I have officially read the ENTIRE WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. Is there an award for that? I feel like that should exist.
Since I thought it would be interesting – at least to me – and a few of you requested something like this, I decided I would write a post raking the plays from my least to most favorite. Which is the perfect way to celebrate the Bard’s 455th birthday tomorrow, right?
This list revealed some trends I thought were surprising. Like the fact that I generally enjoyed the tragedies most- I thought the comedies would come out on top – and my beloved Taming of the Shrew didn’t even make the top five.
Keep in mind, it’s been a while since I’ve read a few of these, and there were quite a few I still quite don’t know how to compare (King Lear and Macbeth are basically tied), so this is more a general list than a definitive ranking. And, because I am a total nerd (and felt the need to make this post even longer0, I included some of my favorite quotes – or the most classic ones – from each play below its listing.
Pericles. Honestly, this wasn’t bad. I actually did enjoy the story overall, but man, this dragged. It’s not the best example of Shakespeare’s writing, and it is overly long. I kept checking to see how many pages I had left. Not worth reading if you want to read some Shakespeare for fun, but I’m still glad I did.
Who makes the fairest show means the most deceit.
The Merry Wives of Windsor. This was written on short notice for a court occasion in 1597. So it’s no surprise it’s not one of Shakespeare’s best plays. It’s funny, but not all that engaging. I think this is one of those that needs to be seen live, and was probably more effective in the 16th century.
Here will be an old abusing of God’s patience and the king’s English.
A Winter’s Tale. Basically, the thing I remember most about this is that there is a character named Hermione who miraculously comes back to life in time for a happy ending. This reads like a tragedy until you get to the end, and surprise! It’s a comedy.
Exit, pursued by a bear.
Cymbeline. This is a tragedy about a king of Britain who I had never heard of. It’s angsty and sort of interesting, but it didn’t capture my attention as much as most of the other plays. It was just okay. If the story kind of interests you, I’d recommend reading Othello instead.
Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.
Love’s Labour’s Lost. This is a comedy about four young bachelors who pledge themselves to chastity. And if you’ve ever met a teenage boy, you know how well that goes. It was fun, but it gets a little convoluted since there’s so much going on.
Love is familiar. Love is a devil. There is no evil angel but Love.
Measure for Measure. This one wasn’t terrible, but definitely not a favorite. It reminded me a lot of All’s Well That Ends Well, but not quite as good. Maybe I would have liked this one more if I’d read it first.
Our doubts are traitors,
And make us lose the good we oft might win,
By fearing to attempt.
King John. It does not bode well that I’ve already forgotten why I initially gave this four stars. Standard history, power struggles, family drama.
Be great in act, as you have been in thought.
Romeo & Juliet. This is one of the best examples of Shakespeare’s writing, but the story annoys me to to end. This is insta-love at it’s finest (worst?), and the older I get, the more it annoys me that two young teenagers “fell in love” in a day and caused so much death and destruction. The only reason it’s not at the very bottom of the list is that the writing is just so good. (And maybe because I can kind of stand the Baz Luhrmann version…)
These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triump die, like fire and powder
Which, as they kiss, consume
The Comedy of Errors. To be fair, I think I had pretty high expectations for this one (not sure why). And it was one of the last comedies I read, and they were all starting to blend together at that point. But this one is memorable only in that it’s essentially a play about Elizabethan frat bros (if that was a thing).
Why should their liberty than ours be more?
Henry VI Part III. Before we get into this, I will say that most of the Henrys kind of blend together. I read them all, but couldn’t tell you which is which.
uspicion always haunts the guilty mind.
Henry VI Part I. This was a good start to this trilogy. But, again, I probably couldn’t pick it out of a Henry lineup.
Fight till the last gasp.
Henry VI Part II. This series is kind of structured, as a whole, like a traditional story arc. So it’s no surprise I liked the climax best (the trilogy basically follows the traditional story arc, just drawn out). It was slightly more entertaining, but not enough that it stands out.
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
Henry IV Part I. Again, more Henrys! I did enjoy Henry IV better than Henry VI, possibly because it was written later and the writing is a bit more developed. The Bard definitely took some liberties with history here, but that’s fine with me because he also has some amazing, classic insults. A perfect example:
[Thou] mad mustachio purple-hued maltworms!
Henry IV Part II. I’d say this is basically tied with part I. This is such an interesting combination of history, comedy, and tragedy – which is pretty much how life works. (Again, Shakespeare didn’t exactly write a faithful history, but this was meant as entertainment, not education.) It’s also the source of this infamous quote:
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
Richard II. Not my favorite of the Richards, but still really great. It’s also such an interesting play, historically. It’s about a beloved ruler, and the jealous politicians threatening them. Which is history (there is a lot of that in royal history), but more interesting is the fact that Elizabeth I saw the play and complained, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” DRAMA.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.
Henry V. Sure, Shakespeare features a lot of wars in his plays. But this is his most famous “war play”. There’s a lot of fighting and rousing speeches, and also quite a bit of drama between the church and the king (in case you didn’t know, the church was really involved in politics back then and basically hoarded money). While I don’t know how accurate this is to the life of Henry V, it is a pretty great example of what politics were like back then. In the Wars of the Roses series (comprised of all the Henrys – except VIII – and Richards), this is top two.
Men of few words are the best men.
Coriolanus. The story itself was good. It’s basically the end of the classic hero tale (think Beowulf, twenty years later). But what really sets this apart: the insults. I love me a good Shakespearean insult, and this play has some of the best, which I fully intend on using in real life. Case in point:
More of your conversation would infect my brain.
Henry VIII. I had high expectations for this one, because I’m a big fan of Tudor history, and Shakespeare actually lived through a lot of it. And I think this play met them. I was surprised at how impartial this felt, since Elizabeth I was his patron (he wrote this after she died). Not my absolute favorite of the histories, but it’s up there. I also thought it was clever that Shakespeare showed how much he knew his audience:
Tis ten to one this play can never please
All that are here. Some come to take their ease
And sleep an act or two; but those, we fear,
W’ have frighted with our trumpets.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona. This was kind of a turning point for Shakespeare. He starts to develop some of the themes he uses a lot in his later comedies, like the heroine dressing in men’s clothing. It’s not one of the Bard’s strongest plays, but I liked it. Have you figured out yet that I like the plays that either have murder or awesome insults?
You, minion, are too saucy.
Two Noble Kinsmen. This was Shakespeare’s final play (which is kind of a continuation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). It’s about two friends/cousins who fall in love with the same girl. Drama and comedy ensue. And, as usual, it ends with everyone married. Since this play did come out later, it’s definitely a more obscure one, but I still enjoyed it. It definitely felt more mature than some of Shakespeare’s other comedies.
‘Tis pity love should be so tyrannous.
Timon of Athens. This one’s about a rich man who “generously” spends all his money on his friends, and when it’s gone realizes that they were never his true friends and everything is awful because he’s poor and friendless now. Basically a parable about how money is the root of all evil. And probably a lesson in not buying your friends.
I do wish thou were a dog, that I might love thee something.
Titus Andronicus. This play was surprisingly violent. And I can’t say I wasn’t warned. But is it my fault I can’t help but think of Titus Andromedon (from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt)? So I think my brain kind of couldn’t handle the contrast. But I still liked this one. What can I say? I like the dark and murder-y plays.
Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,
Blood and revenge are hammering in my head.
The Merchant of Venice. This one is technically a comedy, but it’s a very dark comedy. Shylock is one of Shakespeare’s most iconic villains, and definitely the character that makes this otherwise happy play much more interesting.
You speak an infinite deal of nothing.
Antony & Cleopatra. I was expecting to like this one more than I did. But the ratio of drama to history is just a bit too high for me. It’s still interesting, but it’s definitely more Elizabeth Taylor than history (which is fine, I mean, this was for entertainment). But I did love this particularly poignant quote:
In time we hate that which we often fear.
All’s Well That Ends Well. This one reminded me a lot of The Canterbury Tales as I was reading it, and it turns out my gut was right! It has a very similar plot to “The Reeve’s Tale”. Not that any of you care, I’m just surprised at my own memory of Chaucer. Anyway, a playboy is tricked into – gasp! – sleeping with his own wife instead of the pretty girl he wants in his bed. He loves her now because she outsmarted him. Everyone lives happily ever after. The end.
Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.
Troilus and Cressida. What can I say? I love Greek mythology. And anything with Achilles and Patroclus (even though they’re not the focus of this story). Just give me Shakespeare and the Trojan War and I’m happy. Also, tell me this is not Tyrion Lannister:
I am a bastard, too. I love bastards! I am bastard begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in valor, in everything illegitimate.
Othello. I feel like this one gets lumped together with Hamlet and Macbeth a lot, but it ended up being my least favorite of the trio. Don’t get me wrong, I still really liked it. I definitely have a thing for dark and manipulative characters. I just didn’t love it as much as the others. However, I think it’s one of the best example of how in-tune Shakespeare was with human psychology.
Men in rage strike those that wish them best.
Julius Caesar. I think I’ve read this one maybe four times in my life? (Which is what I get for taking so many courses in Shakespeare.) It’s not my favorite, but it is still a really good play. It’s the source of one of the most quoted lines in all of Shakespeare – “Et tu, Brute?” – so you know it’s a classic. (Fun fact: it’s also where the title of that one John Green book came from.)
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
As You Like It. This one is so much fun. Lesson: dress up like a man to find out what your crush thinks about you. And then, as his friend, teach him how to be a good husband. When you take off your disguise, he’ll be all ready to get married! Seriously, though, I really enjoyed this one. Plus, it’s where one of the most famous Shakespearean quotes comes from:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
The Taming of the Shrew. I have loved this play since high school. If there is one Shakespearean character most like me, it is Katherina. I love her snark. And I do think Shakespeare makes an excellent point on how ridiculous the marriage customs were back then. I was really surprised when this ended up not even being one of my top three comedies.
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break.
Richard III. It’s entirely possible I liked this one so much because I read it in grad school (I got an A on the death speech I wrote for Richard III – not to brag, but it was in iambic pentameter and everything). Also Ian McKellan stars in the film adaptation (which I highly recommend). But, really, it’s easily my favorite of the histories. It’s dark and interesting and I just really enjoyed it. Also, I’m 100% going to start using this now:
Out of my sight! Thou dost infect mine eyes.
Twelfth Night. The Bard was just so good at wars of the sexes, and this play is that at it’s finest. I think a lot of the comedies in this vein are very similar, but, personally, I just enjoyed this one the most.
Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.
Much Ado About Nothing. I’ve probably mentioned several times at this point that the comedies kind of blend together. And if you’re only going to read one of the very similar comedies (most of the ones below this on the list), you can’t go wrong with this one.
‘I can see he’s not in your good books,’ said the messenger.
‘No, and if he were I would burn my library.’
Hamlet. I mean, this is the source of the infamous “To be or not to be” line, which means everyone knows about Hamlet. There are ghosts and murder and crazy family members. Also, this is the play that inspired The Lion King, so what’s not to love?
This above all: to thine own self be true.
The Tempest. I could not get this one out of my head, and it took me a year to realize this was one of my favorites. I loved the story, and it is the source of one of my favorite Shakespeare quotes:
Hell is empty and all the devils are here!
A Midsummer’s Night Dream. I absolutely loved this play. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most read plays for a reason. It’s funny and whimsical and it definitely deserves a spot in my top three. I did get the chance to see this performed (in a Globe replica) right after reading it, and it was brilliant.
Though she be but little, she is fierce!
King Lear. This has been a favorite since I read it for the Shakespeare class I took in grad school. I really enjoyed the story, and I ended up writing my final paper on feminism and the female characters in this play, which just made me love it more.
When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.
Macbeth. The Scottish play is iconic. Everything about it is so wonderfully dark and brilliant. Definitely a favorite. I will never pass up an opportunity to see Macbeth. And while there are so many great quotes in Macbeth, I had to go with this classic:
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Congratulations! You made it through the longest blog post ever. Thanks for reading this to the end! It took forever to put this together, not even including the time it took me to read the entire works of Shakespeare.
Unless you are as crazy as I am, you definitely do not need to read all of these. I’d recommend my top ten, plus Julius Caesar and Romeo & Juliet (even though I don’t love it, I still recognize how important it is). Maybe All’s Well That Ends Well if you’re looking for something fun.
I’d love to hear: What is your favorite Shakespeare play? And what’s your favorite Shakespeare quote?