What is a plot summary?
A plot summary is a neutral account of the actions in a play.
Why should I make one?
There are plenty of plot summaries of Shakespeare’s plays available online. However, you will learn more about the play if you make your own plot summary as you read the play. Writing a plot summary enables you to identify the key actions in each scene. It gives you a sense of the shape of the play and the relationship between scenes. You can go back and add notes about things that interest you later; for example, I added notes about production conventions to my summary of Henry V when I taught the play in a course on Shakespeare in Performance.
How should I make a plot summary?
For maximum benefit, make the plot summary as you read the play for the first time, summarizing each scene briefly before you move on to the next one. Use the act and scene breaks in your edition as “milestones” for your summary. Go back and correct your plot summary as your understanding of the plot and characters deepens. Trade plot summaries with a friend and discuss any points where you appear to have understood the play differently. Go back to the text to check your knowledge! Finally, condense your plot summary into a shorter “scene-by-scene” map.
Act and scene divisions
Act and scene divisions were imposed on the plays by Nicholas Rowe in 1709, who is often thought of as the first “scholarly editor” of the plays. His six-volume edition was commissioned and published in 1709 by the publisher, Jacob Tonson. You can see a digital surrogate of the Rowe edition at the ISE site.
Generally, editors start a new scene when the stage is cleared and a new set of characters enters, or when the location shifts to a new place (as it does between 1.4 and 1.5 of Romeo and Juliet). However, early modern drama was a flexible technology that doesn’t always fit the rules we impose on it. So you will sometimes find that different scholarly editions merge two scenes that are separate in another edition or vice versa.
Always record the edition you are working from (including the series, the editor’s name, and the date of publication). And be prepared to be flexible when you shift to other editions!
When will my plot summary be useful to me?
Review it before the quiz on the play and again before the final exam. Keep it with you so that you can refer to it throughout the course as we make comparisons between successive plays as our knowledge-base grows. If you have the opportunity to see the play on stage, read your plot summary ahead of time so that you have a good sense of the shape of the play before you see it performed. You’ll be able to notice any significant cuts or rearrangements in the production if you have a good sense of the text.
For a sample plot summary, see my summary of Henry V.