Shakespeare 400: In Which I Rank the Plays

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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)? 

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34 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
    Poems:
    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.

  11. Here is my complete final ranking:
    Plays:
    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. Edward III
    9. Romeo & Juliet
    10. Titus Andronicus
    11. Timon of Athens
    12. Coriolanus
    13. Pericles
    14. Julius Caesar
    15. The Tempest
    16. As You Like It
    17. The Two Noble Kinsmen
    18. Love’s Labour’s Lost
    19. Much Ado About Nothing
    20. King John
    21. Henry IV: Part 1
    22. The Comedy or Errors
    23. Anthony & Cleopatra
    24. King Lear
    25. Henry VIII
    26. Othello
    27. The Taming of the Shrew
    28. The Merry Wives of Windsor
    29. Henry IV: Part 2
    30. The Two Gentlemen of Verona
    31. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    32. Richard II
    33. Twelfth Night, or What You Will
    34. All’s Well That Ends Well
    35. Cymbeline
    36. Richard III
    37. Troillus & Cressida
    38. Henry VI: Part 3
    39. The Winter’s Tale
    Poems:
    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 regular 154 Sonnets
    7. The Phoenix and the Turtle
    Apocrypha:
    1. The Birth of Merlin
    2. Mucedorus
    3. Locrine
    4. Thomas Lord Cromwell
    5. First Part of Sir John Oldcastle
    6. The Puritan
    7. The London Prodigal
    8. The Merry Devil of Edmonton
    9. Arden, of Feversham
    10. A Yorkshire Tragedy

  12. I’ve read Sir Thomas More now, so here’s where I would place it:
    Plays:
    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. Edward III
    9. Romeo & Juliet
    10. Titus Andronicus
    11. Timon of Athens
    12. Coriolanus
    13. Julius Caesar
    14. Pericles
    15. Sir Thomas More
    16. The Tempest
    17. As You Like It
    18. Love’s Labour’s Lost
    19. Much Ado About Nothing
    20. The Two Noble Kinsmen
    21. The Comedy of Errors
    22. King John
    23. Henry IV: Part 1
    24. Henry VIII
    25. Anthony & Cleopatra
    26. Othello
    27. The Taming of the Shrew
    28. The Merry Wives of Windsor
    29. Henry IV: Part 2
    30. The Two Gentlemen of Verona
    31. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    32. King Lear
    33. All’s Well That Ends Well
    34. Twelfth Night, or What You Will
    35. Richard II
    36. Richard III
    37. Troillus & Cressida
    38. Cymbeline
    39. Henry VI: Part 3
    40. The Winter’s Tale
    Poems:
    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 Phoenix and the Turtle
    7. The regular 154 Sonnets
    Apocrypha:
    1. The Birth of Merlin
    2. Mucedorus
    3. Locrine
    4. Thomas Lord Cromwell
    5. First Part of Sir John Oldcastle
    6. The Puritan
    7. The London Prodigal
    8. The Merry Devil of Edmonton
    9. Arden, of Feversham
    10. A Yorkshire Tragedy

    • Shakespeare is the world’s greatest writer. His plays are mostly brilliant and very addictive. Here’s how I would rank his complete body of work with comments as well.
      Plays:
      1. Hamlet: Positively brilliant, the greatest play ever written, so many wonderful lines and things to think about, masterpiece doesn’t do it justice
      2. Macbeth: same as Hamlet above, just not quite as wonderful from start to finish, but definitely the best one-two punch in all of literature
      3. Measure for Measure: a brilliant examination of sexual harassment in the 16th century
      4. The Merchant of Venice: brilliant in every way, with Shylock very nearly stealing the show away from everyone else
      5. Henry V: the best History play Shakespeare ever wrote, extremely interesting, really gets you into the lives of England’s kings back then, the French dialogue makes it truly unique
      6. Henry VI: Part 1: Joan la Pucelle is the best character here, but in general the storyline and writing are simply superb, makes you really care about this time in England’s history
      7. Henry VI: Part 2: a thrilling rollercoaster ride from start to finish
      8. Edward III: wonderfully written, very emotional at times
      9. Romeo & Juliet: the greatest most tragic love story ever written
      10. Titus Andronicus: a bloody good time, deeper and more though-provoking than people give it credit for
      11. Timon of Athens: a wonderful life lesson on knowing who and who not to trust
      12. Coriolanus: same as Timon above, simply breathtaking
      13. Julius Caesar: dissention in the ranks at its very finest
      14. Pericles: a little bit of everything, shipwrecks, storms at sea, pirates, brothels, one of the sweetest family reunions you’ll ever read, what’s not to love
      15. Sir Thomas More: endlessly fascinating story about one man’s rise and fall
      16. The Tempest: magically brilliant, funny as heck
      17. As You Like It: shepherds, weddings, wrestlers, something for everyone
      18. Love’s Labour’s Lost: the funniest comedy Shakespeare ever wrote, simply hilarious
      19. Much Ado About Nothing: funny as heck with Beatrice and Benedick stealing the show
      20. The Two Noble Kinsmen: very Romeo & Juliet like
      21. The Comedy of Errors: freaking hilarious from start to finish
      22. King John: Arthur steals the show, but King John himself is quite the fascinating character in his own right
      23. Henry IV: Part 1: Hal, Poins, Falstaff, Hotspur, need I say more
      24. Henry VIII: very theatrical in nature, I love it
      25. Anthony & Cleopatra: interesting but ultimately tragic love story
      26. Othello: all about race relations and learning how to trust your wife, very thought-provoking
      27. The Taming of the Shrew: funny as heck, extremely clever at times
      28. The Merry Wives of Windsor: ditto as above
      29. Henry IV: Part 2: not quite as good as Part I but still has its moments
      30. The Two Gentlemen of Verona: very funny and romantic too
      31. A Midsummer Night’s Dream: magic everywhere with lots of people loving the wrong person, lol
      32. King Lear: a tad too many villains in my mind and Gloucester’s eye gouging being totally unnecessary, but still interesting take on family relations
      33. All’s Well That Ends Well: nice to read but ultimately pretty forgettable
      34. Twelfth Night, or What You Will: same as above
      35. Richard II: not bad, but not great either, has some interesting speeches throughout
      36. Richard III: too bloody and violent for my tastes, Richard III is my most hated character Shakespeare ever came up with, I literally cheered when King Henry VII vanquished him
      37. Troillus & Cressida: weird and confusing as heck, very tough to read
      38. Cymbeline: same as above
      39. Henry VI: Part 3: too much Richard, Henry VI dying made me cry
      40. The Winter’s Tale: weirdest most unrewarding play Shakespeare ever wrote, the passage of time and statue coming to life don’t help it one bit
      Poems:
      1. The Passionate Pilgrim: best poetry he ever came up with, lyrically brilliant
      2. The Rape of Lucrece: thought-provoking challenging story
      3. Venus & Adonis: sweet but very tragic love tale
      4. Sonnets to Sundry Notes of Music: lots of fun to read
      5. A Lover’s Complaint: interesting
      6. The Phoenix and the Turtle: confusing, not that great to read
      7. The regular 154 Sonnets: overrated, more confusing than anything
      Apocrypha:
      1. The Birth of Merlin: fascinating story, quite devilish at times
      2. Mucedorus: endlessly fascinating
      3. Locrine: same as above
      4. Thomas Lord Cromwell: very Henry VIII-like
      5. First Part of Sir John Oldcastle: fresh examination of a beloved character
      6. The Puritan: deeply moving
      7. The London Prodigal: same as above
      8. The Merry Devil of Edmonton: quite witty indeed
      9. Arden, of Feversham: a tad too much revenge for my taste
      10. A Yorkshire Tragedy: short, murderous, sort of interesting, but not his best either

  13. Here’s my updated ranking of his complete body of work:
    Plays:
    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. Edward III
    9. Titus Andronicus
    10. Timon of Athens
    11. Romeo & Juliet
    12. Coriolanus
    13. Sir Thomas More
    14. Julius Caesar
    15. Pericles
    16. The Tempest
    17. As You Like It
    18. The Two Noble Kinsmen
    19. Love’s Labour’s Lost
    20. Much Ado About Nothing
    21. The Comedy of Errors
    22. King John
    23. Henry IV: Part 1
    24. Henry VIII
    25. Anthony & Cleopatra
    26. Othello
    27. Henry IV: Part 2
    28. The Taming of the Shrew
    29. The Merry Wives of Windsor
    30. The Two Gentlemen of Verona
    31. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    32. King Lear
    33. Richard II
    34. All’s Well That Ends Well
    35. Twelfth Night, or What You Will
    36. Richard III
    37. Troillus & Cressida
    38. Cymbeline
    39. Henry VI: Part 3
    40. The Winter’s Tale
    Poems:
    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 Phoenix and the Turtle
    7. The regular 154 Sonnets
    Apocrypha:
    1. The Birth of Merlin
    2. Mucedorus
    3. Locrine
    4. Thomas Lord Cromwell
    5. First Part of Sir John Oldcastle
    6. The Puritan
    7. The London Prodigal
    8. The Merry Devil of Edmonton
    9. Arden, of Feversham
    10. A Yorkshire Tragedy

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