I would be incredibly surprised if I read a play worse than Titus Andronicus in this challenge. Titus was Shakespeare’s first attempt at staging a classical tragedy – something which he will eventually go on to get so right in works such as Julius Caesar. The basic plot follows a Roman general (our Titus) who is victorious in a battle against the Goths. As a reward Titus brings the queen of the Goths and her sons back to Rome. Titus is a silly billy however because he kills one of the queen’s sons and then the queen plots revenge on Titus. Nobody cares about the plot of Titus however. Any piece of criticism you read about this play will mention the same thing; its bloodiness and its violence. Titus is such a violent play that during the Victorian era it was practically banished Shakespeare’s oeuvre because the Victorians couldn’t handle the play’s unrelenting gore. This might sound enticing to some but believe me, it isn’t as fun as it sounds.
Titus Andronicus reads like Charlie Manson’s rejected screenplays. The word “gratuitous” doesn’t even begin to describe utter violence of this play. Macbeth is bloody and violent but it is also a perfectly constructed narrative in which every drop of blood has a clear motive and consequence. There’s a character in Titus who is raped and then her hands and tongue are cut off. She doesn’t die however, she sticks around for two more acts just fumbling and making garbled noises like Brendan Behan at an open bar. I lost count of how many amputations take place in Titus by Act 3.
Poet and cat enthusiast, T.S. Eliot, once wrote that Titus was ‘one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written’. Whilst Eliot might have been fond of the odd hyperbole I cannot help but agree with his sentiment. Titus, as far as I can see, has absolutely no redeeming qualities. It’s the Elizabethan equivalent of Viva Forever!: The Spice Girls Musical. In fact, the history of criticism on Titus seems to just be a duel of insults as each critic attempts to formulate the ultimate put-down or the sickest burn. One of my favourites is from token white critic Harold Bloom who suggests that the violence and tragedy of Titus is so comically absurd that the best director to tackle the play would be Mel Brooks. (I am biased toward loving anything Harold Bloom writes because he once called slam poetry ‘the death of art’.)
At least I now have an answer for when someone asks me what Shakespeare’s worst play is. I didn’t even tell you about how two guys literally get baked into a pie. Oh Titus Andronicus, you precious mess.
The Comedy of Errors
Another mess of a play is The Comedy of Errors. Shakespeare wasn’t messing around with that title because it literally is a comedy of errors. The story goes that there was once two sets of twins born of two separate families. One family buys the other twins from the other family so the first family now have two sets of twins… actually, no. I can’t explain this. Let me use the my best Paint skills here. I present you The Comedy of Errors back story featuring The Proclaimers and Hayley Mills as Susan and Sharon in the 1961 Walt Disney classic The Parent Trap.
All of this shit is in Act 1, before the actual plot even begins! Oh and I call Antipholus and Dromio ‘family’ but technically Dromio is Antipholus’ slave but we won’t get into that. Anyway, Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse decide to go to Ephesus in order to find their lost long twin brothers who just happen to also be called Antipholus and Dromio. Anyway, you can kind of guess the rest, there’s now two sets of identical twins in Ephesus so there are loads of mistaken identity gags e.g. Antipholus of Syracuse tells Dromio of Syracuse to do something, Antipholus then meets Dromio of Ephesus (thinking he’s Dromio of Syracuse) and asks him if he did the thing and Dromio of Ephesus has no idea what he’s talking about and (truthfully) asserts that Antipholus didn’t tell him to do anything.
Whilst this slapstick comedy may sound like a joyous romp, it gets boring very fast. The joke is that people keep on getting the twins mixed up, that’s it. That joke runs dry by the end of the first act and then you realise that you have four more acts of the same joke being played out over and over again. Not even Sisyphus had it that bad. One can assume that even Shakespeare got bored with the joke because Errors is his shortest play. In my Norton anthology, the play is only 47 pages long (compared to Hamlet or Richard III, both of which pass the 80 page mark). We can be thankful for something however because Errors is the basis for 1988’s Big Business which starred Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler, a movie which Roger Ebert called ‘never funny’.
Critically The Comedy of Errors has been pushed aside for having little or no academic value. Whereas Titus felt the wrath of critics for being so blase about violence, Errors has felt the wrath of nobody because there is simply no depth to anything in it. I don’t know which is worse. I do think Errors is a more enjoyable play than Titus but it would be foolish to compare them because their themes and settings are diametric opposites. With Titus I was disgusted, with Errors I was disappointed. Shakespeare had done a better comedy before with The Two Gentlemen of Verona and that was his first ever play! There are bigger laughs in the Henry VI trilogy than there are in The Comedy of Errors.
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Bill followed up The Comedy of Errors with the apostrophe minefield that is Love’s Labour’s Lost. Even after reading the play I still can’t make sense of the title. I found that this is the play where I could physically read Shakespeare becoming a more competent writer. Love’s Labour’s Lost is a work mostly concerned with wordplay and double entendre than it is with plot. But let me explain the plot anyway. Set in the court of Navarre, the King and three lords, Biron, Longueville, and Dumaine, decide to dedicate themselves to study for three years. During this time they will fast and, most importantly, not set eyes upon a woman. It’s never explained why not seeing women is such an important aspect of the King’s study but I’m going to assume that the King was hoping for an all out Fire Island Extravaganza! The Princess of France and her convenient grouping of three ladies turn up at Navarre to speak to the King and the lords’ vow of chastity is thrown out the window with Concorde speed.
The structure of this play is very strange. It begins with three short acts and then proceeds with two of the longest acts of all time. More than half of the play is taken up by these two acts and they are incessantly exhausting. It doesn’t help that Love’s Labour’s Lost is basically just a series of sex jokes followed by a love poem followed by sex jokes followed by love poem. Shakspeare usually doesn’t create annoying characters (in my opinion anyway) but he really outdoes himself here. Holofernes is a schoolmaster who insists on speaking a strange combination of English and Latin and Shakespeare gives him whole paragraphs of dialogue. Every time I saw Holofernes enter the stage I temporarily died. He’s a real blot on this otherwise well-rounded comic cast.
Like The Comedy of Errors, there’s not much to say about Love’s Labour’s Lost critically. It has fallen out of popularity as it has aged because much of the wordplay and reference are lost on modern audiences. Whilst my thoughts of this play are much similar to those of The Comedy of Errors, I will say that this play is wittier. It’s a grand leap ahead of Errors linguistically but plot-wise it is stranded in the comedic doldrums.
Richard II is the first play in this challenge in which I could sense that Shakespeare was becoming the Bard. This play isn’t very heavy on plot (the king is bad at making decisions and is overthrown – the end) but it is through the dialogue of the characters that this play shines. The stand-out scene is the staging nightmare that is the jousting tournament. It’s a perfect scene because we are able to see the vulnerability of Richard II. He seems so human throughout – stuttering, backpedaling, confused – that we feel sorry for him. I find King Richard to be one of Shakespeare’s most relatable characters, a man out of his depth in the world’s most important job.
I’ve definitely reached a point in this challenge where I’m like, ‘oh god ANOTHER play about a king’. Shakespeare saw himself as a chronicler and because of this there’s just loads of history plays. They’re great on their own but if you’re doing a challenge like mine you begin to notice that a lot of them are pretty much the same. I just know that in a year’s time I’ll struggle to differentiate the plots of the three Henry VIs or my Richard II from my Richard III. These history plays are the greatest struggle. It’s nice to have a comedy sometimes, or a love story. Or both.
Romeo and Juliet
If Goodreads ratings can be used as a signifier of popularity then Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s most popular play. Must I relay the plot? Ugh, well Romeo and Juliet are both from feuding families. They fall into forbidden lust and everyone dies. RIP. I had watched a production of this play from the Globe and seen a couple of adaptations but up until now I had never actually read the source. To my genuine shock, I really enjoyed Romeo and Juliet. It’s definitely one of Shakespeare’s most perfect plots.
I just adore how horrible everyone in this play is. Romeo is a brat who definitely wears only Jack Wills and Juliet is so entitled that she’d literally rather put her family through the trauma of her death than go through with a marriage. All of Romeo’s friends are dickheads. Tybalt and Mercutio are definitely fucking on the DL. Friar Laurence commits homicide. The best character is Nurse, who acts as our comic relief. They’re all despicable and all loveable. It’s a fine balance.
Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays for a reason. It’s well-structured, funny and tragic. Shakespeare just did everything right with this one. Without it we wouldn’t have West Side Story or High School Musical. So we can thank the Bard for that I guess.