeare's play, the phrase the world's mine oyster was used as a threat - but today, it has become the world's my oyster - or your oyster - and it describes situations that contain wonderful opportunities. Take US entrepreneur Chris Gardner, who wrote in his autobiography The Pursuit of Happyness:

Clip 1
The world is your oyster
. It's up to you to find the pearls.

Narrator
It can describe the opportunities that open up when you take risks, have money or learn new skills.

Clip 2
If you learn foreign languages, the world's your oyster.

Queen Elizabeth I
Mr Shakespeare, I am pleased. Your actors will perform this play for me.

Will
To perform, or not to perform: I'll just do what she tells me. 

The Tragedies

Murder, war, adultery, revenge, suicide, revolution, ghosts and witches: this is the dizzying fabric of everyday life in Shakespeare's tragedies —iconic monuments of world culture such as Hamlet, Macbeth and Julius Caesar. These are plays that conjure up complex and shifting in audiences, as their attitudes to the characters on stage shift unpredictably from one character to another. Some, like Romeo and Juliet, have been reworked innumerable times over the years in films, ballets, books and many other forms.

Explore Shakespeare's tragedies in more detail in the free learning tools below. We also have links to Joseph Fiennes' take on the ultimate tragic love story Romeo and Juliet and to Kim Cattrall's revisiting of the role of the great Queen of Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra. Our podcast Shakespeare & Performance looks at the impact of different staging of his plays including Hamlet and King Lear. 

Transcript

Narrator
It was late in the evening. Actors Thomas Swann and Robert Harley are having a drink in the Duck and Whistle after a rehearsal of William Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Barmaid
Here you are Mr Robert, Mr Thomas: two more ales.

Thomas Swann
Now Robert, the big question in Hamlet for me is – oh, hello, Will.

Will
Good evening Thomas, Robert…

Thomas Swann
Will. About your character Hamlet. Is he really mad?

Barmaid
Good evening Mr Will – oohh, he's a tricky fellow that Hamlet. The way I see it, Mr Thomas, is, he's not really mad. He wants to find out who killed his father, and he thinks if he pretends to be mad, the killer will stop hiding the truth from him. Isn't that right Mr Will?

Will
Indeed it is, Bess.

Barmaid
Hamlet says all sorts of crazy things about maggots in dogs and crabs walking backwards… no wonder everyone thinks he's mad. I'm a big fan of yours, Mr Will.

Will
Thank you, Bess.

Robert Harley
But if Polonius thinks Hamlet is mad, why does he say: Though this be madness, yet there is method in't?

Barmaid
Well I think, Mr Robert, that's partly because some of the crazy things that Hamlet says actually make sense. That's why Polonius thinks Hamlet is somehow in control of his madness, because Hamlet says: For yourself, sir, should be as old as I am…

Robert Harley as Hamlet
For yourself, sir, should be as old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.

Thomas Swann as Polonius
Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.

Barmaid
That Polonius is an old fool – he doesn’t know Hamlet’s insulting him. I've seen all your plays, Mr Will.

Will
I know you have, dear Bess.

Narrator
We'll leave them there for now. The name Hamlet is very similar to Hamnet, Shakespeare's son, who died at just 11 years old. It's possible that Shakespeare's grief influenced the outpouring of hopelessness and grief in Hamlet's speeches that follow the death of his father, the King. The modern version of the phrase Though this be madness, yet there is method in't is simply: there's method in his madness – or her madness, or my madness – and it means: there's a sensible reason for something that seems crazy. Take snooker champion Ronnie O'Sullivan, talking about how his father introduced him to snooker. He said:

Clip 1
My dad's method in his madness was to try every sport and then observe what I liked. I played football, tennis, golf, cricket – but I loved my snooker.

Clip 2
My mum's desk is covered in papers. There's method in her madness, though. She knows where everything is!

Thomas Swann
So Hamlet isn't mad – he's just pretending.

Shakespeare
That's right – exactly.

Robert Harley
This is one crazy plot…

Barmaid
Mr Will knows what he's doing, believe me.

Robert Harley
Hmm… To be-lieve or not to be-lieve:

Thomas Swann
…that is the question.

The Histories

Shakespeare addressed some of the hottest political topics of his time in his vivid dramatisations of English history. In a sequence of eight plays, he charted the turbulent years leading up to the arrival of the Tudor dynasty, introducing audiences to a dazzling variety of characters—from the impetuous Hotspur and the villainous hunchback Richard III to the subversive man-mountain Sir John Falstaff, one of world literature’s most memorable comic creations.

 In the resources below you can get to grips with the details of Henry V  in our free course Approaching Plays and look at the roles of dogs in the play. Or, you can watch the animation on the phrase 'I'll send him packing' from Henry IV part 1. We also have an animation on the well-known expression 'as dead as a doornail' from Henry VI part 2 in another Shakespeare Speaks video.  

Transcript: 

Narrator
It's early morning at the Globe Theatre. William Shakespeare and his actors are rehearsing Henry IV Part 1. In this scene, it's late at night, and young Prince Hal, played by Robert Harley, and his friend Falstaff – that's Thomas Swann – are in the pub. But… the King's messenger has just arrived.

Thomas Swann as Falstaff
… Shall I give him his answer?

Robert Harley as Prince Hal
Prithee do, Jack.

Thomas Swann as Falstaff
Faith and I'll send him packaged…

Will
Stoooppppp!!! Thomas, Thomas, it's packing… I'll send him packing… Not packaged. You're not putting him in a box or a parcel. Remember: you want the King's messenger to go away!

Thomas Swann
Sorry, Will… I'm not my best today…

Actor 1
One too many beers last night, eh Thomas?!

Actor 2
He thinks he's Falstaff for real!

Will
Thomas. Listen to me. Falstaff and Prince Hal are having a great time. That's why Hal doesn't want to see the messenger.

Robert Harley
Will…

Will
What is it, Robert?!

Robert Harley
I do like the messenger's name: Gravity. Gravity! A serious man who doesn't like to have fun. Not like Falstaff. He's…

Actor 1
Old!

Actor 2
…and fat!

Actor 1
He's always telling jokes…

Actor 2
He's never got any money!

Thomas Swann
That last bit's true enough, Will.

Will
Now, now Thomas – you're perfect for this part. The audience are going to love you! Let's go again, from: What doth Gravity do out of his bed at midnight?

Thomas Swann as Falstaff
What doth Gravity do out of his bed at midnight? Shall I give him his answer?

Robert Harley as Prince Hal
Prithee do, Jack.

Thomas Swann as Falstaff
Faith, and I'll send him packing!

Will
Bravo! Let's take a break.

Narrator
We'll leave them there for now. Falstaff is one of Shakespeare's most popular characters. He drinks, steals and runs away from danger, but Shakespeare’s audiences loved his comic genius and sense of fun. In Henry IV, Prince Hal prefers the company of Falstaff – and his criminal friends – to noblemen. Shakespeare’s phrase I'll send him packing has the same meaning today: I really don't want this person around me, so I'll send them away. It's also used in sport, to talk about beating an opponent. Take Gwyn Jones, former captain of the Welsh rugby team, who said before a match:

Clip 1
This is our chance to do it and we should send them packing with their tails between their legs.

Clip 2
I've no patience when people try to sell me things at the door. I usually send them packing.

Will
Let's try it once more.

Actor 1
Come on Thomas!

Actor 2
You can do it!

Thomas Swann
Will you all shush?!

Actors 1 & 2
To shush or not to shush, that is the question.

The Sonnets

In 1609 a book appeared with the simple title ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets’. Inside, accompanied by no introductions or explanations, were 154 powerful love poems: 126 to an unidentified young man and 28 to a woman, the notorious ‘dark lady’. For whom were these poems written? What relationship do they have to Shakespeare’s life? The biographical mystery behind the sonnets is fascinating, but the poems themselves are more extraordinary still: by turns romantic, cynical, ecstatic, guilt-ridden and vulnerable.

Find out more about Shakespeare's sonnets and about poetry in general with the learning tools below and listen to, perhaps, his most well-known sonnet (sonnet number 18).  You can hear how the sonnets would have been pronounced in Shakespeare's day with the podcast Shakespeare: Original pronunciation.   

Gauge what society was like during Shakespeare's life

Discover the original pronunciation of Shakespeare & his impact on the English language

Shakespeare wrote "All the world’s a stage" - but how did the "players" pronounce the Bard's words on stage 400 years ago? Find out in the video below then use the links further down to discover how Shakespeare'swords, phrases and idioms changed the English language. 

Discover the reception to Shakespeare's work after his death

Over the past 400 years, Shakespeare’s works have been rewritten, adapted, parodied, translated and distorted in innumerable different ways. They have been turned into novels, musicals, ballets, films and advertisements, and been used to support diametrically opposed political views. Explore some of this rich variety of response to the world’s greatest dramatist using the links below.

Check out our current co-production on Shakespeare

Look back on previous Shakespeare small screen series

Discover our exhibition: Shakespeare at the OU

Head over to our exhibition in our digital archive that celebrated the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 2014. OU Associate Lecturer Brendan Jackson selected a collection of clips that illustrate the way in which The Open University has been able to use visual media to teach Shakespeare. Twenty-one video clips have been selected around six themes, spanning forty-three years of archived OU study materials.

Take it further with The Open University

You can study Shakespeare as part of an Open University qualification in English Literature, as well as a wide range of related subjects, from History to Creative Writing. Find out exactly what we offer by using the links below.

 

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