William Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies

Shakespeare Then and Now
1: Shakespeare Then and Now

Shakespeare's plays moved audiences in his own time, and have proved enormously stimulating and useful to subsequent generations. Many have found Shakespeare valuable for a wide array of purposes over the years, reinterpreting him variously, even to the point of denying his authorship of the plays that bear his name.

35 min
The Nature of Shakespeare's Plays
2: The Nature of Shakespeare's Plays

Shakespeare was not a solitary genius, but a consummate theatre professional. In more ways than one, his plays are remarkable for their sheer "abundance." They boast a wealth of structural elements, and draw on many sources. They set unforgettable characters in motion against broad social and metaphysical backgrounds. And they mingle the fanciful with the realistic, and the comic with th...

28 min
Twelfth Night-Shakespearean Comedy
3: Twelfth Night-Shakespearean Comedy

For Shakespeare, romantic love is both foolish and wonderful. It often makes us look and act silly. Yet at its best, it moves us to reject self-absorption and share our God-given gifts in a spirit of generosity. How does Shakespeare use-and, at times contest-the conversions of romantic comedy as he pursues this vision?

31 min
Twelfth Night-Malvolio in Love
4: Twelfth Night-Malvolio in Love

The steward Malvolio (whose name alone says much) stands outside the play's two main sets of characters. And there he remains at the conclusion, as Shakespeare refuses to fold him into the larger happy ending. Faults and all, he is the "odd man out" who makes Twelfth Night a comedy with a definite bite....

30 min
The Taming of the Shrew-Getting Married in the 1590s
5: The Taming of the Shrew-Getting Married in the 1590s

Does The Taming of the Shrew advocate male supremacy in marriage? Is its portrayal of late 16th-century courtship customs a realistic one? What do modern productions (and modern playgoers) make of the play's most overt doctrinal statement about marriage, Kate's wedding-reception address?...

30 min
The Taming of the Shrew-Farce and Romance
6: The Taming of the Shrew-Farce and Romance

In this early comedy, Shakespeare adventurously combines romance with farce. Some critics look askance at this, but Shakespeare's use of "game" may be at once more "earnest" and more playful than they suspect.

30 min
The Merchant of Venice-Courting the Heiress
7: The Merchant of Venice-Courting the Heiress

The Merchant of Venice is loaded with unlikely story lines, which raises a question about the significance of fairy-tale plots for human experience. Perhaps an answer lies in Shakespeare's use of one such fairy-tale element-the casket test set for Portia's suitors demanded by her father's will-to reveal nuances of character....

30 min
The Merchant of Venice-Shylock
8: The Merchant of Venice-Shylock

Is Shylock a fairy-tale villain? We examine the tripartite stereotype that underlies the character, and consider how great actors have played him from the 17th century to the present. Might it be that his most famous speech, with its vengeful logic, in fact implicates all of us?

32 min
Measure for Measure-Sex in Society
9: Measure for Measure-Sex in Society

At first glance, this play appears to be a conventional comedy, but it turns out to have a plot of unusual intricacy involving sorely troubled characters, and its portrayal of human sexuality is unsettling. Desire, instead of being romantic or lighthearted, here leads to self-hatred and uncharitableness.

31 min
Measure for Measure-Justice and Comedy
10: Measure for Measure-Justice and Comedy

As the curtain comes down on the (in some cases) contrived and unpromising marriages that end this "problem comedy," we are forced to wonder: Is comedy itself a problem? Even in the hands of a Shakespeare, can it contain the stresses of the human condition?

31 min
Richard III-Shakespearean History
11: Richard III-Shakespearean History

Shakespeare's histories belong to a category of plays that is unfamiliar to us, but which was important and popular in his day. Shakespeare was especially ambitious in this genre, in which he so brilliantly interweaves the "public" and "private" aspects of persons and events. Why does Richard III, of all the history plays, contain such a weight and richness of historical detail...

28 min
Richard III-The Villain's Career
12: Richard III-The Villain's Career

Despite the length and detail of Richard III, a firm structure dominates. At the heart of the action is the titular villain. His aides amuse us and make us his confidants, sharers in his sense of superiority over his victims. Yet Richard's crimes mount to the point where we no longer can or will identify with him. On his final night their enormity at last hits him, and this master of asides develo...

29 min
Richard II-The Theory of Kingship
13: Richard II-The Theory of Kingship

Elizabethan political theory held that the monarch is God's anointed; disobedience and rebellion are grievous sins and invite divine wrath. Richard is the legitimate king, yet Bolingbroke appears to be the abler ruler. What is more to blame for Bolingbroke's challenge to Richard: The former's temerity or the latter's inadequacies? And can a rebel terminate the damage done by an erring (yet lawful)...

29 min
Richard II-The Fall of the King
14: Richard II-The Fall of the King

Although a crucial character, Bolingbroke is opaque. We cannot be sure when and why he decides to reach for the crown. Richard, on the other hand, is eloquently self-expressive: Shakespeare gives him beautiful and evocative speeches. Where does the power of Richard's language come from? How does it manifest his character? Does it evoke sympathy-or irritation? Does Richard ever move beyond the limi...

30 min
Henry IV-All the King's Men
15: Henry IV-All the King's Men

The two plays named after Henry IV constitute the most diverse accomplishment by any Western playwright in the staging of history. This lecture summarizes the political narrative of the plays, and stresses how the triangle of King Henry, Hotspur, and Falstaff provide a context for the central figure of Prince Hal, the heir to the throne.

30 min
Henry IV-The Life of Falstaff
16: Henry IV-The Life of Falstaff

This lecture traces the theatrical "ancestry" of Falstaff, who in Shakespeare's version becomes the bringer of holiday, the prime subverter of the conventional, serious view of things. Against him is set his friend Prince Hal, the ruler-to-be who must decide what to do about Falstaff, the lord of misrule.

30 min
Henry V-The Death of Falstaff
17: Henry V-The Death of Falstaff

This scene in Act 2 of Henry V echoes with an amazingly rich array of emotional resonances and allusions. Shakespeare imagined a finely detailed scene full of mixed and complex feelings, any one of which can reasonably be highlighted in a particular production on reading. Shakespeare does with words what Michelangelo did with paint on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel....

31 min
Henry V-The King Victorious
18: Henry V-The King Victorious

The contemporary response to Henry V has both continued an earlier celebratory tradition and paired it with a modern distrust of war and politicians. The play offers some support for both of these opposed interpretations, but such a binary view is too simple....

29 min
Romeo and Juliet-Shakespearean Tragedy
19: Romeo and Juliet-Shakespearean Tragedy

In Shakespeare's time, the word "tragedy" was used loosely to mean any story about calamity, especially a fall from a high place. Shakespeare creates many kinds of tragic effects and leaves his characters free to seek the meaning of their own lives. The special characteristic of Romeo and Juliet lies in the derivation of a situation usually used in comedy: young lovers attempting to esca...

31 min
Romeo and Juliet-Public Violence and Private Bliss
20: Romeo and Juliet-Public Violence and Private Bliss

Romeo and Juliet is especially remarkable for its structure and its poetry. The story is organized around three large scenes, and moves at a pace that matches the violence of the actions and emotions. With a special form of lyric poetry, Shakespeare creates for his young lovers a space set apart from quarrelling Verona and dedicated to an ideal love....

31 min
Troilus and Cressida-Ancient Epic in a New Mode
21: Troilus and Cressida-Ancient Epic in a New Mode

Handling source material from Homer and the Middle Ages, Shakespeare sharply qualifies its heroism and romance with bleak realism, and even flippant cynicism. We examine the speeches of Ulysses, the posturing of Achilles, the scurrilousness of Therisites, and the brief but telling presentation of Helen of Troy.

31 min
Troilus and Cressida-Heroic Aspirations
22: Troilus and Cressida-Heroic Aspirations

Troilus and Cressida continues with a detailed examination of Cressida and Hector. Cressida loves Troilus and wishes to be faithful to him; circumstances also make her reliant upon men and the power of men for her value. Hector, Troy's main defender, is thoughtful about the values at stake in the war, and caught in some of the inner contradictions of chivalry. The play might end with a conventiona...

31 min
Julius Caesar-The Matter of Rome
23: Julius Caesar-The Matter of Rome

This play holds a special place in modern culture because of its frequent assignment in schools. It also had a special status for Shakespeare, both because of its timing in his career and because of the prestige ancient Rome held for the Renaissance. His chief source, Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, was a work he handled with respect....

30 min
Julius Caesar-Heroes of History
24: Julius Caesar-Heroes of History

The characters in Julius Caesar see themselves as actors in history, and often speak and behave in an appropriate lofty and ceremonial fashion. The ceremonies, however, are sometimes qualified by other deceremonializing effects. Caesar, Cassius, and Brutus each display a complex mixture of traits that make him uniquely admirable-and uniquely flawed....

31 min
Hamlet-The Abundance of the Play
25: Hamlet-The Abundance of the Play

What makes Hamlet a classic? Is it the mixture of familiarity and strangeness that makes us see an "old thing made new"? Is it the range of characters and actions, the variety of the hero's traits, or the cunning articulation of events within the narrative? Is it the way Hamlet calls up "thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls"?...

30 min
Hamlet-The Causes of Tragedy
26: Hamlet-The Causes of Tragedy

The characters in Hamlet are remarkably thoughtful. Indeed, Hamlet himself is the only Shakespearean hero whose university we know, and he himself explores theories about the causes of tragedy posed, respectively, by Aristotle, Boethius, and the prophet Isaiah....

31 min
Hamlet-The Protestant Hero
27: Hamlet-The Protestant Hero

Hamlet is a compellingly abundant figure. He unforgettably embodies the perennial variety and problems of young manhood as well as the wit, attainments, and lofty ideals embraced by the Renaissance. And as if that were not enough, he also dramatizes the profound spiritual and intellectual problems raised by the Protestant Reformation.

30 min
Othello-The Design of the Tragedy
28: Othello-The Design of the Tragedy

What makes Othello unique among Shakespeare's tragedies? For one thing, it's almost two plays in one-a romantic comedy that turns into a tragedy. Certainly this cannot be said of Hamlet, Lear, or Macbeth! We see Shakespeare at work here with his usual abundant genius, transforming genre to achieve dramatic effect....

30 min
Othello-"O Villainy!"
29: Othello-"O Villainy!"

What motivates Iago? Is he rational or irrational? Does his wickedness somehow transcend all its possible motives? Shakespeare is a dramatist, not a solver of abstract intellectual puzzles. But what we see makes us wonder: What is the cause of evil?

30 min
Othello-"The Noble Moor"
30: Othello-"The Noble Moor"

Othello differs from the other great tragedies in many ways, not least in its lead character. Comparing Othello with Hamlet is highly revealing, as is asking why Othello deserves his sobriquet as "the noble Moor."...

31 min
King Lear-"This Is the Worst"
31: King Lear-"This Is the Worst"

Lear is a towering work, a tragedy in any sense of the word, a moving-even brutal-experience to read or watch. It is a complex play, with double plots, intrigue, psychological depth, and physical and emotional horror. It is a play about disintegration, about human lives and worlds coming apart-socially, psychologically, emotionally, physically....

31 min
King Lear-Wisdom Through Suffering
32: King Lear-Wisdom Through Suffering

The title of this lecture derives from The Agamemnon of Aeschylus. There is immense suffering in both plays, and from this comes wisdom for the characters and the spectators as well. Thus we turn from "disintegration" to "coping" and particularly coping that leads to insight and self-recognition....

30 min
King Lear-"Then We Go On"
33: King Lear-"Then We Go On"

By the middle of the play, the characters have, to borrow a phrase from Samuel Beckett, fallen "far from help." How do they face adversity? As an unparalleled play of the human condition, Lear provides us with the full panoply of situations, emotions, and lessons....

31 min
Macbeth-"Fair Is Foul"
34: Macbeth-"Fair Is Foul"

Like Shakespeare's other great tragedies, Macbeth explores timeless themes such as cosmic and human order and the nature of good and evil. There are also questions of religious significance (for example, free will versus predestination) embedded in the play, as we would expect in the post-Reformation world in which Shakespeare worked....

31 min
Macbeth-Musing on Murder
35: Macbeth-Musing on Murder

Macbeth's soliloquy or interior monologue on the idea of murdering King Duncan puts us inside Macbeth's thoughts. Through this and other uses of the soliloquy, Shakespeare is able to develop several perspectives for his audience to consider as the play progresses.

30 min
Macbeth-"Enter Two Murderers"
36: Macbeth-"Enter Two Murderers"

In this final lecture, we continue with Lady Macbeth, whose case is every bit as interesting, complex, and compelling as her husband's-if not more so. We explore the sexual undercurrents and overtones of their relationship and look into the realm of "imagination" as we analyze this most searching Shakespearean portrayal of human self-destructiveness.

32 min
Peter Saccio

Shakespeare found brilliant ways to make the complex inner self speak.


Princeton University


Dartmouth College

About Peter Saccio

Dr. Peter Saccio is Leon D. Black Professor of Shakespearean Studies and Professor of English Emeritus at Dartmouth College. He also served as a visiting professor at Wesleyan University and at University College in London. He earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University.

At Dartmouth, Professor Saccio was honored with the J. Kenneth Huntington Memorial Award for Outstanding Teaching.

Professor Saccio is the author of Shakespeare's English Kings, which has become a classic in its field. He is also the editor of Thomas Middleton's comedy A Mad World, My Masters, for the Oxford Complete Works of Thomas Middleton.

Professor Saccio is also an accomplished actor and theatrical director. He directed productions of Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Cymbeline, and devised and directed several programs of scenes from Shakespeare and from modern British drama. His acting credits include the Shakespearean roles of Casca, Angelo, Bassanio, and Henry IV, as well as various parts in the ancient and modern plays.

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