The Comic Scholar asks:
I'm writing a screenplay about a theater director, and a fair amount of the story centers on her talking about Shakespeare's Henry IV and Henry V with a friend.
How much do I need to explain about the two plays? Can I just have the characters mention the parts that are important, or do I need to have them describe the entire plot of the two plays?
I guess my question is, when a classic work of fiction has an impact on your story in-universe, how much can you assume the audience knows and how much do they need to know?
Never assume the audience knows anything. If there's something in that play that is essential to know for the sake of your story, you MUST set it up within the context of the play. It's no different than any other set-up and payoff.
That said, if there are elements of the play that are completely irrelevant to your story, obviously you don't need to set those up.
I recall an episode of Deep Space Nine entitled "For the Uniform," where Captain Sisko is pursuing a former Starfleet officer who betrayed his allegiance to the Federation. This officer - Eddington - sees himself as the hero of the story and Captain Sisko as a man driven by an unhealthy obsession and devotion to law over true justice. To underscore the point, Eddington sends Sisko a copy of Les Miserables, noting that the Captain might recognize himself in the character Javert, the police inspector who spends 20 years pursuing Valjean for the mere crime of stealing a loaf of bread.
I had neither seen nor read Les Miserables at the time I first saw this episode, but that characterization is crucial to understanding how Eddington sees himself. Ultimately it proves to be the key to bringing him in. Fortunately, the writer of the episode explained enough about the characters of Valjean and Javier that it was an effective analogy even to those ignorant of the story.
As you may be aware, there's far more to the story than just that conflict - but since it's not relevant to the story's role in that DS9 ep, it went unrecapped.
Hope this helps!