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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.