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A few years ago I set out on a personal journey to study and watch a
performance of each of Shakespeare’s 37 plays. I’ve reached my goal and,
though it’s not a usual topic around here, I wanted to get my thoughts
down while fresh. I absolutely loved some of these plays and performances,
and so I’d like to highlight them, especially because my favorites are,
with one exception, not “popular” plays. Per tradition, I begin with my
least enjoyed plays and work my way up. All performances were either a
recording of a live stage or an adaptation, so they’re also available to
you if you’re interested, though in most cases not for free. I’ll mention
notable performances when applicable. The availability of a great
performance certainly influenced my play rankings.
Like many of you, I had assigned reading for several Shakespeare plays in
high school. I loathed these assignments. I wasn’t interested at the time,
nor was I mature enough to appreciate the writing. Even revisiting as an
adult, the conventional selection — Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar,
etc. — are not highly ranked on my list. For the next couple of decades I
thought that Shakespeare just wasn’t for me.
Then I watched the 1993 adaption of Much Ado About Nothing and it
instantly became one of my favorite films. Why didn’t we read this in
high school?! Reading the play with footnotes helped to follow the
humor and allusions. Even with the film’s abridging, some of it still went
over my head. I soon discovered Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare — yes,
that Asimov — which was exactly what I needed, and a perfect companion
while reading and watching the plays. If stumbling upon this turned out so
well, then I’d better keep going.
Wanting a solid set of the plays with good footnotes and editing — there
is no canonical version of the plays — I picked up a copy of The Norton
Shakespeare. Unfortunately it’s part of the college textbook racket, and
it shows. The collection is designed to be sold to students who will lug
them in bookbags, will typically open them face-up on a desk, and are
uninterested in their contents beyond class. It includes a short-term,
digital-only, DRMed component to prevent resale. After all, their target
audience will not read it again anyway. Though at least it’s complete and
compact, better for reference than reading.
In contrast, the Folger Shakespeare Library mass market paperbacks are
better for enthusiasts, both in form and format. They’re clearly built for
casual, comfortable reading. However, they’re not sold as a complete set,
and gathering used copies takes some work.
Also essential was BBC Television Shakespeare, produced between
1978 and 1985. Finding productions of the more obscure plays is tricky,
but it always provided a fallback. In some cases these were the best
performances anyway! When I mention “the BBC production” I mean this
series. Like many collections, they omit The Two Noble Kinsmen due to
unclear authorship, and for this reason I’m omitting it from my list as
well. As with any faithful production, I suggest subtitles on the first
viewing, as it aids with understanding. Shakespeare’s sentence structure
is sometimes difficult to parse by moderns, and on-screen text helps. (By
the way, a couple of handy SHA-1 sums for those who know how to use them:)
As my list will show, my favorites are comedic comedies and histories,
particularly the two Henriads, each a group of four plays. The first —
Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V — concerns events
around Henry V, in the late 14th and early 15th century. Those number
prefixes are parts, as in Henry IV has two parts. In my list I combine
parts as though a single play. The second — 1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, 3
Henry VI, Richard III — is about the Wars of the Roses, spanning the
15th century. Asimov’s book was essential for filling in the substantial
historical background for these plays, and my journey was also in part a
I especially enjoy villain monologues, and plays with them rank higher as
a result. It’s said that everyone is the hero of their own story, but
Shakespeare’s villains may know that they’re villains and revel it in it,
bragging directly to the audience about all the trouble they’re going to
cause. In some cases they mock the audience’s sacred values, which in a
way, is like the stand up comedy of Shakespeare’s time. Notable examples
are Edmund (King Lear), Aaron (Titus Andronicus), Richard III, Iago
(Othello), and Shylock (The Merchant of Venice).
As with literature even today, authors are not experts in moral reasoning
and protagonists are often, on reflection, incredibly evil. Shakespeare is
no different, especially for historical events and people, praising those
who create mass misery (e.g. tyrants waging wars) and vilifying those who
improve everyone’s lives (e.g. anyone who deals with money). Up to and
including Shakespeare’s time, a pre-industrial army on the march was a
rolling humanitarian crisis, even in “friendly” territory,
slaughtering and stealing its way through the country in order to keep
going. So, much like suspension of belief, there’s a suspension of
morality where I engage with the material on its own moral terms, however
illogical it may be.
Now finally my list. The beginning will be short and negative because, to
be frank, I disliked some of the plays. Even Shakespeare had to work under
constraints. In his time none were regarded as great works. They weren’t
even viewed as literature, but similarly to how we consider television
scripts today. Also, around 20% of plays credited to Shakespeare were
collaborations of some degree, though the collaboration details have been
long lost. For simplicity, I will just refer to the author as Shakespeare.
(37) Timon of Athens
I have nothing positive to say about this play. It’s about a man who
borrows and spends recklessly, then learns all the wrong lessons from the
(36) The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Involves a couple of love triangles, a woman disguised as a man — a common
Shakespeare trope — and perhaps the worst ending to a play ever written.
The two “gentlemen” are terrible people and undeserving of their happy
ending. Though I enjoyed the scenes with Proteus and Crab, the play’s fool
and his dog.
(35) Troilus and Cressida
Interesting that it’s set during the Iliad and features legendary
characters such as Achilles, Ajax, and Hector. I have no other positives
to note. Cressida’s abrupt change of character in the Greek camp later in
the play is baffling, as though part of the play has been lost, and ruins
an already dull play for me.
(34) The Winter’s Tale
A baby princess is lost, presumed dead, and raised by shepherds. She is
later rediscovered by her father as a young adult. It has a promising
start, but in the final act the main plot is hastily resolved off-stage
and seemingly replaced with a hastily rewritten ending that nonsensically
resolves a secondary story line.
The title refers to a legendary early King of Britain and is set in the
first century, but it is primarily about his daughter. The plot is
complicated so I won’t summarize it here. It’s long and I just didn’t
enjoy it. This is the second play in the list to feature a woman disguised
as a man.
(32) The Tempest
A political exile stranded on an island in the Mediterranean gains magical
powers through study, with the help of a spirit creates a tempest that
strands his enemies on his island, then gently torments them until he’s
satisfied that he’s had his revenge. It’s an okay play.
More interesting is the historical context behind the play. It’s based
loosely on events around the founding of Jamestown, Virginia. Until this
play, Shakespeare and Jamestown were, in my mind, unrelated historical
events. In fact, Pocahontas very nearly met Shakespeare, missing him by
just a couple of years, but she did meet his rival, Ben Jonson. I spent
far more time catching up on real history, including reading the
fascinating True Reportory, than I did on the play.
(31) The Taming of the Shrew
About a man courting and “taming” an ill-tempered woman, the shrew. The
seeming moral of the play was outdated even in Shakespeare’s time, and
it’s unclear what was intended. Technically it’s a play within a play, and
an outer frame presents the play as part of an elaborate prank. However,
the outer frame is dropped and never revisited, indicating that perhaps
this part of the play was lost. The BBC production skips this framing
entirely and plays it straight.
(30) All’s Well That Ends Well
Helena, a low-born enterprising young woman, saves a king’s life. She’s in
love with a nobleman, Bertram, and the king orders him to marry her as
repayment. He spurns her solely due to her low upbringing and flees the
country. She gives chase, and eventually wins him over. Helena is a great
character, and Bertram is utterly undeserving of her, which ruins the play
for me in an unearned ending.
(29) Antony and Cleopatra
A tragedy about people who we know for sure existed, the first such on the
list so far. The sequel to Julius Caesar, completing the story of the
Second Triumvirate. Historically interesting, but the title characters
were terrible, selfish people, including in the play, and they aren’t
interesting enough to make up for it.
I enjoyed the portrayal of Octavian as a shrewd politician.
(28) Julius Caesar
A classic school reading assignment. Caesar’s death in front of the Statue
of Pompey is obviously poetic, and so every performance loves playing it
up. Antony’s speech is my favorite part of the play. I didn’t dislike this
play, but nor did I find it interesting revisiting it as an adult.
About the career of a legendary Roman general and war hero who attempts to
enter politics. He despises the plebeians, which gets him into trouble,
but all he really wants is to please is mother. Stratford Festival has a
worthy adaption in a contemporary setting.
(26) Henry VIII
He reigned from 1509 to 1547, but the play only covers Henry VIII’s first
divorce. It paved the way for the English Reformation, though the play has
surprisingly little to say it, or his murder spree. It’s set a few decades
after the events of Richard III — too distant to truly connect with the
While I appreciate its historical context — with liberal dramatic license
— it’s my least favorite of the English histories. It’s not part of an
epic tetralogy, and the subject matter is mundane. My favorite scene is
Katherine (Catherine in the history books) firmly rejecting the court’s
jurisdiction and walking out. My favorite line: “No man’s pie is freed
from his ambitious finger.”
(25) Romeo and Juliet
Another classic reading assignment that requires no description. A
beautiful play, but I just don’t connect with its romantic core.
(24) The Merchant of Venice
An infamously antisemitic play where a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, loans
to the titular merchant of Venice where the collateral is the original
“pound of flesh,” providing the source for that cliche. Though even in his
prejudice, Shakespeare can’t help but write multifaceted characters,
particularly with Shylock’s famous “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
(23) Twelfth Night
Twins, a young man and a woman, are separated by a shipwreck. The woman
disguises herself as a man and takes employment with a local duke and
falls in love with him, but her employment requires her to carry love
letters to the duke’s love interest. In the meantime the brother arrives,
unaware his sister is in town in disguise, and everyone gets the twins
mixed up leading to comedy. It’s a fun play. The title has nothing to do
with the play, but refers to the holiday when the play was first
The play is the source of the famous quote, “Some are born great, some
achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” It’s used as
part of a joke, and when I heard it, I had thought the play was mocking
some original source.
A Greek play about a royal family — father, mother, daughter — separated
by unfortunate — if contrived — circumstances, each thinking the others
dead, but all tearfully reunited in a happy ending. My favorite part is
the daughter, Marina, talking her way out of trouble: “She’s able to
freeze the god Priapus and undo a whole generation.”
The BBC production stirred me, particularly the scene where Pericles and
Marina are reunited.
(21) Richard II
Richard II, grandson of the famed Edward III, was a young King of England
from 1367 to 1400. At least in the play, he carelessly makes dangerous
enemies of his friends, and so is deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, who goes
on to become Henry IV. The play is primarily about this abrupt transition
of power, and it is the first play of the first Henriad. The conflict in
this play creates tensions that will not be resolved until 1485, the end
of the Wars of the Roses. Shakespeare spends seven additional plays on
this a huge, interesting subject.
For me, Richard II is the most dull of the Henriad plays. It’s a slow
start, but establishes the groundwork for the greater plays that follow.
The BBC production of the first Henriad has “linked” casting where the
same actors play the same roles through the four plays, which makes this
an even more important watch.
Another of the famous tragedy. Othello, an important Venetian general, and
“the Moore of Venice” is dispatched to Venice-controlled Cyprus to defend
against an attack by the Ottoman Turks. Iago, who has been overlooked for
promotion by Othello, treacherously seeks revenge, secretly sabotaging all
involved while they call him “honest Iago.” Though his schemes quickly go
well beyond revenge, and continues sowing chaos just for his own fun.
I watched a few adaptions, and I most enjoyed the 2015 Royal Shakespeare
Company Othello, which
places it in a modern setting and requires few changes to do so.
(19) The Comedy of Errors
A fun, short play about a highly contrived situation: Two pairs of twins,
where each pair of brothers has been given the same name, is separated at
birth. As adults they all end up in the same town, and everyone mixes them
up leading to comedy. It’s the lightest of Shakespeare’s plays, but also
Another common, more senior, high school reading assignment. Shakespeare’s
longest play, and probably the most subtle. In everything spoken between
Hamlet and his murderous uncle, Claudius, one must read between the lines.
Their real meanings are obscured by courtly language — familiar to
Shakespeare’s audience, but not moderns. Asimov is great for understanding
the political maneuvering, which is a lot like a game of chess. It made me
appreciate the play more than I would have otherwise.
You’d be hard-pressed to find something that beats the faithful,
star-studded 1996 major film adaption.
(17) Richard III
The final play of the second Henriad. Much of the play is Richard III
winking at the audience, monologuing about his villainous plans, then
executing those plans without remorse. Makes cheering for the bad guy fun.
If you want to see an evil schemer get away with it, at least right up
until the end when he gets his comeuppance, this is the play for you. This
play is the source of the famous “My kingdom for a horse.”
I liked two different performances for different reasons. The 1995 major
film puts the play in the World Word II era. It’s solid and does
well standing alone. The BBC production has linked casting with the three
parts of Henry VI, which allows one to enjoy it in full in its broader
context. It’s also well-performed, but obviously has less spectacle and a
(16) The Merry Wives of Windsor
The comedy spin-off of Henry IV. Allegedly, Elizabeth I liked the
character of John Falstaff from Henry IV so much — I can’t blame her! —
that she demanded another play with the character, and so Shakespeare
wrote this play. The play brings over several characters from Henry IV.
Unfortunately it’s in name only and they hardly behave like the same
characters. Despite this, it’s still fun and does not require knowledge of
Falstaff ineptly attempts to seduce two married women, the titular wives,
who play along in order to get revenge on him. However, their husbands are
not in on the prank. One suspects infidelity and hatches his own plans.
The confusion leads to the comedy.
The 2018 Royal Shakespeare Company production aptly puts it in
a modern suburban setting.
(15) Titus Andronicus
A play about a legendary Roman general committed to duty above all else,
even the lives of his own sons. He and his family become brutal victims of
political rivals, and in return gets his own brutal revenge. It’s by far
Shakespeare’s most violent and disturbing play. It’s a bit too violent
even for me, but it ranks this highly because Aaron the Moore is such a
fantastic character, another villain that loves winking at the audience.
His lines throughout the play make me smile: “If one good deed in all my
life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.”
I enjoyed the 1999 major film, which puts it in a contemporary
(14) King Lear
The titular, mythological king of pre-Roman Britain wants to retire, and
so he divides his kingdom between his three daughters. However, after
petty selfishness on Lear’s part, he disowns the most deserving daughter,
while the other two scheme against one another.
Some of the scenes in this play are my favorite among Shakespeare, such as
Edmund’s monologue on bastards where he criticizes the status quo and
mocks the audience’s beliefs. It also has one of the best fools, who while
playing dumb, is both observant and wise. That’s most of Shakespeare’s
fools, but it’s especially true in King Lear (“This is not altogether
fool, my lord.”). This fool uses this “tenure” to openly mock the king to
his face, the only character that can do so without repercussions.
My favorite performance was the 2015 Stratford Festival stage
production, especially for its Edmund, Lear, and Fool.
The shortest tragedy, a common reading assignment, and a perfect example
of literature I could not appreciate without more maturity. Even the plays
I dislike have beautiful poetry, but I especially love it in Macbeth.
The history behind Macbeth is itself fascinating. The play was written
custom for the newly-crowned King James I — of King James Version fame —
and even calls him out in the audience. James I was obsessed with witch
hunts, so the play includes witchcraft. The character Banquo was by
tradition considered to be his ancestor.
My favorite production by far — I watched a number of them! — was the
2021 film. It should be an approachable introduction for Shakespeare
newcomers more interested in drama than comedy. Notably for me, it departs
from typical productions in that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do not scream at
each other — perhaps normally a side effect of speaking loudly for stage
performance. Particularly in Act 1, Scene 7 (“screw your courage to the
sticking place”). In the film they argue calmly, like a couple in a
genuine, healthy relationship, making the tragedy that much more tragic.
That being said, it drops the ball with the porter scene — a bit of comic
relief just after Macbeth murders Duncan. There’s knocking at the gate,
and the porter, charged with attending it, is hungover and takes his time.
In a monologue he imagines himself porter to Hell, and on each impatient
knock considers the different souls he would be greeting. Of all the
porter scenes I watched, the best porter as the 2017 Stratford Festival
production, where he is both charismatic and hilarious. I wish I
could share a clip.
(12) King John
King John, brother of “Coeur de Lion” Richard I, ruled in early 13th
century. His reign led to the Magna Carta, and he’s also the Prince John
of the Robin Hood legend, though because it’s a history, and paints John
in a positive light, that legend isn’t included. It depicts fascinating,
real historical events and people, including Eleanor of Aquitaine.
It also has one of my favorite Shakespeare characters, Phillip the
Bastard, who gets all the coolest lines. I especially love his
introductory scene where his lineage is disputed by his half-bother and
Eleanor, impressed, essentially adopts him on the spot.
The 2015 Stratford Festival stage performance is wonderful, and
I’ve re-watched it a few times. The performances are all great.
(11–9) Henry VI
As previously noted, this is actually three plays. At 3–4 hours apiece,
it’s about the length of a modern television season. I thought it might
take awhile to consume, but I was completely sucked in, watching and
studying the whole trilogy in a single weekend.
Henry V died young in 1422, and his infant son became Henry VI, leaving
England ruled by his uncles. As an adult he was a weak king, which allowed
the conflicts of the previously-mentioned Richard II to bubble up into
the Wars of the Roses, a bloody power conflict between the Lancasters and
Yorks. The play features historical people including Joan la Pucelle
(“Joan of Arc”), English war hero John Talbot, and Jack Cade.
Richard III wraps up the conflicts of Henry VI, forming the second
Henriad. When watching/reading the play, keep in mind that the play is
anti-French, anti-York, and (implicitly) pro-Tudor.
Most of the first part was probably not written by Shakespeare, but rather
adapted from an existing play to fill out the backstory. I think I can see
the “seams” between the original and the edits that introduce the roses.
I loved the BBC production of the second Henriad. Producing such an epic
story must be daunting, and it’s amazing what they could convey with such
limited budget and means. It has hilarious and clever cinematography for
the scene where the Countess of Auvergne attempts to trap Talbot (Part 1,
Act 2, Scene 3). Again, I wish I could share a clip!
(8) Henry V
Due to his amazing victories, most notably at Agincourt where, for
once, Shakespeare isn’t exaggerating the odds, Henry V is one of the great
kings of English history. This play is a followup to Richard II and
Henry IV, completing the first Henriad, and depicts Henry V’s war with
France. Outside of the classroom, this is one of Shakespeare’s most
The obvious choice for viewing is the 1989 major film, which, by
borrowing a few scenes from Henry IV, attempts a standalone experience,
though with limited success. I watched it before Henry IV, and I could
not understand why the film was so sentimental about a character that
hadn’t even appeared yet. It probably has the best Saint Crispin’s Day
Speech ever performed, in part because it’s placed in a broader
context than originally intended. The introduction is bold as is
Exeter’s ultimatum delivery. It cleverly, and without changing his
lines, also depicts Montjoy, the French messenger, as sympathetic to the
English, also not originally intended. I didn’t realize this until I
watched other productions.
The BBC production is also worthy, in large part because of its linked
casting with Richard II and Henry IV. It’s also unabridged, including
the whole glove thing, for better or worse.
(7–6) Henry IV
People will think I’m crazy, but yes, I’m placing Henry IV above Henry
V. My reason is just two words: John Falstaff. This character is one of
Shakespeare’s greatest creations, and really makes these plays for me. As
previously noted, this is two plays mainly because John Falstaff was such
a huge hit. The sequel mostly retreads the same ground, but that’s fine!
I’ve read and re-read all the Falstaff scenes because they’re so fun. I
now have a habit of quoting Falstaff, and it drives my wife nuts.
The Falstaff role makes or breaks a Henry IV production, and my love for
this play is in large part thanks to the phenomenal BBC production. It has
a warm, charismatic Falstaff that perfectly nails the role. It’s
great even beyond Falstaff, of course. At the end of part 2, I tear up
seeing Henry V test the chief justice. I adore this production. What a
(5) A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A popular, fun, frivolous play that I enjoyed even more than I expected,
where faeries interfere with Athenians who wander into their forest. The
“rude mechanicals” are charming, especially the naive earnestness of Nick
Bottom, making them my favorite part of the play.
My enjoyment is largely thanks to a 2014 stage production with
great performances all around, great cinematography, and incredible
effects. Highly recommended. Honorable mention goes to the great Nick
Bottom performances of the BBC production and the 1999 major film.
(4) As You Like It
A pastoral comedy about idyllic rural life, and the source of the famous
quote “All the world’s a stage.” A duke has deposed his duke brother,
exiling him and his followers to the forest where the rest of the play
takes place. The main character, Rosalind, is one of the exiles, and,
disguised as a man named Ganymede, flees into the forest with her cousin.
There she runs into her also-exiled love interest, Orlando. While still
disguised as Ganymede, she roleplays as Rosalind — that is, herself — to
help him practice wooing herself. Crazy and fun.
A couple of my favorite lines are “There’s no clock in the forest” and
“falser than vows made in wine.” It’s an unusually musical play, and has a
big, happy ending. The fool, Touchstone, is one of my favorite fools,
named such because he tests the character of everyone with whom he comes
It ranks so highly because of an endearing 2019 production by Kentucky
Shakespeare, which sets the story in a 19th century Kentucky. This is
the most amateur production I’ve shared so far — literally Shakespeare in
the park — but it’s just so enjoyable. Their Rosalind is fantastic and
really makes the play work. I’ve listened to just the audio of the play,
like a podcast, many times now.
(3) Measure for Measure
A comedy about justice and mercy. The duke of Vienna announces he will be
away on a trip to Poland, but secretly poses as a monk in order to get his
thumb on the pulse of his city. Unfortunately the man running the city in
his stead is corrupt, and the softhearted duke can’t help but pull strings
behind the scenes to undo the damage, and more. He sets up a scheme such
that, after his dramatic return as duke, the plot is unraveled while
simultaneously testing the character of all involved.
I love so many of the characters and elements of this play. I smile when
the duke jumps into action, my heart wrenches at Isabella’s impassioned
speech for mercy (“it is excellent to have a giant’s strength,
but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant”), I admire the provost’s
selfless loyalty to the duke, I laugh when Lucio the “fantastic” keeps
putting his foot in his mouth, and I cry when Mariana begs Isabella to
forgive. All around a wonderful play.
Like so many already, a big part of my love for the play is the BBC
production, which is full of great performances, particularly
the duke, Isabella, and Lucio.
(2) Much Ado About Nothing
As the play that finally got me interested in Shakespeare, of course it’s
near the top of the list. Forget Romeo and Juliet: Benedick and Beatrice
are Shakespeare’s greatest romantic pairing!
Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, stops in Messina with his soldiers while
returning from a military action. While in town there’s a matchmaking plot
and lots of eavesdropping, and then chaos created by the wicked Don John,
brother to Don Pedro. It’s a fun, light, hilarious play. It also features
another of Shakespeare’s great comic characters, Dogberry, famous for his
This is a very popular play with tons of productions, though I only
watched a few of them. The previously-mentioned 1993 adaption remains my
favorite. It does some abridging, but honestly, it makes the play better
and improves the comedic beats.
(1) Love’s Labour’s Lost
Finally, my favorite play of all, and an unusual one to be at the top of
the list. Much of the play is subtle parody and so makes for a poor first
play for newcomers, who would not be familiar enough with Shakespeare’s
language to distinguish parody from genuine.
The King of Navarre and three lords swear an oath to seclude themselves
in study, swearing off the company of women. Then the French princess and
her court arrives, the four men secretly write love letters in violation
of their oaths, and comedy ensues. There are also various eccentric side
characters mixed into the plot to spice it up. It’s all a ton of fun and
ends with an inept play within a play about the “nine worthies.”
The major reason I love this play so much is a literally perfect 2017
production by Stratford Festival. I love every aspect of this
production such that I can’t even pick a favorite element. I was hooked
within the first minute.