Rank The Plays

I was thinking recently about people who put “Read all of Shakespeare’s Works” on their life’s to-do list.  I’ve done it (for a piece of educational software that never saw the light of day).  Well, not counting Two Noble Kinsmen.  I didn’t even know that one existed, at the time.Do I remember all of them?  Nah, not really.  Just the big ones.    So here’s my question.  Someone you know is about to embark on this personal challenge, and expects it take quite awhile. So she asks you, “What order should I read them in?”  Of course there’s something to be said for reading them chronologically, but let’s assume that your friend isn’t interested in the academic exercise.  She wants to get right to the good stuff and see what this Shakespeare character is all about.  It’s your opinion about what to read first that will determine your friend’s introduction to the world of Shakespeare. Go for it.  Which are your top three, and why?  You going with entertainment value, or depth?  Midsummer, or King Lear?  Popularity or esoterica, Romeo and Juliet or Cymbeline? Here’s my list:

  1. Hamlet, for obvious reasons, but also for personal ones.  Hamlet’s the one that “broke the code” for me, and opened up the door to Shakespeare’s works in the first place.  I don’t claim to be an expert, nor do I think it’s a piece of literature written by the hand of god.  I happen to think that much of the second half is pretty boring, saved only by performances from Claudius and Ophelia. 
  2. The Tempest.  I pick this one because many people will otherwise miss it, and it’s really one of the best family-oriented stories that still has some depth to it (unlike a light comedy).  It’s a fairy tale with a happy ending, it’s a story of princesses and weddings, shipwrecks and wizards and fairies and monsters.  It’s revenge, and redemption.  It’s father and child.  Nobody dies, everybody wins.  My kids will know this story before they hit grade school.
  3. Macbeth.  I think of the “great tragedies” that Macbeth might be the best for entertainment value.  Murder.  Ghosts.  Crazy people.  There’s not as much complexity in Macbeth as there is in, say, King Lear.  I think that audiences can understand Macbeth better.  Everybody understands ambition.  Everybody understands having that devilish voice whisper in your ear to go ahead and do it, nobody will ever know.  I love the entire last act of Macbeth, how he basically goes complete insane with his immortality complex, and then how he comes crashing back to reality in his final scene and yet still manages one of the great hero’s endings.  Give me “Lay on, Macduff” over “The rest is silence” any day.


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8 thoughts on “Rank The Plays

  1. Well, I suppose you’d have to pick Hamlet. That’s the play that got many of us not just interested in Shakespeare, but obsessed.

    I think I’d also suggest Othello and King Lear. Both of those plays are richly complex, and will get your friend excited about finishing the job.

    Yeah, I went all Great Tragedy again, but if you really want to do the best of Shakespeare, that’s what he did best.

    By the way, I’ve still not read Coriolanus, though I expect to remedy that in the next couple of months via my reading group. Then I will be able to cross this particular item off of my list as well.

  2. Othello I can see, although it was never a real favorite of mine (hence my picking of Macbeth).

    I’m often torn on King Lear. Yeah it’s a masterpiece – but is it an approachable one? Lear to me comes across like one of those movies where the commercials say that every critic raves about it and it immediately becomes an Oscar contender…and yet, regular audiences don’t really like it.

    Note, by the way, that I didn’t necessarily say the “best” of Shakespeare. Just what you would recommend. You might have a fondness for Titus Andronicus, and feel that it’s gotten a bad rap, what with all the cannibalism and rape and mutilation and such.

  3. Certainly Hamlet, because it can be said to sum up all of Shakespeare (the man, the myth, the legend, and all of that): you’ve got revenge, parent-child relationships, incest, politics, war, acting, religion, etc.

    I’d give ’em Lear, too, and (kind of an odd choice) Troilus and Cressida, in part because it’s a personal favorite, in part because it’s a good ‘problem’ play, and because it shows that even when Shakespeare does the Trojan War, his plays are about people’s actions and decisions, not the gods or Fate.

  4. Although the history plays are often overlooked, I think there’s no better introduction than Henry IV (1 & 2), whether for high drama or low humor.

    I think I would choose Lear before Hamlet, just as a personal favorite and because I think the emotions run so deep.

    Finally, I might suggest the Merchant of Venice for its quite topical themes of antisemitism and revenge. Merchant is always a good conversation piece.

  5. The Merchant of Venice
    Taming of the Shrew
    Romeo and Juliet
    (in no specific order)

    Why? Because I’ve lived them all, to a certain extent. Katharina, Portia, Juliet, Shylock, Jessica, and even the Nurse all remind me of aspects of my own personality and events in my life. If I cannot rival Shakespeare’s “honey-tongued” poetry, then may I at least be schooled by his immaculate characterization.

  6. Just me being perverse – fairly low on the list would be Hamlet – one of the worse and unfinished exercises in Theatre Craft much over-rated.

    High up, ‘The Dream’; Merchant; Macbeth; Tempest.


    Henry V; Antony and C.; Julius C.; Twelfth Night.

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