Plot Summaries of Shakespeare's Best Plays

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A Midsummer Night's Dream | The Merchant of Venice | The Tragedy of Richard II | Hamlet, Prince of Denmark | Othello | King Lear | The First Part of King Henry IV | The Tragedy of Julius Caesar | The Tragedy of Macbeth | Romeo and Juliet

A Midsummer Night's Dream, probably about 1595

Act I: Theseus, Duke of Athens, is preparing to marry Hippolyta in his palace. He is solving a dispute between Egeus (who wants his daughter, Hermia, to marry Demetrius) and Lysander, who has Hermia's love. Theseus declares that Hermia must marry D emetrius as the law specifies, or marry no one. Hermia and Lysander plan to escape to the woods and elope, and they tell Helena. Helena loves Demetrius, and plans to impress him by telling him of the lovers' plans. In the wood, six laborers meet to arrang e the production of a play for Theseus's wedding.
Act II: In the wood, a Fairy talks with Robin Goodfellow about how Oberon, King of the Fairies, is mad that his wife Titania has stolen an Indian child from him. To get him, Oberon tells Puck to find and use a magic flower's juice to make Titania f all in love with a beast. Meanwhile, Oberon pities Helena's grief at Demetrius hating her, and tells Puck to also use the juice to make Demetrius love Helena.
Act III: Puck (Robin) accidently puts the juice on Lysander instead of Demetrius. He then turns Bottom's head into that of an ass, for Titania. Oberon sees Puck's mistake, tells him to anoint Demetrius, and now both are following Helena, leading he r to believe they are mocking her. Hermia does not know what to think, as the two men begin to fight. Titania is so entranced with Bottom that she freely gives up the Indian boy. Now Oberon tells Puck to release her from the spell and fix the lover's quad rangle.
Act IV: Theseus and Hippolyta enter the woods for their marriage. They find the lovers, and despite Egeus' request, Theseus declares that since all four are happy (Demetrius with Helena and Lysander with Hermia), they shall all be married on the sa me day. Bottom finds himself restored, and so the play be performed.
Act V: At the wedding, Theseus asks for the play "Pyramus and Thisbe," and it is performed. It is awful. The married people retire to bed, and Puck ends the play with a nice anecdote.
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The Merchant of Venice, 1596 or 1597

Act I: Antonio, the Merchant of Venice, discusses his sadness with Salerio and Solanio. Bassanio asks him for a loan, and Antonio says he may borrow on his credit because his money is at sea. In Belmont, Portia discusses her distaste with her suito rs with Nerissa. Back in Venice, Bassanio gets money from Shylock on the condition that if Antonio does not repay in three months, he gets a pound of his flesh.
Act II: The Prince of Morocco arrives to try for Portia's hand. Bassanio and company plan their dinner. In Venice, Shylock tells his daughter Jessica not to go out, but she loves Lorenzo and they escape that evening with her father's valuables. Mor occo picks the Golden Casket, which is wrong, and leaves. Salerio and Solanio, the gossipers, talk of Shylock's anger at finding his daughter and money taken. The Prince of Aragon arrives and tries to win Portia's hand, but incorrectly chooses the silver casket.
Act III: The gossipers reveal that one of Antonio's ships has sunk and that he may be in trouble. Bassanio correctly picks the leaden casket, but later finds out that Antonio owes a pound of flesh to Shylock. Because he will die, he wants to see Ba ssanio again. Bassanio goes to Venice to see him.
Act IV: Shylock rejects an offer from Portia for three times the initial loan because he wants his enemy Antonio dead. Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as doctor and clerk and go to help Antonio. Portia points out that because the 'bond' they made said Shylock could not have Antonio's blood, he cannot take the flesh and also loses all of his possessions.
Act V: Lorenzo and Jessica are enjoying the night, when Portia and Nerissa return just ahead of Bassanio, Graziano, and Antonio. The wives reveal themselves and the rings they had deceitfully taken.
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The Tragedy of Richard II, 1595

Act I: The play begins with a dispute between Bolingbroke and The Duke of Norfolk. Richard wants John of Guant, Bolingbroke's father, to solve the matter, but when he cannot he says they will fight it out. Then, Richard cancels this idea and instea d banishes Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for ten years.
Act II: Gaunt dies after insulting Richard, and the King claims his wealth to help finance his war with Ireland. Northumberland reveals that Bolingbroke is returning to England with an army to overtake Richard. He, with York and Willoughby, join hi m. Richard's troops under the Earl of Salisbury dispurse because they think Richard is dead.
Act III: Bolingbroke executes Bushy and Green, both loyal to the King. Richard returns to England happily after defeating the Irish, but loses that zest when he finds out that he has lost his troops and Bolingbroke will surely defeat him. Bolingbro ke discovers that Richard is nearby in Berkeley Castle, goes and asks him to surrender, and Richard does.
Act IV: The Bishop of Carlisle reluctantly lets Bolingbroke, who has been questioning Bagot about whether the King ordered an execution or not, overtake his castle. After some dramatic speech, Richard is sent to the Tower by Bolingbroke, now known as King Henry IV.
Act V: Richard's loving and grief-stricken wife sees him on his way to detention. A plot is hatched against Bolingbroke by Aumerle and others, but his father York finds out and tells. Aumerle is spared but the other rebels are not. Richard is kille d by Exton, news the new king says he is not happy to hear, and so he decides to launch a crusade to ease his conscience.
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Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, 1600 or 1601

Act I: Guards on duty discuss seeing the Ghost of Hamlet's late father, the dead King, and then see him again. Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, has remarried to Hamlet's uncle Claudius, putting the King's murderer on the throne. The courtier Polonius pre pares his son Laertes for a journey to Paris. He then orders his daughter to stay away from Hamlet, her love, because he fears Hamlet is going mad. The Ghost appears to Hamlet and tells him he wants revenge on Claudius.
Act II: After a time lapse, Hamlet feigns madness, but cannot as easily fool Claudius as he does others. The two both want to kill each other, but both need a reason to justify it. The attacking Fortinbras is reported to have called off his strike on Denmark, but that remains to be seen. Polonius and Claudius try to trick Hamlet, but he stays ahead of them. Hamlet meets his old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and is at first delighted to see them. But, he immediately realizes they are there to spy on him. Hamlet devises to use a play which show's Claudius's crime to prove him guilty.
Act III: Hamlet contemplates suicide, but Claudius is still not fooled and decides to send Hamlet to England, most likely to kill him. The play is done, and Claudius knows he must act or he will fall. Foolish Plonius asks Gertrude to question Hamle t. While the two are talking, Hamlet begins to grow angry at his mother, but the Ghost reappears and tells Hamlet to remember who it is that he is after. Inadvertently, Hamlet kills Polonius who was listening in from behind the curtain.
Act IV: Laertes is angry at Claudius because he thinks he killed his father, but the king consoles him. Claudius hatches a plan to kill Hamlet, who is back in Denmark because he escaped death in England via some wit and some pirates.
Act V: Hamlet finds out from a gravedigger that Ophelia is dead, and upon seeing her funeral, announces his love for her. Laertes challenges him to a match, but they do not fight just yet. They go back to the castle for a jousting match where...the Queen drinks a poisoned glass meant for Hamlet, Laertes wounds Hamlet, Hamlet kills Laertes, Laertes announces Claudius's evil intentions, Hamlet kills Claudius, and then Hamlet dies because Laertes was fighting with a poisoned sword. Before his death, H amlet tells Horatio to give authority to the approaching Fortinbras.
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Othello, 1603

Act I: Iago is discussing his desire for revenge against Othello (for his passing over of the lieutenant position that was given to Michael Cassio) with the idiot Roderigo, who desires Desdemona (Othello's wife). Iago tells Desdemona's father that she has eloped with Othello. He then tells Othello to take heed of Brabantio's hostility, a warning the Moor shrugs off. The two almost fight, but both are summoned by the Duke.
Act II: The scene shifts to Cyprus, and news comes that a tempest has elimated a Turkish war threat. Othello declares a holiday and Iago uses this to get Michael Cassio drunk. Iago cleverly sets the scene for a trashed Cassio to chase Roderigo and wound Montano, followed by Othello conveniently being woken and forced to discharge Cassio.
Act III: Now Iago tries to break up Othello and Desdemona by telling Cassio to try and earn reinstatement by getting Desdemona to like him and talk to Othello for him. Iago cleverly puts people in the right places so that Othello begins to think Ca ssio is pursuing Desdemona. He also steals a hankerchief Othello gave to Desdemona and puts it in Cassio's possession. He lies some more and gets Othello to order Cassio's assassination, question Desdemona, begin to lose rational thought, and ultimately d estroy his noble record.
Act IV: Ludovico and other Venetian officials arrive, saying they want Othello back. Desdemona speaks well of Cassio in hopes that he might succeed the Moor, and for that Othello slaps and degrades her. Ludovico wonders if Othello is sane, and Iago seizes the moment to cast Othello in a bad light. Roderigo starts to realize that the jewels he has been giving Iago to give to Desdemona have not been making it past Iago, and he threatens to kill him. But Iago uses his rhetoric to convince Roderigo to just wait a little longer.
Act V: Roderigo attacks Cassio, both are wounded, and Iago comes upon them and kills Roderigo. Othello decides to kill Desdemona by strangling her in her bed. Emilia then enters and tells him the news. She screams at seeing Desdemona and the others come into the room as well. Emilia tells about how she gave the hankerchief to Iago, and the truth starts to come out. Othello realizes what Iago has done, and although he cannot kill him, Iago is captured. Othello kills himself.
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King Lear, 1594

Act I: King Lear announces that he wants to give his kingdom to his three daughters. He has them all tell him they love him, but when Cordelia refuses to pour on the compliments, she gets nothing. Kent is banished for trying to tell the King he is making a mistake, but returns disguised and serves the King again. Regan and Goneril discuss their problems with their father. Burgundy loses interest in Cordelia, but France does not. The Earl of Gloucester's bastard son, Edmund, tricks his father into t hinking that his other son, Edgar, plans to kill him. Edmund then makes Edgar flee by telling him that he is in danger.
Act II: Regan and Cornwall arrive at Gloucester's castle. Edmund fools his father into thinking Edgar has struck him and left. Kent insults Oswald for his refusal to respect the King and is thrown in the stocks by Cornwall as an insult to the King. Lear continues to lose his sanity along with his authoritative presence. After running to Regan, Lear finds that she, too, will not be hospitable to him.
Act III: Lear rages out at a storm. The fool continues his important commentary. Kent finally brings the King to safety in a rock sheltering. Edmund turns his back on his father by informing Cornwall that France is coming with Cordelia to restore t he King's power. A disguised Edgar meets the King and Co. in their shelter. Gloucester then comes by and sends them all to Dover. Gloucester returns to his castle, is tied up by Regan and Cornwall, has his eyes plucked out, and is thrust outside towards D over.
Act IV:Edgar meets a suicidal Gloucester and agrees to help him. Albany shows his nobility, Cornwall dies, and Edmund moves closer to control of the English army. Cordelia longs for her father as France prepares for a battle. Regan discloses to Osw ald her affection for Edmund and tells him to kill Gloucester. Edgar saves Gloucester by tricking him into believing he survived a huge fall, and then by killing Oswald. Lear remorsely meets Cordelia.
Act V:France loses to England and Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoners by Edmund. Edgar kills Edmund. Goneril poisons Regan and then kills herself. Lear is unable to save Cordelia from Edmund's ordered execution and then dies himself after a touch ing moment of remorse.
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The First Part of King Henry IV, 1597

Act I: This follows Richard II, and King Henry begins by again putting off his promised crusade because of Westmoreland's reports of battles at home. Shakespeare introduces the conflict between Hotspur and Prince Hal. Prince Hal is the son of King Henry and Hotspur the son of Westmoreland, who will eventually try to take down the King. In a tavern, Hal and Falstaff engage in a battle of wits, and then Poins enters and plans with Hal to use a robbery to embarrass Falstaff. Back at Windsor Castle, Ho tspur will not give the King prisoners he has captured because the King will not agree to ransom his brother-in-law Mortimer. Worcester and others plan out how to overtake the King.
Act II: Falstaff and others rob the traveling pilgrims and are then robbed by a disguised Poins and Hal. Falstaff returns to the tavern and exaggerates what happened to Poins and Hal, not knowing they are playing a trick on him. Hal hides Falstaff from the sherriff, who comes looking for him. Hotspur receives news of when the rebellion will occur, but does not tell his curious wife.
Act III: An exuberant Hotspur makes his fellow conspirators angry with his brash statements. Meanwhile, the King gives Hal a scolding for his behavior, and Hal promises to shape up, for he had originally intended to be bad so that he could eventual ly look all the better. Hal gives Falstaff a post in the royal forces.
Act IV: The confident conspirators receive a blow when they learn that the Earl of Northumberland is sick and they will not have his forces. Also, the royal army is now swiftly approaching them and Glendower's forces are also unavailable to the reb ellion. Falstaff admits he has wasted his money and hired beggars for his battalion, surely leading them to their deaths.
Act V: The rebels forces will surely lose, and the King offers Worcester amnesty for all if they will surrender. But he does not trust the King and tells Hotspur they will fight. Prince Hal saves the King from death, and his own reputation, by kill ing Douglas. Then the climax - Hal fights Hotspur. Hotspur falls. Falstaff takes credit for this killing, which takes the hope away from the rebels. They dispurse, but the rebellion carries on into part two.
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The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, probably 1599

Act I: Caesar has just emerged victorious in a series of Roman civil wars. The populous swarms to see his homecoming, but tribunes question the celebration. A Soothsayer foreshadows the play by giving Caesar a warning, which he ignores. Cassius beg ins to subtly sway Brutus against Caesar. The conspirators meet and decide they need Brutus to join them, for tomorrow they must kill Caesar before he becomes king.
Act II: Brutus joins, but Cicero is left out. Brutus foolishly decides they should not kill Mark Antony. Calpurnia tells her husband Caesar to stay home that day, but Caesar still goes to the senate.
Act III: The conspirators pretend to petition for a recall so that they may crowd around him, and then stab him to death. Caesar fights back at first, but when Brutus takes his turn, Caesar gives in dramatically. As the conspirators try to calm the city, Mark Antony steps in and wins Brutus over with flattery. Cassius fears him, but Brutus foolishly lets him speak to the crowds. At the funeral, Brutus gives a short but well-put speech and then his mistake proves costly. Antony riles up the crowd ag ainst the conspirators with a magnificent oration. Antony agrees to join Octavius Caesar and General Lepidus in a three-man government.
Act IV: Civil war now erupts between the new government and the conspirators. In Asia Minor, Cassius' army comes to join Brutus' army. Cassius and Brutus argue and make up. Brutus finds out that Portia is dead, along with many senators including Ci cero. Caesar's ghost visits Brutus and says they will meet again.
Act V: The armies sit opposite each other near Philippi, waiting for battle. Antony tells Cassius things might be better had he been in charge instead of Brutus. Cassius and Brutus exchange good-byes, knowing they may never see each other again. Br utus poorly leads his men, and turns a sure victory into a possible defeat. Cassius mistakenly thinks he is prisoner when in fact the conspirators are winning, and commits suicide. Brutus continues to mislead, avoiding a sure victory, and eventually it co sts him. He commits suicide in the face of defeat. Antony's forces win.
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Macbeth, 1606

Act I: The Witches foreshadow the evil in Macbeth. King Duncan decides to kill the traitorous Thane of Cawdor. Back to the witches - after some junk-talk, they are encountered by Macbeth with Banquo, and they say that he is now Thane and will be Ki ng. However, the King tells Macbeth he will make Malcolm the next king. Macbeth plans to kill the King when he dines at his house that night, and Lady Macbeth helps convince him to go ahead with that plan.
Act II: Lady Macbeth drugs the guards, Macbeth kills the king, and then the guards are framed. Macduff arrives with Lennox at the door, goes to get the king, and discovers his murder. Macduff is suspicious, but Macbeth is in the clear for now. Malc olm and Donalbain flee, fearing their lives since they are prime suspects. Macbeth has killed the servants, and the nobility feels they were the murderers. Macbeth is now king, but the tragedy is starting to unfold.
Act III: Macbeth makes arrangements to have Banquo and his son killed. At dinner, Macbeth is told the Banquo was killed but his son escaped. Banquo's ghost then appears, but only Macbeth can see it. Hecate, the witch queen, scolds the witches for d ealing with Macbeth without her. With Banquo dead, Lennox joins Macduff in increasing suspiscion.
Act IV: Macbeth visits the sisters and three apparitions are shown to him: an armed head (signifying war), a bloody child (showing that no man born of a woman shall harm Macbeth), and a crowned child with a tree (saying that "Macbeth shall never va nquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him"). Macduff has gone to England to get Malcolm.
Act V: Lady Macbeth is now unstable and walks and talks in her sleep. The Scottish noblility has mostly joined the English against Macbeth, but he is not scared because of the witches' prophecy. Lady Macbeth kills herself. Macbeth then learns that the enemy is walking towards the castle with trees from Birnam Wood, and that Macduff was ripped from his mother's womb early, both explaining the witches' apparitions. Macduff kills Macbeth and Malcolm is now King of Scotland.
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Romeo and Juliet, between 1591 and 1596

Act I: Chorus gives a play overview. Sampson and Gregory fight with Abraham and Balthasar. Benvolio breaks it up, fights with Tybalt, and a riot erupts. Escalus, joined by the Capulets and Montagues, enters and stops the fight. Afterwards the Monta gues speak with Benvolio about Romeo. Romeo follows his parents exit with an entrance and talks with Benvolio about his love life. Paris works on his hopes for a marriage to Juliet. He is invited to a ball, which Romeo and Benvolio find out about from Cap ulet's Servant. Juliet finds out about Paris' offer. Romeo and Co. head to the Capulet's masked ball. At the ball, Romeo and Juliet meet each other, and the Nurse tells them who each other is.
Act II: Chorus explains the problems Romeo and Juliet face. After climbing into a back orchard and hearing Benvolio and Mercutio mock him, Romeo finds Juliet speaking out of her window. The reveal their love and decide to marry. Friar Lawrence agre es to marry them. With help from the Nurse, arrangements are made and the two are wed.
Act III: Tybalt taunts Romeo, battles Mercutio and kills him, and is then killed by Romeo. Romeo flees, Benvolio reports what happened, and Escalus exiles Romeo. Juliet weeps, but gets a visit from Romeo that night. Romeo goes to Mantua. Juliet doe s not want to marry Paris, but sees no way to disobey her father.
Act IV: Friar Lawrence hatches a plan in which Juliet will fake her death: he gives her a potion that will put her to sleep for a few days. Found to be dead, everyone mourns the loss.
Act V: Friar John was supposed to tell Romeo that Juliet is not really dead, but he reveals that he could not do it. Romeo visits the tomb and finds Paris already there. Romeo kills him. Romeo kills himself after kissing Juliet. Juliet awakes, sees Romeo dead, kisses him, and stabs herself. Everyone comes after the watchmen send for Escalus. Friar Lawrence explains his mistake. Montague and Capulet put aside their strife.
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