Imagine that characters from previous plays have ganged up on Shakespeare and threatened to sue him for libel--clearly, they would never behave in theImagine that characters from previous plays have ganged up on Shakespeare and threatened to sue him for libel--clearly, they would never behave in the way he suggests. They demand the real story be told. He offers a compromise: rather than go to the trouble and expense of rewrites and retractions, he will write a special play, just for them, and not interfere at all in the execution of plot. In fact, the deus ex machina gets to be a character too, since it was threatening to report him to OSHA over its use in past plays. The characters haul along their favorite plot devices from previous plays, and clearly bicker about setting and timeframe: Roman Britain, Renaissance Italy, republican Rome, and Henry V's England all manage to coexist without invoking paradox, while travel across physical distance seems to take no time at all. One is left suspecting the offscreen involvement of Dr. Who and his TARDIS contraption. Nonetheless, the play turns out surprisingly well, with rather realistic characters and a plot that is comely and well-formed. The story goes something like this:
Twenty years ago King Lear unjustly banished Prospero, who took revenge by stealing the king's two infant sons. Lear's wife dies, so he remarries; Lady Macbeth, Gertrude, and Tamora agree to share this character, and get up to no end of trouble in their attempts to put their son ChironDemetrius Troilus on the throne. Lear's remaining daughter, now grown, is a pragmatic mix of Viola and Juliet, who occasionally channels Cressida's propensity for mouthing off; she refuses to marry Troilus, instead marrying Othello (a foundling in the court) without permission. Under the urging of the queen, Lear imprisons Viola and exiles Othello to Medici Italy. Punishment indeed. Meanwhile Lady Macbeth acquires what she thinks is a deadly poison, but actually turns out to be Juliet's famed sleeping draft, and gives it to Viola's loyal servant Benvolio Horatio as medicine. In Italy, Othello strikes a Merchant of Venice bargain with Iago (who is also Puck and Harlequin), betting fat stacks of cash that Harlequin can't seduce his wife. Harlequin travels to Roman Britain and attempts to do so, Viola turns into an offended Wendy Wellesley, and later Harlequin sneaks into Viola's bedchamber to and catch a look at her boobies. Presenting the ring and intimate knowledge of said boobies as evidence, Harlequin convinces Othello that he really has slept with his wife. Othello spurts out two scenes of mysogynistic doggerel and orders Horatio to kill Viola. Instead, Horatio spirits Viola away to Wales, helps her disguise herself as a man, and hatches a mad scheme to fake her death offer her service as a page to Marc Antony, who is headed to Lear's court to discuss tribute payments to Rome. Viola gets lost in the Welsh wilderness, but falls in with Prospero and her two brothers. She would have stayed there, of course, but falls ill and takes Horatio's "medicine," which causes her to fall into a coma for a while. Taken for dead, she is given a proper funeral by her brothers. Meanwhile, Troilus whines. Lady Macbeth flatters Lear into playing Henry V. Lear is Lear, so he really can't pull it off. They refuse to pay tribute, Marc Antony vaguely attempts to reason with them, and they end up at war with Rome. Troilus pursues Viola to Wales, intent on seeing her boobies (in the Biblical sense). Naturally, he gets himself lopped in half by one of the lost princes, which is how Troilus and Cressida should have ended. Viola wakes up after the funeral to find Troilus's dead body, sans head, dressed in her husband's clothes; she concludes that it's all a nasty plot of Horatio's, that he has killed Othello and meant the poison to kill her. Marc Antony and his retinue pass by, and seeing her grief at a slain captain, offers to take her on as a page; she consents, though she is no longer trying to emigrate to Italy. Meanwhile, Othello feels some remorse for having his wife slain. Seeing no further point in living, and bound by anachronistic Catholic notions regarding suicide, everybody goes to war with everybody. British forces very nearly lose, but then Prospero and the two renegade princes show up, and the three of them defeat the entire Roman army. Othello, Marc Antony, Viola, and Horatio are taken as prisoners of war. Just in time for the last scene, Deus Ex Machina gets to dress up as Zeus for a scene, bumbles through his first real lines in the entire corpus of Shakespearean literature, and uses magic tricks to make everyone listen to one another's explanations. Lady Macbeth dies of a fever, not a broken heart (since she doesn't have one), never suffers madness or remorse, and makes her deathbed confessions only because Zeus compels her to do so. Everybody forgives everybody, Lear issues official pardons, Viola and Othello are named next in line for the throne, Britain starts paying Rome tribute again despite winning the war, and everybody lives happily every after. Except Troilus. Which is as it should be.
All in all, I can't help thinking that Shakespeare would have been better off giving his characters freer rein. They were clearly better at plotting, though they relied on him for snappy/poetic dialogue. This might have been an exceptional play, in fact, if only the characters and author had been on speaking terms.