So, you are interested in Shakespeare. Whether you came here looking for somewhere to start with Shakespeare, your teacher is forcing you to research Shakespeare, or you are a hardened fan like me, I hope this article will be at least moderately interesting.
I was first introduced to Shakespeare as a child, and I have taken classes in Shakespeare in both high school and college. Honestly, I cannot get enough of this old playwright. So, I thought I would put together a list of my favorite Shakespeare plays. It was extremely difficult to narrow his immense biography of plays into nine entries, but I did so in analyzing length, uniqueness, language, etc. So, enjoy.
9. King John
Honestly, I am not as fond of Shakespeare’s histories as I am of his other plays. However, I wanted to include at least one on this list and, as this one is the most enjoyable to me, here it is.
King John tells of the later life of the medieval King of England, John (yes, the same one made infamous by Robin Hood, though I assure you that in real life the man was nothing like his fictional, villainess counterpart). Without revealing any spoilers, this play revolves around the king’s family drama and fall from power.
The language, as with all of Shakespeare’s plays, is beautiful. The theme of power saturates this play in an extremely Machiavellian style. Any fan of Game of Thrones will see similar struggles for power in this one. It is a tragedy, in essence, but a real one.
I find it interesting because this one in particular does not seem as contrived as many of Shakespeare’s plays and instead merely seems to follow real historical scenes with little embellishment to add themes. This is the main reason I recommend this play, as it is so different concerning pacing and substance.
8. The Comedy of Errors
Going from a serious history to a ridiculous comedy, this is one of the first comedies Shakespeare wrote and, in my opinion, the first comedy any newcomer to Shakespeare should read.
Set in Ephesus in present day Turkey, this tells the story of two identical twin brothers and their two identical twin servants who were both separated years before, only to be reunited by everyone else in their life confusing one for the other and vice versa.
Not only is this play, by far, the most slap-stick and lighthearted play, but it is also a very easy read. It is short, and much of the language is not quite as advanced and difficult as others of Shakespeare’s plays.
I have previously talked about how I love the position of fools in Shakespeare’s plays. Well, in this one most everyone bumbles around much like a fool. It is hard to take anything seriously in this play, but then that is part of the brilliance of it.
7. The Merchant of Venice
This comedy, unlike the first, borders more on the tragic side. It tells the story of Bassanio, a merchant who, after successfully wooing the witty Portia, goes to save his friend Antonio from the murderous clutches of the miserly Shylock. Of course, Portia is the real hero of the play, disguising herself as a man (a very common happenstance in Shakespeare’s plays) to defend Antonio and destroy Shylock.
There are several reasons this play is one of my favorites. First is simply Portia. Not only is she one of the strongest female characters Shakespeare has portrayed (another one of which I will talk of later on this list), she is also intelligent, loyal, and good. While it is Antonio who seems to be the main character, I would argue that Portia is the heroine. It is she who uses Shylock’s own contract against him.
However, there are other, darker themes in play in this play (no pun intended). For example, Shylock is portrayed as a Jew as well as the villain, but it is also made clear in the play that Jews were not treated very well in that time and place. It is something that I find very few writers during that time touched on. That is, the humanity and treatment of all. While Shylock is the villain, he can also be seen as a victim, the product of years of abuse by the hands of certain people in society. While I am not excusing his actions, one of the reasons I recommend this play is because of its debate on what is evil and good, and who decides either.
6. Romeo and Juliet
This play is actually one of my least favorite Shakespeare’s plays, mostly because I am frustrated by the characters’ actions as I read it. The tragic ending could have been so easily avoided, and no blood needed to be spilled. I am not even talking about the namesakes of the play, but moreover everyone in their family and social circles.
Romeo and Juliet, of course, tells the story of two doomed lovers whose families are in a bitter feud. They meet, fall in love, marry, are torn apart, and eventually die through misunderstandings and stupidity.
The reason this play is on my list is mostly because of the language. Not only do the lovebirds speak passionate and brilliantly written dialogue, but the play is also very easy to follow. Even if you are the two people in America who has not heard of Romeo and Juliet, you will not find it hard to figure out. This is why this particular Shakespeare play is taught so frequently in public schools.
Set in Scotland, this tragedy tells the tale of the ambitious Lord Macbeth who, after hearing witches prophesying that he will be king, takes matters into his own hands (with the help of his power-hungry wife) and murders the king, Duncan. This sets off a series of events that lead to the couple’s tragic fate.
There are several reasons why this particular play is on my list. First, because honestly the witches are pretty awesome. I mean, I would love to have the job of sitting in a swamp, mixing my cauldron and waiting for someone to come by so I might tell them they would be king. Then just sit back and watch the bloodshed begin. Best. Job. Ever.
But in all seriousness, there are a lot of interesting things in this play. First of all, it is the only Shakespeare play where the protagonist is also the antagonist. Macbeth, after all, is the villain, and yet he is the main character. The action follows his actions.
Lady Macbeth, as well, is a brilliant character who, while first is portrayed as power-hungry, soon loses her mind to guilt. Madness is a powerful theme in this play and, since madness fascinates me so much, that is another reason why it in on this list. What I love about the play is that is it like a warning to those who wish for power. Remember, you will always die, so why destroy other’s lives for a short moment of glory?
4. A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream
Set in the fairytale forest outside of Athens, this tells the story of three groups of people and how their tales intertwine in said forest. The first group is two sets of lovers, involved in a complex love square as one of the couples attempts to elope with the other fast on their heels.
The next group is the fairies, headed by King Oberon and Queen Titania, who are in a passionate argument over a human child Titania agreed to raise. And, of course, Oberon commands the tricksy Puck, who is by far my favorite character in all of Shakespeare’s plays. The third group is comprised of peasants who go to the forest to practice their parts for a play they will later perform before the recently married Duke Theseus of Athens and his bride Hippolyta.
This is a comedy and, like The Comedy of Errors, it is filled with misunderstandings and confusion. While it is complicated reading the first time simply because of all the characters and how much is going on at the same time, it is well worth it to take the time to read it. Not only are many of the characters infamous in literature (especially Puck and Bottom), but there are also deeper subjects as well (like the fact that Theseus is marrying Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons, only because he defeated her people. In fact, she does not seem the happiest to be marrying him). Also, the language is fascinating as well, considering how different the common peasants speak compared to the nobles and the fairies (and how literal they take everything).
Magic is also involved in this play, more so then any of Shakespeare’s other plays (say for perhaps The Tempest). The inside jokes make this also a great repeat read. While some of Shakespeare’s plays are only interesting until you read through the confusion, this one is great to read several times just to understand all the jokes.
3. Julius Caesar
A tragedy at its heart, I think for me what is interesting about this play is the theme that trust can be broken by only one act. This play tells of the final days of Julius Caesar, his assassination, and the revenge that follows afterwards. While this one is personally not one of my favorites, it is a great starting play for anyone getting into Shakespeare due to its short length, basic story plot, and simpler language (for Shakespeare, that is).
This is actually the one play that I had no interest to read until quite recently, when I was rereading many of Shakespeare’s plays. However, one of the reasons I find this play so fascinating is because of how many common phrases we use today which were invented for this play (“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”, “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war”, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”, and “Beware the ides of March”, to name a few).
This play is a great starter play and a quick read. So give it a go.
2. Much Ado About Nothing
This is my personal favorite Shakespeare’s play and one I have probably mentioned before. It is set around the arrival of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and his group of men returning from war. They stop to stay at Messina with Leonato. Leonato, in turn, has a daughter Hero—a meek, sweet girl—and a niece Beatrice—a sharp-witted, rude lady. Hero and Claudio—a gentleman in Don Pedro’s group—fall in love as Beatrice and Benedick—another such man—fight their way into love.
Of course, this play borders on tragedy as Don Pedro’s brother Don John plots to destroy his brother’s happiness, as well as Claudio’s and Hero’s. However, in the end all misunderstandings are cleared up.
There are several reasons I love this play. The first and foremost are Beatrice and Benedick, whose witty banter are reminiscent of Pride & Prejudice’s Darcy and Elizabeth. They match each other’s intelligent and Beatrice is one of the strongest female characters in Shakespeare’s plays (her and Portia go very much hand-in-hand). Another reason I like it is because it has very serious topics—like betrayal, lies, and unfaithfulness—and yet Shakespeare still makes it feel lighthearted.
My one criticism of this play is that I want to know so much more—how did Benedick and Beatrice originally meet, and why does Hero willingly take Claudio back? While some modern renditions have covered the holes (like the Youtube web series Nothing Much to Do), I do wish the play was a bit longer.
This is an extremely long and highly complex play, filled with soliloquies, humor, tragedy, romance, betrayal, revenge, suicide…I could keep going for a while. The story centers around the melancholy Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, whose father has recently died and his uncle has married his mother and become king. After Hamlet’s father’s ghost appears to him to tell him that his uncle killed him, Hamlet embarks on a quest of revenge. By the end of the story, most every one of the main characters dies. It is one of the bloodiest of Shakespeare’s plays, as a total of seven main characters die (including Hamlet’s father).
There are many reasons I think this is Shakespeare’s best play. First of all, the characters. While so many of Shakespeare’s characters are exceptional, these far surpass any of his other’s in depth and diversity. You have the wise, depressed Hamlet who, while deciding how to avenge his father, both contemplates suicide and grows to trust few, including his love Ophelia. He even puts on the appearance of madness for his own safety and to bide his time to plot. Another is Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, who both loves her son and new husband. She is caught in the center, but her pride prevents her from doing anything but dying for her son (notice I said anything, but what I mean by that is she could have prevented her death if she had betrayed her murderous husband).
Another brilliant character is Horatio, the closest friend to Hamlet and the only major character to survive the climax. He is loyal, but he is also the voice of reason to Hamlet’s shaking mind. He is there for most of the scenes and yet he observes without being part of much of them. Honestly, I could go on with each of the characters and still be talking a year from now.
While this play is a difficult one to read through and requires more study then others mentioned on this list, it is well worth it. It is a gloomy play, but the ending does finalize on a note of hope: the treacherous king is dead and, due to Hamlet’s sacrifice, Fortinbras can rule Denmark in peace.
Was your favorite Shakespeare play on this list? If not, which is your favorite and why? Let me know down in the comments. And, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,