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)? 

“Come, then, domestic Muse”: Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s “Washing Day”

Image courtesy of winnond at

Image courtesy of winnond at

Recently, a certain small acquaintance of mine left a tissue in a pair of pants that went into the wash, with predictable results. As I was grumpily separating flecks of tissue from every other item of clothing, it occurred to me that I should really be feeling gratitude for doing this in the comfort of our apartment kitchen, rather than in a laundromat I walked to, child in tow, and then sent a mental thank-you note to the parents and grandparents who have done and still do laundry in much less convenient situations.

I imagine that a laundromat would have looked pretty great to Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825). I just came across her often-hilarious poem “Washing Day,” about the household disruption occasioned by the day when all the washing was done (and heavens forbid that it rained). For this domestic subject Barbauld uses the blank verse of Milton’s Paradise Lost (no, I’m never going to stop talking about Paradise Lost), and even gives readers a parodic invocation of the Muse.

Washing Day

Anna Laetitia Barbauld

The Muses are turned gossips; they have lost
The buskined step, and clear high-sounding phrase,
Language of gods. Come, then, domestic Muse,
In slip-shod measure loosely prattling on,
Of farm or orchard, pleasant curds and cream,
Or droning flies, or shoes lost in the mire
By little whimpering boy, with rueful face —
Come, Muse, and sing the dreaded washing day.
Ye who beneath the yoke of wedlock bend,
With bowed soul, full well ye ken the day
Which week, smooth sliding after week, brings on
Too soon; for to that day nor peace belongs,
Nor comfort; ere the first grey streak of dawn,
The red-armed washers come and chase repose.
Nor pleasant smile, nor quaint device of mirth,
Ere visited that day; the very cat,
From the wet kitchen scared, and reeking hearth,
Visits the parlour, an unwonted guest.
The silent breakfast meal is soon despatched,
Uninterrupted, save by anxious looks
Cast at the louring, if sky should lour.
From that last evil, oh preserve us, heavens!
For should the skies pour down, adieu to all
Remains of quiet; then expect to hear
Of sad disasters — dirt and gravel stains
Hard to efface, and loaded lines at once
Snapped short, and linen-horse by dog thrown down,
And all the petty miseries of life.
Saints have been calm while stretched upon the rack,
And Montezuma smiled on burning coals;
But never yet did housewife notable
Greet with a smile a rainy washing day.
But grant the welkin fair, require not thou
Who callest thyself, perchance, the master there,
Or study swept, or nicely dusted coat,
Or usual ’tendence; ask not, indiscreet,
Thy stockings mended, though the yawning rents
Gape wide as Erebus; nor hope to find
Some snug recess impervious. Shouldst thou try
The ’customed garden walks, thine eye shall rue
The budding fragrance of thy tender shrubs,
Myrtle or rose, all crushed beneath the weight
Of coarse-checked apron, with impatient hand
Twitched off when showers impend; or crossing lines
Shall mar thy musings, as the wet cold sheet
Flaps in thy face abrupt. Woe to the friend
Whose evil stars have urged him forth to claim
On such a dav the hospitable rites;
Looks blank at best, and stinted courtesy
Shall he receive; vainly he feeds his hopes
With dinner of roast chicken, savoury pie,
Or tart or pudding; pudding he nor tart
That day shall eat; nor, though the husband try —
Mending what can’t be helped — to kindle mirth
From cheer deficient, shall his consort’s brow
Clear up propitious; the unlucky guest
In silence dines, and early slinks away.
I well remember, when a child, the awe
This day struck into me; for then the maids,
I scarce knew why, looked cross, and drove me from them;
Nor soft caress could I obtain, nor hope
Usual indulgencies; jelly or creams,
Relic of costly suppers, and set by
For me their petted one; or buttered toast,
When butter was forbid; or thrilling tale
Of ghost, or witch, or murder. So I went
And sheltered me beside the parlour fire;
There my dear grandmother, eldest of forms,
Tended the little ones, and watched from harm;
Anxiously fond, though oft her spectacles
With elfin cunning hid, and oft the pins
Drawn from her ravelled stocking, might have soured
One less indulgent.
At intervals my mother’s voice was heard,
Urging dispatch; briskly the work went on,
All hands employed to wash, to rinse, to wring,
Or fold, and starch, and clap, and iron, and plait.
Then would I sit me down, and ponder much
Why washings were; sometimes through hollow hole
Of pipe amused we blew, and sent aloft
The floating bubbles; little dreaming then
To see, Montgolfier, thy silken ball
Ride buoyant through the clouds, so near approach
The sports of children and the toils of men.
Earth, air, and sky, and ocean hath its bubbles,
And verse is one of them — this most of all.

As you can see, there’s a very clever mind at work in these lines, and it turns out that Anna Barbauld was extremely influential in her day, as a poet, abolitionist,  editor, essayist, and children’s book writer, but like too many women has been rather under-appreciated. I’m glad I’ve heard of her now, and will keep an eye out for more of her writing in the future.

Which domestic task would you like to read a poem about?

Summer Reading: Pairs Event

In which I pair three books read this summer with three books read before this summer that have similar themes but are in some way opposite. It’s a scientific process, people.

IMG_4256Summer Reading: The Gracekeepers,* by Kirsty Logan, takes place in a watery future world (I haven’t seen Waterworld, so I can’t tell you how it compares. Sorry about that). All land is inhabited by landlockers, who jealously guard their island holdings; some of them have returned to earth worship. Everyone else lives at sea. These damplings include scavengers, revivalists who live on converted cruise ships (no pun intended there), messengers, and the crew of the Excalibur, a tiny floating circus. North is the circus’s bear girl, who, like her parents before her, dances with a bear to entertain landlockers in the hope of earning dinner. One night a storm sends the circus crew into the path of Callanish, a gracekeeper—a person in charge of arranging damplings’ burials at sea. North and Callanish exchange secrets and part ways, but they can’t stop wondering about each other, and about the possibility that there’s a way to be of both the land and the sea.

The main characters aren’t as fleshed out as I would have liked, but The Gracekeepers is worth picking up for the atmosphere, the world-building, and the supporting characters.

photo (107)

Pair it with: Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water,* another novel set in the future after some kind of environmental disaster—though this time, one that causes a scarcity of water. Memory of Water also features a pair of young women trying to make the best of a dangerous existence while hiding secrets.

IMG_3428Summer Reading: Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country is a hilarious tour through Australia. He talks to almost invariably friendly Australians, gets quite drunk and draws naughty cartoons on a napkin, lists the continent’s unrelentingly deadly wildlife, and doesn’t see too many kangaroos, among other exploits. I can’t say the book makes me want to visit Australia—though Mr. Bryson enthusiastically hopes that you will—but it definitely made me want to visit with Bill Bryson. The book’s one drawback: Mr. Bryson’s failure to write significantly or at any length about Australia’s Aboriginal population; as far as I could tell, he did not speak with a single Aboriginal person.

Still, if you’re one of the people who’s just discovering Mr. Bryson thanks to the press surrounding the upcoming movie version of A Walk in the Woods (which I highly recommend), I recommend reading this one.

photo 3Pair it with: A very different take on Australia, by an Australian. Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda* is a book with teeth, and a lot more anger than laughs. As I wrote in my review, “Danny is an teenage Australian swimmer who dreams of making it to the Olympics; thankfully, there’s no swelling inspirational music in this tightly-plotted, intricately structured novel.”

FullSizeRenderSummer Reading: Mark Forsyth’s The Etymologicon is a circular perambulation through the odd origins of English words. You could pick up the book, flip to any page, and have yourself a laugh reading any entry, but each entry connects in some way to its predecessor and successor, so I think it’d be more entertaining to read it start to (sort of) finish. Mr. Forsyth is the man behind the popular blog The Inky Fool, and The Etymologicon draws heavily from the blog’s content. Though it’s erudite and full of arcane trivia (Starbucks gets its name from the Pequod‘s first mate, whose name was drawn from a prominent whaling family, but the name itself came from a Viking word for an English stream. Really.), but also surprisingly snarky and scatological. Highly entertaining. But what else would you expect from an author whose biography begins, “Mark Forysth is a writer, journalist, proofreader, ghostwriter, and pedant”?

photo (34)Pair it with:  Erin Moore’s That’s Not English,* which I called “a beach read for nerds” in my review. Like The Etymologicon, it’s a funny read about words, but it’s less about etymology than it is about culture.

What bookish pairings have you found this summer, Dear Readers?

*I received a copy of these books from the publishers for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my reviews.

How to Tell If You’re In a Renaissance Revenge Tragedy

In the spirit of The Toast’s “How to Tell If You’re in a _____________ Novel” series, I present:

How to Tell If You’re in a Renaissance Revenge Tragedy

Your name, when translated, actually means “revenge.”

A ghost wants you to do him a favor.

You have had sex with someone totally wrong for you—like your husband or your stepmother.

You have a personal relationship with a skull.

No one around you has decent night vision or the ability to see through disguises.

You have caused a string of accidental casualties this week.

You haven’t realized that there is always someone behind the tapestry.

You are a woman who is either a mother, or old enough to be somebody’s mother. Therefore you are an unprincipled wanton.

You are in an Italian city-state. Or Denmark. Or Spain. But definitely not England. Nope. Nothing English about this place.

You are eating or drinking something. It is poisoned.

You find yourself at a court where incest is pretty much de rigueur.

Your wildest fantasies involve an orgy of violence. And possibly cannibalism.

Your brother believes he is a wolf.

You are busy setting up a play or masque that will prove your nemesis is evil. You already know he is evil, and no one will understand the implications of your play, except your stoic best friend and/or brother.

Your hobbies include reading and feigning madness.

You are a woman. One of your male relatives is spying on you, obsessed with the condition of your hymen and/or womb. You will end up mad or dead or both.

Whenever someone writes a letter, someone else dies.

You are a woman. You marry the man you love. You find that this is a mistake.

If you are likeable, you prefer to kill people by stabbing them or poisoning them, in that order. If you are unlikeable, reverse the order.

You are in a room with everyone you hate (who isn’t already dead) and everyone you love (who isn’t already dead). You are all going to die, with one exception.

You are not the exception.