Four hundred years after his death William Shakespeare remains the timeless international man of mystery. Almost everything about him is disputed. The plays that have come down to us today have been through the hands of numerous editors and were sometimes mangled.
Some of those editors in the past decided that his summation of the human condition wasn't what audiences would like, and they simply rewrote the plays to suit themselves. And then there were the collaborations. Shakespeare co-wrote many of his plays with others. The problem is that we're not sure exactly what works were shared with who.
The one abiding fact we can clasp onto is that William Shakespeare - whoever he really was and whoever his collaborators may have been - authored some of the greatest plays ever penned, and gave us characters that have been much copied but never bettered down the centuries.
Lady Macbeth, Macbeth
Macbeth and his wife have one of the most twisted relationships ever staged. It is a power-tussle between the two which would be later imitated, but never bettered, in the very best film noirs such as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. When Macbeth "sups full of horrors", we see how his lust for power has been provoked by his wife's sexual thrall.
Racked by nightmares she tries to wash the imagined blood from her hands. As the play unfolds, guilt has replaced her incredible ambition in equal measure. We are led to believe that her guilt ultimately leads to her suicide.
Masculinity is defined in the play by ambition and power - two qualities that Lady Macbeth possesses in abundance. By constructing the character in this way, Shakespeare challenges our preconceived views of masculinity and femininity.
Iago is Othello's trusted sidekick who, we discover, is not to be trusted. He engineers his master's downfall by persuading Othello that his wife is having an affair. Iago is an arch manipulator who is responsible directly or indirectly for all the deaths in the play. Iago is also one of the few appalling villains who does not get his comeuppance at the play's end.
The quintessence of evil, Iago is a cherished part for the Shakespearean player, and the one with the most lines in this play.
Iago is also a tragic character, who eventually betrays himself through a disabling resentment mixed with excessive devotion. He stands out as one of the greatest bad guys of all time for his glacial cunning and warped manipulation of his Boss "the Moor". Iago's final speech - "Demand me nothing. What I know I know" - is one of the great exit lines in all of Shakespeare.
Prospero, The Tempest
The Tempest was the last play Shakespeare wrote wholly alone. The play is also one of The Bard's most otherworldly and it is tempting to view it as his farewell to this world, as if he was preparing himself for the next life.
Prospero was the Duke of Milan until his brother Antonio, conspiring with Alonso, the King of Naples, usurped his position. Kidnapped and left to die on a raft at sea, Prospero and his daughter Miranda survive because Gonzalo leaves them supplies and Prospero's books, which are the source of his magic and power.
The role of Prospero is not just a commanding one but a part with some of the poet's finest lines. The speeches in Acts IV and V, in which the exiled Duke of Milan brings down the curtain on the drama ("Our revels now are ended") and then repudiates his art ("This rough magic I here abjure"), are thrilling and majestic. Prospero is one of Shakespeare's great old men.
Hamlet is the melancholy Prince of Denmark and grieving son to the recently deceased King. This soul-searching character has been called the first truly modern human being ever portrayed in literature. The depth of Hamlet's emotional turmoil can be measured against the high spirits displayed by the rest of the court.
Hamlet is distraught dwelling on the fact that everyone has managed to forget his father so quickly - especially his mother, Gertrude. With her husband barely cold in the grave Gertrude has married her brother-in-law Claudius. When a ghost reveals that Claudius killed the king, Hamlet vows to avenge his father's murder.
However, Hamlet is emotionally all at sea and finds himself paralysed. He cannot balance his hatred for Claudius and his consuming grief with the evil required to carry out his revenge. Hamlet's dilemma leads him into the moral paradox that he must commit murder to avenge murder.
The Three Witches, Macbeth
The Three Witches, otherwise known as The Weird Sisters, have entered the popular consciousness as the classic embodiment of witchcraft. Shakespeare was a Steven Spielberg of his day. He wrote for the mass audience, but after James the First (James the Fifth of Scotland) ascended to the English throne in 1603 he appointed the man from Stratford-Upon-Avon as playwright to the royal court.
James was deeply interested in witches and believed they truly existed. Shakespeare's sworn duty now involved pleasing His Majesty, and so the Weird Sisters came into being. The origins of these spooky sisters are first recorded in Hollinshed's 1577 work Chronicles Of England, Scotland And Ireland. Historians believe that the Three Witches may have dated to much earlier times, and may go back to a number of Norse valkeries who decided which men would be slain at the Battle Of Clontarf.
Juliet, Romeo and Juliet
Juliet's nurse in The Bard's most celebrated romantic-tragedies is a scene-stealer. She gives a real human touch to a play that otherwise might, in Romeo's own words, "too flattering-sweet to be substantial". And yet it is the ill-fated Juliet who captures the heart. Still short of her fourteenth birthday, Juliet is of an age that stands on the cusp between childhood and maturity. At the play's beginning however she seems merely an obedient, sheltered, naïve child.
Though it is common for girls her age - her mother included - to get married, Juliet has not given the subject any thought. Because she is a mere girl born into high society, she has none of the freedom Romeo has to go places, see people and get into brawls. Juliet's development from a starry-eyed girl into a fully-fledged woman is one of Shakespeare's early triumphs of characterisation. It marks one of his most rounded treatments of a female character.
Viola, Twelfth Night
Viola is one of Shakespeare's most delightful comic characters. As a shipwrecked orphan who has no-one to protect her, she has to be crafty and resourseful. She knows that a single woman adrift in a foreign land is at some risk. She disguises herself as a boy so that she'd have room to roam unmolested. Viola is Shakespeare's most sexually ambiguous character.
Throughout the development of the plot, and the humiliation of Malvolio, she displays an infectious energy as she engages in sparkling fashion with everyone around her. But it's not just giddy flirtation.
Her scene in Act III with Olivia, in which the frosty countess hovers on the brink of declaring her love for Cesario, is among the most exhilarating Shakespeare ever wrote. The most surprising thing about Viola is that a young woman so bright and gifted falls in love with someone as boorish as Duke Orsino.
Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing
Leonato, a well-liked nobleman, lives in the Italian town of Messina. Leonato shares his house with his lovely young daughter, Hero, his delightfully witty niece Beatrice, and his elderly brother, Antonio who is Beatrice's father. A party of friends arrive, including the joker Benedick. The well-matched Benedick and Beatrice fall in love. The love affair between the two is, strictly speaking, a subplot. But it comes to dominate the play, with Beatrice the standout character.
The play has been produced many times as a romcom, but it runs much deeper than an episode of Friends. Wounded and spitting barbs, Beatrice is more than a match for the flaky Benedick. Her call in Act IV's wrecked wedding for him to "Kill Claudio", her sister's sweetheart, defines the depth of her character. Is she joking or deadly serious? Probably a bit of both. In the end, despite his flaws, Benedick gets his girl.
Falstaff, Henry IV Parts I and II, The Merry Wives of Windsor
Sir John Falstaff is one of the great father figures in all of Shakespeare. Portly and often drunk, he is the feckless old rogue who accompanies the dissolute Prince Hal from a mis-spent youth to sober maturity. The heir to the throne spends most of his time in taverns on the seedy side of London, hanging around with vagrants and other shady types.
Harry's closest friend among the crew of rascals is Falstaff. Falstaff is the most shady of them all, but as a stage presence he is a giant in all senses. With his massive girth and gargantuan appetites, he is the misbehaving Oliver Reed figure that audiences love to disapprove of. The line in Henry IV Part II, when the newly-crowned King Henry turns against his oldest and best friend - "I know thee not, old man" - is one of the most chilling moments in the history of the stage.
Lear, King Lear
Hamlet is the young actor's ultimate test, but Lear is the one part to which every mature leading man aspires. Showcasing madness, bloodshed and the nakedness (real and imagined) of the human condition, playing Lear is a physically formidable role. It demands blood and sweat from any actor attempting it (sweat anyway, the blood is painted).
In Act III, Scene I, the storm - "Blow winds, and crack your cheeks" - leads to one of the most extraordinary moments of world theatre, perhaps the peak in a play rich in mesmerising scenes. In King Lear Shakespeare delivers a vision of humanity that is so bleak that it can leave audiences exiting the theatre wondering "what's the point?", but it is the ineluctable profundity of its wintery tale that makes it so great and timeless.