Well… WE DID IT, KIDS. I finished the Complete Works about a month ago, and I’ve been SO excited to write this post but I wanted to hold off and give myself some time to marinate on the last couple that I read and not let the recency bias effect win out. But I feel ready to commit to this list as is, so LET’S GO!
- I’m only including the plays included in my Complete Works, plus Two Noble Kinsmen – I’m excluding the Apocrypha – so no Edward III, etc.
- This is in reverse order, worst to best.
- I reserve the right to change my mind in 5 minutes. As you may have seen, I will be reading through the plays AGAIN in 2021 (only in the context of performing them on Zoom once a week – I won’t be reading them ahead of time to prepare like I did this year). So I think that makes it particularly likely that my opinions will change over time.
- This list is just my personal opinion and if you don’t agree that is a-okay. Very excited to have some interesting discussions after I post this but if you feel the need to yell at me or tell me how badly I misunderstand literature, please just take a deep breath and do literally anything else with your time, thank you! I promise we’re all gonna get through this together.
38. Henry VIII
We’re starting this list off on the wrong foot because I actually love the histories with only a couple of exceptions, but my god, Henry VIII is dreadful. If you’ve read this play, you get it, so I won’t belabor this point, it’s just… duller than it has any right to be for centering on one of the most eventful moments in British history.
37. Henry IV Part 2
There are exactly two things I like about this play: the scene between Hal and Bolingbroke at the end, and Kate Percy’s monologue. Otherwise I find this play painfully tedious. I can’t stand Falstaff and I can’t overstate just how much the comedic subplot drags this down for me, and I find very few characters in this story compelling enough to invest in.
36. All’s Well That Ends Well
This play just doesn’t come together for me. I think it’s got some great characters but the central plot is just… tremendously uninteresting. One thing you’ll see me come back to over and over with the comedies is that for them to succeed for me, I need there to be something of consequence at stake, and there really isn’t in All’s Well.
35. Two Gentlemen of Verona
… And there isn’t in Two Gentlemen, either. The funny thing about Two Gentlemen of Verona is that I saw a very charming production in college and consequently have had a lingering fondness for this play for years; it wasn’t until I reread it this year that I was shocked to discover how… bad it actually is. It’s possible that it was Shakespeare’s first play, and it shows; it’s just less cohesive and coherent than similar plays he wrote later, so there simply isn’t a whole lot to recommend this one.
34. Timon of Athens
There are a lot of things I almost like about Timon but in the end it always underwhelms. This play reads more like a fable than a tragedy to me and while that could be cool in theory, its language is so static and unmoving that it just… doesn’t really achieve a whole lot. But it’s a thematically interesting enough play.
33. Henry IV Part 1
The framing of Hal and Hotspur as foils is just brilliant but nothing else about this play is. This is how I feel about the whole Henriad – Hal is a fantastic character whose arc throughout the plays is wonderfully crafted, I’m just… personally very unmoved by it. And again, I hate Falstaff enough that what would be an inoffensive play to me otherwise is really dragged down.
32. Much Ado About Nothing
Sorry. I have tried to force a love for Much Ado onto myself but it just isn’t there. Do I think this is objectively terrible, not at all; I just do not vibe with this play. Again, here’s the problem – there is nothing at stake. Sassy banter just… really does not move me. Once I watched the David Tennant/Catherine Tate production and didn’t crack a smile the entire time I realized things were never going to work out between me and Much Ado. I do like Hero though.
31. The Winter’s Tale
I wish I liked this play but it just feels like two halves that don’t come together into a single whole. In theory I should like the cold palatial setting and I should also like the jaunty forest shenanigans but this play is just so tonally dissonant that I find myself not fully enjoying either. I do see where this is sweet and charming and magical and moving for the right audience, but I’m just not that person. (I watched a ballet adaptation of The Winter’s Tale on Marquee.tv that blew my goddamn mind and made me like the story a lot better than I had originally, but then we read this for Project Shakespeare round 2 a few days later, and while I liked it a lot more than I had in round 1, it cemented the fact that I just don’t love the way this story unfolds with the way Shakespeare structured this play. If I were ranking it off the ballet or even off the core elements of the narrative, this would be a lot higher.)
30. The Taming of the Shrew
On the other hand, this is a play that I want to hate but I just don’t. Yes, Kate’s final speech is a hard pill to swallow, but a) I think it opens up some fascinating discussions, and b) it doesn’t overpower my experience with the play as a whole, which I largely find witty and charming and entertaining. Its dark undertones actually make me like it even more than I probably would otherwise because I do find myself drawn to thematically thorny texts. Not a favorite since it doesn’t really do anything for me emotionally, but intellectually it’s a winner.
29. As You Like It
Kind of similar to The Winter’s Tale, actually – this is one where I strongly enjoy elements but it doesn’t fully come together for me. I do think this is a lovely and charming play and I’m happy to read or watch it, it just doesn’t make a huge impression on me.
28. Henry V
Have I mentioned how underwhelming I find the Henriad? Ok, good. This play has a lot going for it so in theory it has no right to be as forgettable as I think it is, but nothing about it really stays with me except for the French scene between Catherine and her maid, which is one of my favorite ever Shakespeare scenes.
27. Merry Wives of Windsor
I actually loved this when I read it, but it’s faded a lot in my estimation since then, because there’s honestly just not a whole lot there. It achieves exactly what it sets out to do, which is entertain the reader/viewer, so I can’t fault it. It’s just up again some plays that have much loftier ambitions.
If I had to pick out one Shakespeare play that I find the most frustrating, it would have to be Coriolanus. This play has the potential for greatness written all over it but it just misses the mark. The conflict that it sets up is SO compelling but it takes an agonizingly long time to get there (acts 1-3 are painful) and then the resolution is incredibly rushed. I just want to take this play by the shoulders and shake it until it sorts out its horrendous structure, because somewhere in there is a masterpiece that gives the seductive dynamic between Coriolanus and Aufidius ample time to breathe.
25. Love’s Labor’s Lost
This is cute and charming and harmless until it isn’t – but the incongruously abrupt and sad ending makes me like it a lot more than I would otherwise. This is another one that I don’t find particularly groundbreaking, but which I thoroughly enjoy for what it is.
24. Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night… is a tricky one for me. I like it a lot and it also annoys me, and I think I’ve bounced my Goodreads rating of this play around from 2 to 4 stars and back so many times I’ve lost count. I think if Malvolio were removed from the play I would probably adore it, but I can’t help but to find the narrative treatment of Malvolio curiously cold and not addressed in any kind of way that I find satisfying. But I also think the problem is probably me for not attempting to engage with this play the way I should? I don’t know. I’m running a book club discussion on this play in two weeks and I intend to do a lot of research ahead of that so stay tuned. I feel like it should probably technically go higher than this but we’ll sort that out another day.
23. Two Noble Kinsmen
This play is just… fun. It’s not as well-written or well-crafted as a lot of others but it is simply a good, solidly entertaining play. I enjoy it and I have absolutely nothing else to say about it.
In a lot of ways, I actually love Othello. I mean… the characters and the conflict and the speeches are all SO good and I’ll happily watch any production of this play. My issue is that reconciling Iago’s racism with the fact that Iago is the character through whom the story is filtered for the audience is a fool’s errand and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth in this year of our lord 2020. However, this is a play that I find myself thinking about often and one that I find particularly challenging to place on a list like this.
21. Henry VI Part 2
I am looking forward to waxing eloquent about this loose trilogy higher up on my list, because I ADORE the Henry VIs, but for now I’ll say that this is my least favorite because it’s a little more unfocused than the other two, but it also has one of my all-time favorite monologues from Margaret, so there’s that.
20. The Comedy of Errors
This is, hands down, the stupidest thing I have ever read, but it’s also kind of excellent? You know that thing I keep saying about comedies needing high stakes – believe it or not, Comedy of Errors actually has that. Framing this play with the looming execution of Aegeon is a BRILLIANT choice because it underscores the whole play with a seriousness that offsets the absolutely bonkers mistaken identity shenanigans. It’s only this far down on my list because everything above it is so good, but I honestly love this play.
Cymbeline is like if you took every single Shakespeare play of all genres and put them in a blender. The result is occasionally baffling but most of the time just brilliant. This is definitely one of the most structurally interesting plays, but it’s also just entertaining as hell.
18. Troilus and Cressida
This play has no business being as high on this list as it is. It’s not good. If you’re a Shakespeare newbie, do not start here. But what can I say – you say Trojan War, I say yes, it is what it is. I adore these characters so much and I find Shakespeare’s take on them both weird and fascinating. Achilles is beyond insufferable – as he should be – and I absolutely love it.
17. Measure for Measure
There are long stretches of this play where I simply zone out, but I cannot bring myself to move it any lower because everything with the Duke, Angelo, and Isabella is so obscenely good. This play is just… so dark, so twisted, so thorny, and I really love it for that.
16. Titus Andronicus
Everyone says that if you like slasher films you’ll like Titus Andronicus, which is absolutely true, but my personal angle here is more: if you like the Oresteia, you’ll like Titus Andronicus. I am all about a good old fashioned revenge saga and this absolutely delivers. It’s dark, it’s twisted, it’s entertaining, it’s funny – it’s not as well-crafted or emotionally resonant as his later tragedies, but it’s a great time.
15. Richard III
I have flipped Richards II and III around on this list so many times I have whiplash. I still don’t know which order they should be in. My general assessment of this play is at odds with… pretty much everyone else’s on earth: I love this play but I do not enjoy Richard III as a character. I think this play is chock full of fascinating and tragic events and complicated characters, and I ordinarily love a good old tragic villain, but Richard’s motivations are so profoundly uninteresting that he really does nothing for me (though I can see where a great performance could really bring him to life).
14. Richard II
This is the problem with comparing the two Richards – this play is the exact opposite for me. This narrative itself is largely a slog, but Richard himself… what an absurdly clever creation. I think he is one of the most complex and interesting characters in Shakespeare’s canon, and “for god’s sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings” is without a doubt one of the best monologues Shakespeare ever wrote. So which do I prefer; the one where I like the play and find the titular character underwhelming or vice versa? I have no idea. But I do love both of these plays on the whole.
13. Henry VI Part 1
I’m going to save most of my gushing for 3H6. But I love this one too. I just love the Wars of the Roses and find the characters and conflicts SO compelling. I mean, this one has Joan of Arc, how can you not love it.
12. The Tempest
I did The Tempest dirty by reading it so early on in my Shakespeare journey before I had adequately managed my genre expectations. I liked it a lot at the time but I suspect I may love it now. It’s such a thematically rich play and Prospero is a brilliant creation. It’s serious and sad but also funny and moving and whimsical and I do think it’s one of Shakespeare’s best plays if we’re attempting objectivity.
11. King John
King John missing out on my top 10 was… a Sophie’s Choice situation. So make no mistake: I LOVE King John. The characters and the conflicts in this play are just top tier and I just cannot rank any play that has Constance of Brittany any lower, what a legend.
I’m sorry but if you don’t love Pericles WHY IN THE HELL NOT?! This play is absolutely bonkers. Incest, pirates, and brothels, oh my, but it also has one of the most genuinely moving resolutions ever. This is probably the most consistently entertaining Shakespeare play from start to finish, yet Pericles’s journey is absolutely devastating to follow at the same time. This play is so fun and clever and quietly sad, I really adore it.
9. The Merchant of Venice
This play is not at all what I thought it was going to be, in the best way possible. This is one of those plays like Measure which is structurally a comedy but which is actually dark as hell and I love it all the more for that. I think Merchant has some of the most vivid and complex characters in all of Shakespeare’s canon – there’s Shylock, of course, a fantastic character as everyone knows, but he’s really only the tip of the iceberg. I’m really compelled by the way this play depicts otherness and community identity and the way it uses a fairytale-esque structure to tell its urban, feudal story. I haven’t been able to get this one out of my head since reading it – I just find it complex and fascinating and bizarrely haunting on an emotional level.
8. Henry VI Part 3
THIS PLAY. I get why the Henry VIs are so rarely staged, I do; none of them really works as a standalone and asking the audience to attend 6+ hours of a single narrative is… a lot. But when you’re reading them in succession, ugh, this play hits so hard. It’s such a glorious and devastating culmination – I mean, has there ever been a more savage monologue than Margaret’s paper crown, has there ever been anything stranger or more moving than Henry VI’s gentleness in the face of battle – I JUST. Richard III is a much more interesting character to me here than he is in his titular play as well, and that final scene between Richard and Henry is just… ugh, chills. This is the best history play, hands down, and there are a lot of good ones to choose from.
7. Antony & Cleopatra
This is such a bizarre play, structurally – the way it bounces back and forth between Rome and Egypt is chaotic, and the fact that Antony and Cleopatra are never on stage alone together is a fascinating element that seems kind of at odds with what a lot of people want this play to be. It isn’t an epic romance and it isn’t a grown up Romeo & Juliet – instead it’s a phenomenal portrait of two deeply flawed rulers navigating a series of external conflicts (Rome vs. Egypt, old Roman values vs. new Roman values, fame, publicity), together and separately. It’s as flawed and brilliant as its two titular characters and I just love it.
6. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
This was the first ever Shakespeare play that I read when I was eleven and I fell in love. So there’s that nostalgia element that makes it impossible to shake this from my top 10, but even so, I firmly believe that Midsummer is the best comedy by a mile. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s romantic, it’s kind of darkly savage, and all of these elements cohere into something that works perfectly for me.
I have the hardest time talking about Hamlet – I feel like I always just say something along the lines of ‘it’s Hamlet, what’s not to love?’ and I ultimately sound kind of dispassionate, but I do adore this play and I think it’s easy to make the argument that it’s Shakespeare’s best work (which I honestly think is what partially makes it so difficult to talk about). I am also, unfortunately, one of those annoying people who thinks Hamlet is one of the most #relatable characters ever written.
4. Romeo & Juliet
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. If you simply do not vibe with Romeo & Juliet I could not care less, but I have not heard a single criticism against this play that isn’t utterly inane. ‘It’s just instalove!’ Plays have different storytelling conventions, next. ‘They’re just horny teenagers’ If you still refuse to accept that they’re in love when it’s demonstrated throughout the play ad nauseum I don’t know what to tell you, next. ‘Romeo and Juliet actually would have had a miserable marriage if they lived’ Ok I get it, you’re edgy and you hated your 9th grade English teacher, next. Anyway, the only reason the frequent disparagements of R&J get my goat is because this play is so fucking good. It’s cleverly constructed and deliciously tragic and the writing is sublime – when I read Romeo’s final monologue I decided that if I did not play Romeo in Project Shakespeare I would simply die, it’s that brilliant.
God. I really thought nothing would be able to shake Macbeth from its #2 spot on this. This is one of the plays that I’ve loved the longest and am most familiar with (I’ve had ‘is this a dagger’ memorized for years for quite literally no reason) and I adore just about everything about it – the darkness and the brutality but the complex characters most of all. I think Macbeth the man is one of Shakespeare’s best creations. I love Lady M too (how can you not) but Macbeth’s journey is so darkly compelling and haunting.
2. Julius Caesar
It was always going to take a really fucking good play to displace Macbeth, but then Julius Caesar came along and here we are. This play is so ridiculously up my alley it’s not even funny. Aside from loving all things Ancient Roman history, I’m particularly drawn to the theme of human fallibility and narratives about people making impossible decisions and being forced to live with the consequences of the choices they’ve made, and that’s Julius Caesar to a T. This play is just masterfully constructed, too – “Friends, Romans, countrymen” is my favorite monologue and Brutus is one of the absolute best characters. His entire arc devastates me more than words can say.
1. King Lear
On the one hand, it’s kind of a bummer that after reading all of Shakespeare’s plays in 2020, my favorite play didn’t change from what it already was before this year; on the other hand… nothing was ever going to top Lear, not in a million years, so here we are, and happily too. I don’t even know how to describe what this play means to me. There’s something so cosmic about Lear – it’s a high-stakes family drama but it also feels fiercely personal and universal simultaneously. The way this play grapples with human nature (and the interplay between humans & nature) is so singular and striking, as is the contrast between its depictions of brutality and tenderness. I think this is inarguably the most devastating Shakespeare play, and I see why for some people it’s simply too sad, but I think it really earns its emotionally impactful conclusion. The tragic inevitability is executed seamlessly, and that final scene just… ugh, “never, never, never, never, never” hits like a punch to the gut every single time, it doesn’t matter how many times I read or watch it. And every time I do read it I get something new out of it – I notice a new parallel (Cordelia and Edmund’s “Nothing, my lord” – one speaking truth and one concealing it) or a new motif (Gloucester’s phrasing in the gouging scene – “Edmund, enkindle all the sparks of nature/ To quit this horrid act” perversely echoing Edmund’s own commentary on his own nature) or a line hits me in a new way (“O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven” got me in the gut last time I reread it) and I just feel so enriched for every minute I spend with this gloriously devastating play.
I will leave you with the final lines of Lear which are incidentally my favorite words Shakespeare ever wrote:
The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
So THERE WE HAVE IT. Reading all of Shakespeare’s works (yes, I read the sonnets and the poems too) in 2020 is one of the best things I have ever done and I’m tremendously proud of myself and really looking forward to seeing how my relationship with each of these plays evolves over time.
Talk to me about Shakespeare in the comments. What’s your favorite/least favorite play, how many have you read, do you plan to read more, why King Lear is one of the best things ever written, etc etc.