RSC to stage all 37 Shakespeare plays

The RSC announced yesterday it is to stage all the Bard's plays at a special festival. For those who can't make it to the entire 37, Ian Irvine provides a potted guide to the plots
Click to follow

Recently wed, spoilt Bertram abandons his wife Helena, and goes off to war saying that unless she can remove the ring from his finger and produce a child by him, he will never consider himself married. The resourceful Helena manages this and regains her charmless husband. Not one of the most popular works, for obvious reasons.

Antony and Cleopatra: The original drama queen

The Egyptian queen - sometimes vain and over-the-top, but also magnificent - is one of the greatest female roles in theatre. Her tempestuous romance with Antony is played out against the battles and intrigues of the Roman civil war. After losing the battle of Actium he dies in her arms and she commits suicide.

As You Like It: Cross-dress for success

The elaborate gender reversals in this pastoral comedy set in the Forest of Arden are of considerable interest to modern critics. At one point in the play, the heroine Rosalind - who in Shakespeare's day would have been a boy playing a girl - becomes a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy.

The Comedy of Errors: Who dares, twins

Shakespeare's shortest and most farcical comedy, involving two sets of identical brothers, both separated at birth: Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, and their respective servants Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse. All four turn up in the same city on the same day with predictably hilarious consequences.

Coriolanus : My heart belongs to Mummy

The brilliant Roman general Coriolanus may be a military genius but he doesn't really have the common touch. Banished because of his patrician opinions, he leads an assault on his native city. Only the pleadings of his mother Volumnia stop him from sacking Rome, but this change of heart leads to his destruction.

Cymbeline: Walking with cavemen

The plot of this late comedy set in Ancient Britain is so convoluted - with disguises, false identities, faked deaths and so on - it has been suggested it was a private joke by Shakespeare. At the finale almost the entire cast appears, some from the cave where they've been hiding for most of the play, to add a piece to the puzzle's resolution.

Hamlet: Make-your-mind-up time

The prince of Denmark tries to summon the will to kill his father's murderer. The most famous play on the planet, with so many lines and phrases that have become proverbial that it comes as a shock to see it and realise where they come from: "Alas, poor Yorick", "To be or not to be ", "The rest is silence", "the play's the thing". To name a few.

Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2: Bad apple redeems himself

Henry IV is threatened by Harry Hotspur, but his son Prince Hal seems more interested in boozing and hanging out with his lowlife chums, most notably that fat reprobate Sir John Falstaff. But Hal shapes up in battle, kills Hotspur and, on his father's death, ascends the throne and abandons his former friends.

Henry V: "Cry God, for Harry, England and St George"

The former wastrel Prince Hal has now become a shrewd and courageous monarch. His invasion of France leads to overwhelming triumph at the battle of Agincourt, not least because of the stirring quality of his speeches to his troops. Like Hamlet, its many famous lines are fodder for the quiz compilers.

Henry VI, Parts 1,2 & 3: The Godfather, with swords

Shakespeare took as his source material the Chronicles of the 16th-century historian Raphael Holinshed and produced a narrative of the Wars of the Roses, the bloody battle for the throne between the Yorkists and Lancastrians. Part One was written after the other two - possibly the first example of a prequel.

Henry VIII : A royal marriage with three people in it

Shakespeare and John Fletcher collaborated on this retelling of the royal love triangle of Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn and the machinations of Cardinal Wolsey. The Globe Theatre in Southwark burnt down during its first run, which may partly account for its lack of critical success.

Julius Caesar : Treason never prospers

Conspirators, some high-minded like Brutus, others not, plot the assassination of the dictator Julius Caesar to save the Roman republic from tyranny. But after Caesar's death, they find themselves reviled by the Roman people and at war with Mark Antony and Octavian. It's a difficult business, politics.

King John : Uneasy lies the head

John's claim to the English throne is weak and the French king demands his abdication. There follows a dizzying change of alliances, a Papal excommunication and the final poisoning of John by a monk. Throughout, " The Bastard", Richard Lionheart's son, delivers a sardonic commentary on nobility, self-interest and English sovereignty.

King Lear : Honour thy father ...

Lear decides to abdicate and split his kingdom between his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Cordelia refuses to flatter her father like her sisters and is banished. Goneril and Regan betray Lear who goes mad. The bleakest ending in Shakespeare has Lear cradling his murdered daughter Cordelia in his arms.

Love's Labours Lost: Love beats learning in straight sets

Four young men - the King of Navarre and three friends - promise to foreswear the company of women for three years in order to pursue learning. Unsurprisingly they manage to keep it up for less than a day after the arrival of the young Princess of France and her three ladies.

Macbeth : The Scottish play

The shortest and most intense of the great tragedies. After receiving a prophecy of his future kingship from three witches, Macbeth, encouraged by his wife, murders King Duncan. His reign continues bloodily and his conscience increasingly disturbs him. Finally Macduff and the other forces of revenge surround Macbeth and kill him.

Measure for Measure: Power corrupts

The Duke of Vienna absents himself while some harsh but unused laws against fornication are enforced. His deputy Angelo abuses his powers to satisfy his lust for a young nun Isabella who pleads for the life of her brother. The Duke returns and all is apparently well, but this is another of Shakespeare's problem plays.

The Merchant of Venice: Never give a sucker an even break

The merchant Antonio promises Shylock that if he defaults on his borrowing, he will pay the Jewish money-lender a pound of his flesh. When he can't pay, Shylock insists on his bond. The case goes to court and Bassanio and his new bride Portia finesse some legal loopholes to save their friend.

The Merry Wives of Windsor: Man behaving badly

The character of Sir John Falstaff had been such a success in Henry IV that, despite having killed him off in Henry V, Shakespeare decided to bring him back in his own comedy vehicle. The play relates how the fat knight gets his comeuppance from the two wealthy married women he is simultaneously courting.

A Midsummer NIght's Dream: Boy meets girl, fairy queen meets donkey

Hermia loves Lysander. Lysander loves Hermia, but so does Demetrius. Hermia's friend Helena loves Demetrius. These four find themselves lost deep in the woods and in the middle of a royal fairy row between Titania and Oberon. Don't get me started on Bottom the weaver and his chums.

Much Ado About Nothing: The odd couple

Actually, there are two couples in this prototype comedy, but no one pays much attention to the soon-to-wed Claudio and Hero, because the witty oddball adversaries Beatrice and Benedict get all the best lines. With the right actors it can be as exhilaratingly fast and funny as any Thirties screwball comedy.

Othello: The green-eyed monster

Othello, a successful Moorish general in the service of Venice, elopes with Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian noble. His evil lieutenant Iago works on his jealousy and persuades him that his wife is unfaithful. Overwrought, Othello strangles her then kills himself in grief after the truth is revealed.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Magical mystery tour

This tragicomedy is one of Shakespeare's late collaborations and is probably his least-regarded work, owing to the poor writing by his co-author George Wilkins. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, suffers many misfortunes and is separated from his wife and daughter, but the family is finally reunited by magical means in the temple of Diana.

Richard II: The wheel of fortune

At the play's opening, Richard is seated in full state on the throne. But the flaws of his weak and self-deluding character, not to mention the high taxes he imposes, bring disaster for him and the country. By the end he is a prisoner of Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) in a dungeon, where he is done away with by an assassin.

Richard III : A nasty piece of work

With even less historical accuracy than usual, Shakespeare tells of the psychopathic Richard of York's bloody and manipulative rise to the throne and his defeat and death on Bosworth Field by the future Henry VII (grandfather of Elizabeth I). This play concludes Shakespeare's "history " of the Wars of the Roses.

Romeo and Juliet: "My only love sprung from my only hate"

The doomed romance between two young people whose families are bitter enemies has spawned operas, ballets, musicals (West Side Story) and more than 40 film adaptations. The play's fame is so great that Verona now has a popular tourist attraction, "Juliet's Balcony", which claims historical authenticity.

The Taming of the Shrew: Anger management

Baptista Minola has two daughters. Bianca is beautiful and docile, but Katherina is volatile, violent and abusive. A visiting stranger, Petruchio. learns of Katherina's large dowry, marries her and through his own even more extreme actions modifies her behaviour. Guess which daughter ends up exhorting all wives to obey their husbands ...

The Tempest : Rough magic

Prospero, a mage and former Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda have been stranded for 12 years on an island. Prospero's brother Antonio, who deposed him, is shipwrecked with his son Ferdinand. By the end Ferdinand and Miranda are married and Prospero, after abjuring magic, regains his title and forgives his betrayers.

Timon of Athens: Hermit crabbiness

With its puzzling plot and unexplained characters, Timon is probably unfinished and rarely performed. Timon is a wealthy citizen of ancient Athens, who spends munificently on parasitic writers and artists. When he loses his wealth his former friends abandon him and he rails against the world and men from his new home in a cave.

Titus Andronicus: Who ate all the pies?

Taking his cue from the Roman plays of Seneca, Shakespeare piles on the horrors in this tale of murderous revenge. Most appalling moment? Either the discovery of Titus's raped daughter Lavinia, with her tongue cut out and her hands chopped off, or the Queen Tamora being forced to eat a pie made from her two sons.

Troilus and Cressida: Sex and the Trojan city

Its odd mix of tragic gloom and bawdy humour marks this out as another of Shakespeare's "problem plays". Troilus, a Trojan prince, woos Cressida, has sex with her, and professes undying love. When she is traded with the Greeks for a prisoner of war, he tries to visit her but sees her with Diomedes and decides she is a whore.

Twelfth NIght : Never send a boy to do a man's job

Viola is shipwrecked and believes her twin, Sebastian, has been killed. Masquerading as a boy, she enters the service of Duke Orsino, who is in love with Olivia. Olivia, believing Viola male, falls in love with her. Viola, in turn, falls in love with the Duke. When Sebastian arrives on the scene, confusion ensues.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona: That's what friends are for

This is probably Shakespeare's first work for the stage. The two gents in question, Valentine and Proteus, fall for the same girl, Silvia, which leads to a spectacular quarrel. In the climactic confrontation scene, Valentine, for the sake of friendship, "gives" Silvia to Proteus, who refuses and returns to his abandoned fiancée.

The Two Noble Kinsmen: Courtly love

The other late collaboration with John Fletcher is based on Chaucer's The Knight's Tale. Two friends and cousins, Palamon and Arcite, are imprisoned after a battle. They see Princess Emilia from their window and both fall in love. They become rivals, and Arcite wins her, but after a fall from a horse, gives her to Palamon with his dying breath.

The Winter's Tale: Suspicious minds

King Leontes becomes convinced his pregnant wife Hermione is having an affair with his best friend. Another one of Shakespeare's 'problem plays', after three acts of intense psychological drama, the tone lightens and there's a redemptive ending.