Many of William Shakespeare's plays have similar themes that involve characters with comparable character flaws. He uses tragic heroes -- or antiheroes -- in his tragedies and comedies to make important points about morality, free-will, justice and revenge. Shakespearean plays often include some form of supernatural participation, frequently involving the Greek gods. Typically, his plays incorporate troubled romantic relationships into the plot, which eventually lead to conflict or destruction.
Shakespeare's plays often involve tragic heroes or antiheroes who don't recognize their flaws or shortcomings until it's too late. In some cases, they receive false or misguided information and react poorly to the lies. For example, in "Macbeth," Macbeth doesn't recognize his lust for power, immoral murderous actions or unwavering trust in the three witches until Lady Macbeth commits suicide. In "Hamlet," Hamlet doesn't come to grips with his insatiable quest for revenge until he's fatally wounded. In "Romeo and Juliet," Romeo falsely assumes Juliet is dead and commits suicide, eventually causing Juliet to end her own life. Shakespeare's plays, especially his tragedies, don't usually end on a high note.
Shakespeare's plays contain similar themes -- free-will, revenge, the corruption of power and betrayal. He wants the audience to contemplate deeper issues in human nature. For example, in "Richard III," "Macbeth," "Hamlet," "Julius Caesar" and "Romeo and Juliet," the audience must consider whether free-will or fate is to blame for the characters' poor decisions and unfortunate outcomes. In "King Lear," and "Anthony and Cleopatra," Shakespeare shows that the roots of betrayal often stem from aggressive, unjustifiable quests for political power. These recurring themes demonstrate the darker side of human nature, often leading to murder, suicide or madness.
Mystical elements, such as witchcraft and Greek mythology, add suspense and intrigue to Shakespearean plays. However, the involvement of supernatural beings doesn't get humans off the hook for their selfish or devious ways. In "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Shakespeare makes Theseus and Hippolyta -- a Greek god and goddess -- the king and queen of Athens. These parallels help readers connect their knowledge of Greek mythology to the meaning of the play. In "Macbeth," the three witches -- with the help of the Greek goddess Hecate -- use witchcraft to convince Macbeth that he will become the king of Scotland. Situations don't usually end well when the supernatural is involved.
Troubled Romantic Relationships
Troubled romantic relationships add tension to the plots, eventually resulting in emotional turmoil and devastation for Shakespeare's characters. Some lack honorable intentions and others allow selfishness or the lust for power to get the best of them. For example, Macbeth/Lady Macbeth, Hamlet/Ophelia, Anthony/Cleopatra, Brutus/Portia, Othello/Desdemona and Beatrice/Benedick struggle to maintain authentic, devoted, long-lasting relationships. In "Romeo and Juliet," naivety and fear ultimately lead to the demise of their forbidden love. Shakespeare uses tormented romantic relationships to show that love doesn't always conquer all.
- No Sweat Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Play Themes
- Folger Shakespeare Library: Hamlet
- Folger Shakespeare Library: A Midsummer Night's Dream
- University of Texas, San Antonio College of Liberal and Fine Arts: Ovations; Why Do We Still Care About Shakespeare?
- University of California, Berkeley: Plot Summaries of Shakespeare's Best Plays
- Royal Shakespeare Company: Macbeth -- Full Synopsis
- Royal Shakespeare Company: Themes in Romeo and Juliet
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