Note: This HTML version of the HLAS Shakespeare FAQ is based on v1.4a of the FAQ for the newsgroup Humanities.Lit.Authors.Shakespeare. The most recent edition of the FAQ is posted monthly to the mentioned newsgroup.

FAQ file for Humanities.Lit.Authors.Shakespeare

version 1.4a

"To be or not to be?" Now, that is a frequently asked question.

This file contains answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) pertaining to William Shakespeare and the Usenet newsgroup Humanities.Lit.Authors.Shakespeare (HLAS).

The questions addressed are:

What is HLAS all about?

The charter for HLAS (which first went on-line in August 1995) answers this question thus:


        The unmoderated newsgroup humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare
        will be for discussion of:

        1 - The plays and poems of William Shakespeare and other
            English writers of the 16th and 17th centuries.

        2 - The life and times of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

        3 - The production, staging, and acting of Shakespeare's plays,
            including current and past productions.

        4 - Shakespeare's influence and impact on subsequent literature
            and culture.

        5 - Shakespeare's authorship including his sources, allusions
            in his works, publication of his works, possible
            collaborations, and possible pseudonymity.
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Is there a secret HLAS handshake, or can anyone chime in?

Welcome, newbie! You don't need to be a professor of English literature or an Elizabethan scholar to participate in this newsgroup. HLAS' regulars are employed in a variety of mostly non-academic professions; what unites us is our love for the writings of Shakespeare, as well as (for some subscribers) a desire to exhaustively debate the "authorship issue" (more on that in just a minute). Whether you've studied the plays for 30 years, or you just discovered the Bard last week through a videocassette of Henry V, your comments, (non-homework-related) questions, arguments and wisecracks are welcome.

HLAS is a reasonably polite group (most of the time, at least), in which the regulars have come to know one another pretty well. It's generally a good idea to read a couple weeks worth of posts before you try to post yourself, just to get a feel for the group. If you haven't already done so, we recommend you read up on Usenet etiquette in news.announce.newusers - and that you read this FAQ.

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What are good Shakespeare related sites on the Internet?

Since the Web is in constant flux, it is always a good idea to consult one of the major search engines first. Yahoo lists an array of Shakespeare sites under several category headings.

The two best Shakespeare sites for obtaining e-texts of Shakespeare's plays and poems are the Complete Works at MIT (maintained by Jeremy Hylton) and The Works of the Bard (maintained by Matty Farrow).
Both of these sites offer the Moby editions of the plays, poems and sonnets, as well as a search engine that enables one to search particular plays or the complete works for keywords or phrases.

Many Shakespearean texts exist in multiple versions. Links to a number of Shakespearean e-texts (including the 1603 and 1604 Hamlet Quarto, and a 1619 Lear Quarto), may be found at McGill University's Shakespeare site.

Perhaps the most comprehensive website is Terry Gray's Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet; even the most knowledgeable Shakespearean can learn a thing or two via its extensive array of links.

Did Shakespeare say that? The on-line edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations is a convenient source for Shakespeare's most famous lines.

If you are interested in new words coined by Shakespeare, you find here a short but helpful article on Shakespeare the Neologist.

For information on Elizabethan costumes, try The Costume Page.

Illustrations and paintings inspired by the works of Shakespeare can be viewed at Emory University's Shakespeare Illustrated site.

A guide to William Shakespeare's hometown of Stratford may be found at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust site.

An exploration of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, where his plays were first staged, may be found here.

The best-known Shakespeare-related mailing list is SHAKSPER, The Global Electronic Shakespeare Conference, which offers announcements, scholarly papers, texts, and bibliographies. No academic qualifications are required for membership: anyone interested in English Literature, the Renaissance, or Drama is welcome to join. Write to the editor or send a one-line email message, reading "SUB SHAKSPER firstname lastname" to, and you will receive detailed information with further instructions.

Information about other Shakespeare mailing lists can be obtained at Lizst, the Mailing List Web site. Enter "Shakespeare" on the Topic line, and hit "Search".

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How can I get help with my homework?

For starters, you might try what students did in the Olden Days: visit the library. Libraries have been in the information processing business for some time now, and even a mediocre college library will provide you with a far greater range of readily accessible material than the WWW. If your library uses the Dewey Decimal System, books on Shakespeare may be found at 822.33 - under the Library of Congress classification, books on Shakespeare will be found between PR 2750 and PR 3112. If you're completely new to Shakespeare, the reference section is the best place to start; there you will find - in addition to well-annotated editions of the complete works - a number of encyclopedias, concordances, "Who's Who" guides, and glossaries, which should provide you with most of the answers you need to your Shakespearean questions. Another good source of information for those in a hurry is a standard edition of any major encyclopedia (e.g., The Encyclopedia Britannica, Collier's World Book, etc.) They will usually offer a concise biography of Shakespeare, as well as brief plot synopses of the better-known plays.

But if you prefer to use the Web, some good places to start are:

Those looking for information on a particular play should also check the section below, What are some good web sites for specific plays? Most of the sites listed there are geared toward assisting students.

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Can HLAS help me with my homework?

If you want discuss your homework with us, you're more than welcome here. By this we mean, you've actually read the work in question (you might have some trouble understanding it all, but, hey, you're trying), and you offer ideas of your own instead of simply asking for the ideas of others. If you want to post a rough draft of your paper on HLAS, you'll be sure to get some useful and constructive comments on it (if you don't want your essay preserved in the Internet's eternal amber, simply post a notice that you'd like your paper critiqued, and ask those interested to e-mail you directly).

But if you're looking for someone to write your essay for you, go elsewhere. No one generates as much irritation on HLAS as a student who simply posts the question as it appears on a course syllabus and waits for us to respond with a complete answer. Do not ask us to summarize a plot for you (some of the above recommended web sites do have plot synopses). Though the regulars of this group may vehemently disagree on many issues, we'd all agree that Shakespeare is important enough to be worth some investment of time and effort on your part in order to understand his work. You will be amply rewarded if you do, long after you've forgotten the letter-grade you received on your paper.

Another way to use HLAS is to access past posts via the newsgroup search engine of Google.
Type in the name of this newsgroup, and then the play or topic of interest on the subject line. In many cases, your question has already been answered and/or debated in depth by HLAS in the past.

And a last warning for those of you looking for homework help via HLAS: Trust, but verify. Some posts are opinion presented as fact, and others may contain factual errors.

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Help! This passage in Shakespeare doesn't make sense!

Let's say that you're unable to make heads or tails of a particular passage in Shakespeare, and you've got that essay due by 2 p.m. Tuesday. There are several approaches you could take - you might try:

  1. Reading the passage aloud, trying to get a sense of the sound and meaning of the words. As you read, ask yourself a few basic questions about the passage:

  2. Get a good glossary or a well-annotated edition of Shakespeare, that will help identify some of the unfamiliar words and references (our recommendations appear in the "books" section of this FAQ).

  3. Try to attend a performance of the play in question, watch a film version, or listen to a recording. Hearing and/or seeing a skilled actor recite the lines can be very clarifying. But remember that some performances take rather extreme liberties with Shakespeare (recent film versions of Romeo & Juliet and Richard III are cases in point).

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Who wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare?

Since the mid-nineteenth century, one of the most bitterly debated topics in the realm of Shakespearean studies is: Did William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon write the works attributed to him, or were they written by someone else? If you're new to Shakespeare, the question might seem odd, but since we're talking about people who lived four centuries ago, before photo IDs, thumbprints, and databases, the actual identity of this author is open to debate (or not, depending on whom in the authorship debate you listen to.). While the "Stratfordians" claim that the plays were indeed written by William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon, the "anti-Stratfordians" over the years have nominated nearly sixty candidates - including Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, Roger Manners (the Earl of Rutland), Ben Jonson, Queen Elizabeth, Anne Hathaway, some combination thereof, etc. - as the true author (or authors). The most popular alternate candidate now is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, championed by the "Oxfordians". Advocates of Christopher Marlowe (known as "Marlovians"), maintain that Marlowe survived his supposed death in a 1593 tavern brawl, and went on to write the Shakespearean canon under surreptitious circumstances. On HLAS, the authorship issue was originally an almost strictly Stratford vs. Oxford debate; in the last several months, however, a vigorous Marlovian faction has since joined the fray. Advocates for other candidates are rarely heard from, but always welcome to participate.

At any given moment, there are sure to be several threads on HLAS debating some aspect of the authorship controversy. This is the one topic on this newsgroup which regularly gets a bit hot, and sometimes results in flames. You're welcome to take part in this discussion, but make sure that you're well-armed with arguments and that you don't mind receiving a little "constructive" criticism from the opposition!

This FAQ is not the place to take sides in this question. Here are some links - see and judge for yourself:

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What is the POTM?

Each month, there is a vote for a "Play of the Month" (aka POTM). All interested members of the newsgroup decide which play will be POTM in the month after next. The idea behind this procedure is to have one play as a common subject for discussion, and also to read (or re-read) some of the lesser-known plays. Of course, this doesn't mean one cannot discuss the other plays during this month. A list of the previous plays of the month is usually posted with the call for votes.

In addition, we have a "Sonnet of the Week" discussion aiming at a clearer understanding of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets. Since July 1997, a sonnet (in consecutive order) is posted to HLAS each week. Some of our participants prefer to analyze the poetic or textual meaning of the sonnet, while others choose to discuss how it relates to the authorship issue.

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What are some good books about Shakespeare?

Literally tens of thousands of books have been written about Shakespeare, from almost every imaginable angle. Think of any noun; there's a good chance that someone somewhere wrote a "Shakespeare and [insert-noun]" at some point in time. The following books are recommended by HLAS regulars as their favorites in several areas of Shakespearean studies. So far as we know, all of these books are still in print, and should be readily available through libraries, book stores, or on-line retailers.

A) Best editions of the plays (collected works or series):

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B) Analysis and criticism of the plays and poems:

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C) The life of William Shakespeare:

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D) Historical information on England (1200-1650)

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E) Historical information on the Shakespearean theatre:

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F) Shakespeare in Modern Performance

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G) Books on the authorship question:

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H) Guides to the vocabulary of the plays:

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What are some good Shakespeare movies?

Ever since the silent era, Shakespeare's works have been a popular source for cinematic adaptations. The Internet Movie Database lists well over 300 movies based directly or indirectly on the works of the Bard, and their inventory is far from complete. Shakespeare films, past and present, are frequent topics of discussion on HLAS. While it is not the intention of the FAQ to recommend particular films, our regulars suggested the following titles as among their favorites:

Some other resources for Shakespeare on film include Bardolatry which offers a survey of recent Shakespearean films, as well as links to their homepages. For specific information on any particular Shakespeare film, try the Internet Movie Database

And whenever a new Shakespeare film is released, it's sure to be vigorously discussed and debated on HLAS.

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What are the BBC Television Shakespeare Plays?

No discussion of film/video adaptations of Shakespeare would be complete without mentioning the BBC Television Shakespeare Plays.

This ambitious project was the brainchild of BBC producer Cedric Messina, who was to become one of the three producers of the series itself (along with Jonathan Miller and Shaun Sutton). Messina was inspired by the idea of filming the entire canon of thirty-seven plays for television in 1975. The BBC, with financial assistance from Time/Life, Exxon, Metropolitan Life and Morgan Bank, agreed to undertake the project starting in 1978. Seven years, three producers, over a dozen different directors and millions of dollars later, the series was completed. Hundreds of different actors were involved including such stalwarts as John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Hopkins, Patrick Stewart, John Cleese, etc..

Critical reaction to the productions, as might be expected, was mixed. Many were applauded, others were deemed boring. Complete sets of the videos, while expensive to purchase, are often available in public libraries. Thanks to the BBC, Shakespeare fans have the opportunity to view all the plays, many in uncut form, including versions of the infrequently performed works.

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Where does the line "First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers" come from?

In Act 4, Scene 1 of the second part of the Henry 6th trilogy, the rebel Jack Cade, a low-born, ignorant, but charismatic demagogue (who claims to be the legitimate heir to the English throne) addresses an enthusiastic crowd of supporters (including Dick the Butcher). In this scene, we hear him making extravagant promises about what he will do when he becomes their King:

CADE   I thank you, good people: there shall be no money;
       all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will
       apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree
       like brothers and worship me their lord.

DICK   The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

CADE   Nay, that I mean to do.

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Specific questions about the plays: Why did Hamlet delay in avenging his father's death? Was he mad? What was Iago's motivation? Etc. etc.

One of the reasons that Shakespeare has maintained his popularity across the centuries with scholars, actors, and the general public alike is the level of depth and complexity he breathes into his characters. One method that he uses to achieve this effect is by not spelling things out for his audience (as opposed to, say, George Bernard Shaw, who always provides elaborate commentaries with his plays to explain just exactly what his characters are about). For example, while Shakespeare offers many tantalizing hints and clues, he never explicitly states the reasons for Hamlet's hesitation. Many theories have arisen to explain this delay (e.g., Hamlet was too sensitive and poetic a soul to deal with life's harsh realities; he was clinically depressed and/or manic-depressive; he feared that the ghost was sent to deceive him and had to arrange for proof; his unresolved "Oedipus Complex" caused him to identify with Claudius and thus prevented him from acting, etc. etc.); but it is really up to the individual reader/actor/viewer to decide which interpretation makes the most sense. Because of this multi-dimensional quality of Shakespeare's characters, we can argue over the motivations of, say, Cordelia, Macbeth, Iago, etc., much as we might argue over the actions of "real" people.

So if you're looking for an answer to some specific question about a particular play: the resources listed previously - web sites, DejaNews, books, etc. - should give you the tools you need to reach an answer. A Yahoo search will guide you to web sites devoted to specific plays. Seeing different actors and directors interpret the plays can also lead to fresh insights. However, while viewing a performance can help you understand a play better, you should by no means assume that what you've seen is the "correct" version. So, the best strategy is to use these resources to assist you in finding your own answer.

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What are some good web sites for specific plays?

In addition to the sites listed above, some websites are devoted to a single play. Other sites, which deal with historical subjects, can also be of assistance in obtaining a broader understanding of a particular work.

Hamlet: Ian Delaney's student-oriented A Short Course on Shakespeare's Hamlet offers the play's text, a detailed plot synopsis, an analysis of the individual characters, as well as some interesting links, such as to the texts of Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest, who offered earlier versions of the "Amelth" story.

Macbeth: A well-organized student-oriented site, Birnam Wood on the Net , offers an annotated hypertext, some historical background on the actual 11th century King Macbeth, brief essays on some of the play's major themes, photographs from both stage and screen performances, a discussion of the notorious jinx that has plagued "The Scottish Play" through the centuries, and even a few sample "final exams" you can take on-line.

Othello: The Othello Navigator consists of a scene-by-scene plot synopsis, and a brief discussion of the characters and some of the play's major themes.

Richard III: If you can deal with the cognitive dissonance of regarding Richard III as "the good guy", even the experienced Shakespearean will find the The Richard III and Yorkist History Server (sponsored by the Richard III Society) an ample resource of both historical and literary information, from Richard's time down through our own. Among its many offerings, along with an excellent annotated hypertext edition of Shakespeare's play, are such rarities as Thomas More's The History of King Richard the Third, (which helped create the myth of the hunchbacked deformed Richard, and served as one of Shakespeare's primary sources), the Colley Cibber version of Richard III (which supplanted Shakespeare's on stage until the beginning of the 19th century), an essay on Richard by the 16-year-old Jane Austen, etc.

King Lear: Dr. Ed Friedlander's student-oriented site Enjoying Lear is a somewhat pretentious but nevertheless informative site. Some skepticism about his sweeping assertions is in order (as with his dogmatic claims concerning Shakespeare's alleged atheism).

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Dr. Friedlander's discussion of the themes and characters of A Midsummer Night's Dream displays most of the faults and virtues of his Lear site.

The Tempest: Students can take a basic navigation lesson at TempestNet.

Julius Caesar: Another good student-oriented site is the Julius Caesar Resource Page , which offers a hypertext edition of the play, mini-biographies of the individual characters, historical background on both ancient Rome and Elizabethan England, and a number of other helpful features. Shakespeareans may want to drop by to sample their amusing collection of "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" parodies.

English history: Ten of Shakespeare's plays are based on medieval English history: King John, Richard II, Henry IV (in two parts), Henry V, Henry VI (in three parts), Richard III, and Henry VIII. You can get a brief biography of each king - as well as his portrait - at the Britannia Web site.

Roman history: The great Greek historian Plutarch (46-120 A.D.) was Shakespeare's primary source for his three great Roman plays, Julius Caesar, Antony & Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. His biographical essays on Antony, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Marcus Brutus may be found at the Internet Classics site.

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What are some other resources on the Web for Elizabethan drama?

Here you will find the complete dramatic works of Christopher Marlowe. This site also offers a selection of Marlowe's poetry, as well as some of his translations from Ovid and Lucan. Unfortunately, due to copyright restrictions, you can only download the plays a scene at a time. Faust, The Jew of Malta, and the first part of Tamburlaine are also available (in a single file) at the Project Gutenberg site.

Unfortunately, there really isn't a good site for Ben Jonson's dramas. The link above goes to the best available address which offers a good selection of his poetry (including the famous dedication to Shakespeare written for the 1623 Folio). Unfortunately, the texts of the plays (mostly via University of Michigan's Humanities Text Initiative, or HTI) are often rather garbled (e.g., no cast of characters is provided, speakers are often unidentified, the blank verse is poorly formatted, etc.)

Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) may lack the name recognition of some of his more illustrious contemporaries, but his comedies and melodramas still make good reading. Chris Cleary's web page provides the complete texts of a number of Middleton's plays, including dramatis personae and list of scenes, along with extensive footnotes and annotations.

Dr. Larry A. Brown offers The Duchess of Malfi (which one critic described as "among the great creations of the Elizabethan drama, surpassed by none outside Shakespeare") by John Webster (1580? - 1625?).

Elizabethan drama as a whole is surveyed in the Records of Early English Drama (maintained by Abigail Ann Young.)

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Compiled by:

Julia Cuffe, Gary Kosinski, Andreas Stokke, Stephanie L. Johnson, Andreas Schlenger, Tom Reedy, Wolfgang Preiss, Mark Alexander, Caius Marcius, Dogbrain, Joe Conlon, Terry Ross, David Kathman, Anistra, Lyn Wood, Emma Harper, Harry Tarsky, Cezary Raczko, Robert L Smith, Tlbeck1, Paul L, Linda Fletcher, & Robert.


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Send comments regarding the content of the FAQ to Caius Marcius, the maintainer of the HLAS FAQ.

Comments about the form of this HTML version of the FAQ should go to Wolfgang Preiss.

Last updated on April 11, 2000.