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)? 

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.

Recommended Reading: Texts from Jane Eyre, by Mallory Ortberg

Texts from Jane EyreWhen Mallory Ortberg’s Texts from Jane Eyre* arrived, I tried to put off reading it because I knew I wouldn’t want to stop.

I failed.

In text message vignettes, Mallory Ortberg skewers everything from Medea to The Hunger Games, and everyone from Thoreau to Cormac McCarthy. Imagine Hamlet as a petulant teenager, Mr. Rochester as that guy who texts in all caps, and Ashley fending off sexts from Scarlett O’Hara.  I’ve been trying to find a section to excerpt, but I just can’t because I want you to enjoy this book in its entirety. I will say that I started crying with laughter when I read the words “pocket witch.” I bet you will too.

This book is so, so very funny. It’s so funny I called my parents just to read them excerpts. It’s so funny I woke up my son because I was laughing so hard.

If you spend any of your free time reading book blogs (thank you!), I think you’re going to love it.
If you like Mallory Ortberg’s work on The Toast (which, by the way, just published an amazing essay by Katie, whom I’m proud to call a friend), you probably already know how much fun you’re in for.
If you’re an English teacher, run out and get it. I can’t stop wishing it had been published when I was teaching Shakespeare or drama or Modern lit because it would have been like dessert after every book or play we read.

Okay, to review: This book. Very funny. You should read it if you like laughing.

Recommended Reading: Fraud, by David Rakoff

Longtime readers may recall a post about this book (and Steven Seagal, and All About Eve) way back in the mists of time. I returned the book to my friend, who had left it here accidentally, and put it on my someday list. Of course, when I came around to that part of the list, our local library didn’t have a copy, so I had to wait for the book to arrive from the moneyed halls of Weston.


Happily, the other thirteen essays live up to the wry promise of “In New England Everyone Calls You Dave” and “Including One Called Hell.” The essays are from Rakoff’s point of view, but oriented outward, whereas, for example, David Sedaris’s essays (at least to me) are engaged with the world but oriented inward. I’m not knocking them; they’ve made me guffaw on the porch so hard that the neighbors probably thought my personal clock was set to five p.m. I think Rakoff’s brand of humor is quieter, his voice more melancholy, though his opinions are fierce (he truly hates Life is Beautiful, and thanks to him, I can’t imagine ever watching it.)

Whether he’s giving outdoor tracking school a try, hunting for the Loch Ness Monster, searching for elves in Iceland, or remembering  what it was like to live in Tokyo, Rakoff gives master classes in understated elegance and economy of language. He’s clear. Take, for instance, these lines, some of my favorites, from “The Best Medicine”: “Not being funny doesn’t make you a bad person. Not having a sense of humor does.”

I think my favorite essay in the collection, aside from the one about Seagal-fest and the opening salvo (climbing Mount Monadnock on Christmas Day), is “Christmas Freud,” in which Rakoff describes what it was like to play Freud in a department store Christmas window display. Now, I find the whole idea of the Christmas tableau vivant very odd indeed (I’ve never seen one in person — have you?), but Rakoff elevates it to the sublime. Read this book, and I think you, like me, will wish for Christmas Freuden too.

Recommended Reading: Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer


As I’ve mentioned before, I love a good epistolary novel, and here’s one, slender and new, that I hope you’ll love too.

It’s no secret that Carlene Bauer takes as her models for her correspondents Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell; in fact, several reviewers have complained that those (real) voices have not been satisfactorily mimicked, or that Ms. Bauer ought to have worked with material of her own devising.

I confess that I am unmoved by both these objections. It may be heretical to say it, as someone who attended BU and sat in the Lowell room from time to time, but confessional is not my favored poetic brand, and I have been derelict in my scholarly duty to thoroughly read O’Connor (though what I have read is sublime). And why shouldn’t writers dip into the past or borrow historical figures, in whole or in part, as they tell their own stories? [That said, I think the voices of the wholly imagined characters — Claire and Ted — come through very strongly.]

So. I loved this book for its earnest but unwearisome approach to matters of faith, writing, love, and family, which, as you might suppose, are all connected. But humor, so often lost in conversations about weighty subjects (an understatement, I know), is wry and sly and happening all the time in this novel. Here’s my favorite zinger: “The Beats are really nothing more than a troop of malevolent Boy Scouts trying to earn badges for cultural arson” (14).

[Sidebar: I will be stealing one of Frances’s lines for my Christmas/Hannukah cards this year: “Love and joy come to you, and to your wassail too” (9). I know it’s too early to be thinking about Christmas, and yet: look at me go!]

I loved the way Frances and Bernard proceed almost immediately into matters of import, which I’ve found can happen when one starts a correspondence with someone not well known and not likely to be seen again, even if that’s something one would like. As I read the novel, I thought about my own treasured friendships, and resolved to write more letters.

[I’m rather terrible at keeping up with correspondence, though; do you have any tips for becoming a reliable letter-writer?]