Shakespeare 400: In Which I Rank the Plays



In honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Dear Readers, I bring you a list you’ve all been too polite to clamor for:

Shakespeare’s Plays, Ranked in Order of My Personal Preference, with Sundry Quips & Commentary

(Because yes, I’ve read them all. Thanks, graduate school.)

  1. Hamlet (Of course.)
  2. Much Ado About Nothing (Beatrice is the Shakespearean heroine I’d find easiest to play. Just saying.)
  3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Delightful poetry, problematic ending, fond memories of high school. If you’d like to never see the play the same way again, try reading Jan Kott’s take on it.
  4. Henry V (An anti-war play about war, in my view. And it’s brilliant, of course.)
  5. As You Like It (Recommended particularly for North Carolina legislators.)
  6. Antony and Cleopatra (Oh, for my salad days teaching this play! Also, I saw it at the Barbican when I was 15; Alan Bates played Antony, and Frances de la Tour [perhaps known to you as Madame Maxine in the Harry Potter movies] was a fantastic Cleopatra, appearing nude in her final scenes. )
  7. Richard III (No matter historians’ efforts, Richard’s reputation will never recover.)
  8. Twelfth Night (See 5, above.)
  9. King Lear (I can’t decide whether I’d rather see Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellan in the title role. The “never” line at the end is gutting. )
  10. The Tempest (How is it that I’ve never seen this play live?)
  11. The Winter’s Tale (This was my jam when I used to think about maternal mortality in early modern lit. I still think it’s a trip. Apparently so does Jeanette Winterson.)
  12. Macbeth (Few things make me wish I’d been alive a hundred plus years ago, but then there’s this painting.)
  13. King John (Weren’t expecting that, were you? I like this because I’ve read it much less often than I’ve read the major comedies and tragedies, so it sounds fresh every time, and it’s really, really good. Underrated, this one.)
  14. The Taming of the Shrew (Funny and horrifying at the same time; fun to wrestle with, as a feminist.)
  15. Richard II (Gorgeous poetry here, and such a politically charged play! The Earl of Essex had it staged before he himself staged a rebellion against Elizabeth I.)
  16. Othello (My dad once saw a production of this with James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer. I’ve never gotten over my envy, despite quite a bit of therapy.)
  17. Romeo and Juliet (God, Romeo is such a nitwit. But that doesn’t mean I can’t quote huge chunks of this play [don’t judge me for being 13 when the Leonard DiCaprio version came out . . . and then playing the nurse in high school.].)
  18. Henry IV Part 1 (In which Prince Hal is one calculating sonofabitch, and we all fall for Falstaff.)
  19. Cymbeline (Is it a romance? A tragicomedy? A comedy? Who knows? Woolf quotes from it in Mrs. Dalloway, which has to be an endorsement of some kind, right?)
  20. Coriolanus (I have a feeling Volumnia would do well on Game of Thrones.)
  21. The Merchant of Venice (Go Portia! Also, I think best read in conversation with Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.)
  22. Henry IV Part 2 (I love the scene between the dying Henry and Hal: “busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels.” A sound politico, that Henry IV.)
  23. Julius Caesar (Oh hi, tenth grade memorization assignment.)
  24. All’s Well That Ends Well (There’s a bed trick, and if that’s not intriguing, I don’t know what is. Also, Bertram reminds me of the generic rom-com bad guy.)
  25. Measure for Measure (Here’s another bed trick. And I’m a fan of the pre-Dickensian name “Mistress Overdone”–the owner of a brothel.)
  26. Henry VIII (Neatly sidesteps all that nasty beheading business. The play that literally burned the house down.)
  27. Love’s Labour’s Lost (Honorificabilitudinitatibus. This is the play for word nerds.)
  28. Titus Andronicus (Gleefully gory. “Alarbus’ limbs are lopped” is quite the line.)
  29. The Merry Wives of Windsor (Quite silly.)
  30. Troilus and Cressida (So very unpleasant.)
  31. Henry VI Part 1 (If you’re going to read these–and you should at least once, just for Margaret of Anjou–you might as well read them in order.)
  32. Henry VI Part 2
  33. Henry VI Part 3
  34. The Two Noble Kinsmen (Chaucerian, and thus best enjoyed with a large glass of mead.)
  35. Two Gentlemen of Verona (There’s a dog in this one, which is a good thing for the audience.)
  36. Pericles, Prince of Tyre (This is sort of like Shakespeare leaving the office early for a three-martini lunch. Or, come to think of it, arriving at the office late after a three-martini lunch.)
  37. The Comedy of Errors (Even the greats have to start somewhere.)
  38. Timon of Athens (Ugh.)

And the poems, you say?

  1. The Sonnets (Of course.)
  2. Venus and Adonis (Shakespearean smut, and it’s delightful)
  3. The rest.

So, happy Shakespeare 400! May we all be in good health to celebrate his 500th birthday, in a mere 48 years!).

What’s your favorite play of Shakespeare’s (or sonnet)? 


30 thoughts on “Shakespeare 400: In Which I Rank the Plays

  1. I too am impressed that you’ve read them all. I think I have read 12, though none since my undergraduate days. I recognize that massive Riverside Shakespeare; my copy is in a box in America somewhere.

    • Well, oral exams are oral exams, and early modern drama (and obstetrics & gynecology . . . ) was my specialty, so really reading the rather horrid ones was the result of duress (perhaps self-imposed). I do love the Riverside. I hope your copy comes back to you someday.

    • That is so cool! I see you also have therapy in your future.

      Also, I remember seeing a GLTF production of Twelfth Night or The Tempest that featured beached pianos—does that ring any bells?

      • No…sadly I’ve not been to the GLTF. Both the story about Tom Hanks and the idea of going to the theatre belong in the veiled mists of my parents’ Pre-Kid life.

      • That’s too bad, but speaking as someone with a kid who almost never gets to experience Boston’s cultural riches, I totally understand.
        My dad took me a few times to GLT productions when I was in high school. Very big on culture, my dad 🙂

  2. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer your question – I haven’t read very many of his plays and it was all so long ago. But, I think I prefer the funny ones to the tragic ones (unlike my fiction – weird, actually).
    I’ll be 89 on his 500th birthday. Let’s hope it doesn’t come too soon!

  3. How well you know me! I was too well-bred to place demands for this list, but since you’ve read my mind and put it in front of me anyway, I can enjoy it v. much! :p I am dead of envy about your dad seeing Christopher Plummer and James Earl Jones in Othello — that sounds like the greatest production ever.

    I have seen The Tempest live! I must report! They did it at the Globe the first time I visited London, and I was so entranced that I went to see it again two days later. They did it with only three actors, one of whom I believe was Mark Rylance, and it was just absolutely amazing.

    • AHHH. Now I need more therapy–Mark Rylance?!? I mean, like Romeo he is a nitwit (though about the Shakespeare authorship “question,” which is, in my professional and not humble opinion, absurd), but good lord can the man act.

      Also, you made me laugh out loud with your “well bred” line.

  4. Wow, your dad must really appreciate culture. I would have clamored for this list had I known it was an option. But now I know about how cool your dad is, I will know in future. Thanks for sharing.

      • The dad has read your list, envies your expertise and has no quibbles with your rankings. When I saw Othello I had the advantage of not knowing the story (along with perhaps half of the New York audience, based on surprised gasps at a certain point of the play (no spoilers…)) and as drama it was riveting. James Earl Jones’ voice had an extraordinary richness and power, and Christopher Plummer’s “l hate the Moor” was chilling. I have loved Shakespeare ever since, but will be observing his 500th from the, ahem, balcony…

  5. You’ve read them all? Even with three classes in Shakespeare and drama of the period, I haven’t read them all. Ranking them would be really hard. But I have to say that As You Like It was never one of my favorites, although I admit to not having read it in years. I think I agree that Much Ado About Nothing is the best comedy. I find Othello fairly infuriating, though. Othello is so distrustful of his wife.

    • Well, my field in grad school was early modern drama (& medicine, esp. OB/GYN), so it was pretty much expected I’d read them all for my oral exams. It took quite a while.

      • That is an interesting focus. I didn’t have to pick a specialty when I got my MA, for some reason. I expected to but was never asked to do it. I probably would have gone for Victorian lit, and maybe madness in Victorian lit., since I was interested in that.

      • I didn’t have a specialty for my MA either–I spent 4 more years in grad school after that (alas, no PhD–I thought I’d be able to finish after H was born, but that has proven to be a pipe dream).

      • Yeah, things were so bad for academics when I was in grad school that I thought it would be a miracle if I got a teaching job, so I decided not to go for it. I also don’t have the political skills (or inclination) for all the nonsense.

  6. Pingback: Last Week’s Reading: March 19-25 | Rosemary and Reading Glasses

  7. Nice List, but my rankings would probably go like this:
    1. Hamlet
    2. Macbeth
    3. Measure for Measure
    4. Merchant of Venice
    5. Henry V
    6. Henry VI: Part 1
    7. Henry VI: Part 2
    8. Romeo & Juliet
    9. Timon of Athens
    10. Titus Andronicus
    11. The Tempest
    12. Julius Caesar
    13. Coriolanus
    14. As You Like It
    15. Love’s Labours Lost
    16. Much Ado About Nothing
    17. The Comedy of Errors
    18. King John
    19. Henry IV: Part 1
    20. Henry IV: Part 2
    21. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    22. Anthony & Cleopatra
    23. Henry VIII
    24. King Lear
    25. Othello
    26. The Merry Wives of Windsor
    27. The Two Gentlemen of Verona
    28. The Taming of the Shrew
    29. Twelfth Night, or What You Will
    30. All’s Well That Ends Well
    31. Richard II
    32. Richard III
    33. Cymbeline
    34. Henry VI: Part 3
    35. Troillus & Cressida
    36. The Winter’s Tale

  8. My updated rankings would go like this:
    1. Hamlet
    2. Macbeth
    3. Measure for Measure
    4. The Merchant of Venice
    5. Henry V
    6. Henry VI: Part 1
    7. Henry VI: Part 2
    8. Romeo & Juliet
    9. Titus Andronicus
    10. Timon of Athens
    11. Coriolanus
    12. The Tempest
    13. Julius Caesar
    14. Pericles
    15. As You Like It
    16. Love’s Labour’s Lost
    17. Much Ado About Nothing
    18. The Comedy or Errors
    19. King John
    20. Henry IV: Part 1
    21. Anthony & Cleopatra
    22. Henry VIII
    23. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    24. King Lear
    25. Othello
    26. Henry IV: Part 2
    27. The Merry Wives of Windsor
    28. The Two Gentlemen of Verona
    29. The Taming of the Shrew
    30. Twelfth Night
    31. All’s Well That Ends Well
    32. Richard II
    33. Richard III
    34. Cymbeline
    35. Troillus & Cressida
    36. Henry VI: Part 3
    37. The Winter’s Tale
    1. The Passionate Pilgrim
    2. The Rape of Lucrece
    3. Venus & Adonis
    4. Sonnets to Sundry Notes of Music
    5. A Lover’s Complaint
    6. The Sonnets
    7. The Phoenix and the Turtle

  9. I’ve read some of his apocrypha plays now and all I can say is that Edward III definitely seems Shakespearean, Arden, of Feversham sort of does, but alas The Merry Devil of Edmonton and A Yorkshire Tragedy do not.

  10. And for me at least The Two Noble Kinsmen gets a bad rap for being a substandard Shakespeare play when I think it’s quite good (sort of a romantic tragi-comedy in the vein of Romeo & Juliet). It would personally make my top twenty easy.

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