The Newbies Quick-and-Dirty Guide to Shakespeare

Natalie Solomon

OnStage Guest Columnist

Unless you’re an avid theatregoer, your exposure to Shakespeare most likely comprised of your ninth grade English class (did anyone else’s teacher cover up the TV screen with a manila folder during THAT scene in “Romeo and Juliet”?). William Shakespeare’s works can be intimidating, to say the least. That’s why I’ve compiled this list – a cheat sheet, if you will – to help you navigate the crazy world of the Bard!

- “Wherefore” actually means “why.” When Juliet’s lamenting “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” she’s not asking where he is, literally. In modern English, she’s asking, “Why do you have to be a Montague? Just last night my parents were talking about how snobby and boring your parents are! Why couldn’t you be a Johnson, or a Smith? Way to ruin my night, pretty boy.”

- If you think it’s a sex joke, it’s a sex joke.

- "The Lion King” is based on “Hamlet” … only with less drowning and insanity.

- Speaking of Hamlet, you either love him or you think he’s the most sulky and whiny of Shakespeare’s characters. There is no in-between.

- Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed by all-male casts.

- "Titus Andronicus" is Shakespeare’s most graphic and gruesome play. While it’s brilliantly written, if you have a weak stomach (or had meat pie for dinner), avoid this one.

- Because he and his plays are dead and/or really old, Shakespeare’s works are all public domain. That’s why you see them performed so often; they’re free!

- Along with innuendos, cross-dressing is rampant in Shakespeare’s plays. If you don’t think it’s funny, it’s probably just because you weren’t born in the 15th century.

- Shakespeare invented over 1,700 words in the English language, most importantly bedazzled (“Taming of the Shrew”) and swagger (“Henry V” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). He also invented the “yo mama” joke.

- It’s believed that “Macbeth” was embedded with actual curses and spells by Shakespeare himself. As such, if you say “Macbeth” inside a theater (while not performing in the play), don’t be surprised if your actor friends usher you outside to enact the counter-curse. While I’m sure it varies around the world, this is the counter-curse I’m most aware of: go outside, spin around three times (counter-clockwise), say a curse word, and spit.

And that's it! So next time you find yourself in a conversation about The William Shakespeare, you'll be able to feign knowledge long enough to Google whatever your cohorts are talking about. Adieu, and good luck!