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Shakespeare Plays Ranked

August 20, 2015

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This summer, while everyone was off on their holidays, I went on my own epic expedition through time and space. I was whisked from the Trojan Wars to the Battle of Bosworth, from the shores of Bohemia to when Birnan Wood came to Dunsinane, and from the wild cliffs of Dover to the rotten state of Denmark. I’ve been privy to the whole range of the human condition, from profound, all-consuming love, to filial strife and incest, even civil war and genocide – and most radically of all, a man who passes his whole time trying to pluck up the courage just to do something….In short, I’ve read the entire dramatic canon of a certain William Shakespeare – starting on June 1st and finishing on August 15th – that’s 38 plays in 76 days (a play every two days – not easy to balance alongside a regular job, but I pulled it off!)

Come with me as I take you on a journey through my impressions and analyses of the plays, all wrapped up in a highly subjective and controversial ranking of them all!

38. The Taming of the Shrew

You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst,
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom 
(Petruccio, II i, 185-187)

Almost all of Shakespeare’s lesser works possess some inherent charm and a redeeming feature or two – but not this one. It’s easily his most irritating play: a tedious, forced comedy about the battle of the sexes – stacked ridiculously and borderline chauvinistically in favour of the men. The ‘hilarious’ Petruccio-Katherine taming of the shrew subplot was sad exposé of Shakespeare creating two of his most charmless characters, and the work’s bizarre, early framing device has no reflective purpose on the main body of the play at all.

37. The Two Gentlemen of Verona

He after honour hunts. I after love:
He leaves his friends to dignify them more,
I leave myself, my friends, all for love. 
(Proteus, I i, 62-64)

The one thing you’d rarely accuse Shakespeare of is timidity and a lack of ingenuity, but this early play of his is irredeemably tame – almost as if he was tentatively marking through the familiar rom-com ingredients (divided affections, lovers in disguise, clownish servants) for later, grander works. The shallow, fickle undermining of one of the female characters doesn’t help either.

36. Antony and Cleopatra

O thou day o’ th’ world
Chain mine armed neck; leap thou, attire and all,
Through proof of harness to my heart, and there
Ride on the pants triumphing! 
(Antony, IV ix, 13-16)

I find something slightly distancing and ‘unfelt’ in many of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – particularly this one. Cleopatra and Antony’s love is too ornate, inscrutable and grandioise, and the play also suffers from devolving badly into awkwardly staged and written battle scenes, where nothing ever really feels at stake.

35. Henry VIII

Heaven will one day open
The King’s eyes, that so long have slept upon
This bold bad man 
(Lord Chamberlain, II ii, 41-43)

This dense and weighty plotting of some of the politics at the time of Henry VIII’s reign is reasonably cogent, but suffers from two obvious problems: there is no real focal point or ‘tragedy’ (Cardinal Wolsey and Queen Katherine have ‘downfalls’ at best), and some of the worse parts of the play – notably the prologue – clearly weren’t even written by Shakespeare.

34. The Merry Wives of Windsor

Wives may be merry, and yet honest, too
We do not act that often jest and laugh.
‘Tis old but true: “still swine eats all the draff”. 
(Mistress Page, IV ii, 95-97)

Shakespeare’s one comedy set exclusively in England is an excessively bawdy number; its success predicated on the degree to which one finds the bit-part comedy player of the Henriad, Falstaff, funny and entertaining. The flow of the work isn’t helped by being written exclusively in prose (befitting the earthier players on show), and though there are some good smutty jokes and it’s all light-hearted enough, it’s just a touch unmemorable.

33. Pericles

In Pericles, his queen and daughter seen,
Although assailed with fortune fierce and keen,
Virtue preserv’d from fell destruction’s blast,
Led on by heaven, and crown’d with joy at last. (
Gower, xxii, 110-113)

This epically weird fable – a poor man’s The Winter’s Tale, if you like – is a bizarre work whose only saving grace is a certain lyrical and fantastical charm. I’m not sure the intermittent narration by the curiously named Gower really serves any purpose other than being a tool to propel the story across its clunky leaps in continuity and time. And there was clearly something amiss in the opening incest/riddle skit which is completely overlooked for the rest of the play.

32. Henry VI, Part 2

Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous.
Virtue is choked with foul ambition,
And charity chased hence by rancour’s hand. 
(Gloucester, III i, 142-144)

Lots of gore and bloodlust makes for a plotty, patchy play: notable only for a bizarrely comic subplot involving the idiot Jack Cade’s attempted revolt, plus the first appearance of a certain ‘Richard Crookback’….

31. Much Ado About Nothing

I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another is fool when he dedicates his behaviour to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love. (Benedick, II iii, 6-9)

This rich fiesta of a rom-com is an acquired taste. Its dense wit and pedantry doesn’t have the poetry and genius of the loosely similar Love’s Labours Lost; Twelfth Night was a much more pleasing, less forced ‘romantic entanglement’ piece; and Benedick and Beatrice’s shrewish bickering struck me more as tedious than clever, funny or charming.

30. All’s Well That Ends Well

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie
Which we ascribe to heaven. The fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs which we ourselves dull. 
(Helena, I i, 212-215)

In truth, this is a play whose raw materials warrant ranking much higher, if it wasn’t for the completely indefensible and illogical central plot twist that sullies the nice build-up of characterisation and beautiful verse that came before. With a ‘conceit’ that would set feminism back centuries were it to happen now, our ‘heroine’ Helena swaps places with the local wench, so that she can trick her idol Bertram into sleeping with her instead and getting her pregnant! It might make sense if it was a “sod you” case of sacrificial, self-whoredom, but it’s all reduced to a simpering validation of Helena’s desire to be betrothed to the ‘superior’ Bertram. There’s no apparent overarching meta-commentary on how pointless the act is in proving Bertram a vile lech of a cad, completely unworthy of Helena in the first place….

29. The Merchant of Venice

If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? (Shylock, III i, 59-62)

This is strangely unsatisfying despite the compelling raw materials of moral drama/romance/thriller. It feels like one of Shakespeare’s meekest, most unrevealing works about human nature, and Shylock – though not quite a cut-and-dry evil villain – is still a cipher of “boo, hiss” detestability to set against Bassanio and Antonio’s leniently portrayed friends.

28. Measure for Measure

Well, heaven forgive him, and forgive us all!
Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall. 
(Escalus, II i, 37-38)

Measure for Measure improves upon the justice theme of The Merchant of Venice, and the duped sex shenanigans of All’s Well That Ends Well, but despite its comprehensible moralising on themes of hypocrisy and the relativity of justice, the play is a bit wordy and expository, and there’s a long build up to a comeuppance which is glaringly predictable for the final two acts.

27. Cymbeline

By Jupiter, an angel – or, if not
An earthly paragon. Behold divineness
No elder than a boy. 
(Belarius, III vi, 41-43)

A real curio – mixing tragic and comic tropes, having a dense (almost confusing) plot, and a cacophony of characters all somehow estranged and disguised from each other until the late reunion. And that reunion suffers somewhat from that rare Shakespearian faux pas of having an overly expository section where the narrative is ‘told’ rather than ‘shown’.

26. Julius Caesar

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once. 
(Julius Caesar, II ii, 32-33)

Some meaty quotations aside, Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s more moderate tragedies – a bit portentous and directionless after Caesar’s murder. In retrospect, Shakespeare was able to iron out the kinks of this play in better, later works: Macbeth (the emptiness of violence/ambition) and Othello (the perils of manipulation).

25. The Comedy of Errors

What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?
Until I know this sure uncertainty,
I’ll entertain the offered fallacy. 
(Antipholus of Syracuse, II ii, 187-189)

Comedy of Errors does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a ‘Comedy’ of ‘Errors’, and a simple, purely theatrical farce where appreciation depends upon the degree to which one finds mistaken identity repeatedly funny. That said, if played by a talented troupe of actors, it can be an entertaining physical tour de force of gusto and slapstick, though it’s certainly not much of a poetic piece.

24. Titus Andronicus

Give me a sword, I’ll chop my hands off too,
For they have fought for Rome, and all in vain;
And they have nursed this woe in feeding life 
(Titus Andronicus, III i, 72-74)

Blood begets more blood in this crazed, orgiastic cocktail of a Roman power play. Forget any semblance of nuance or deep enquiry into the nature of politics (à la Coriolanus), this is just a pretty relentless, one-dimensional dirge of sadism, sex and murder – with some casual racism and misogyny thrown in too. It’s strangely enjoyable though, but in a nutty, carnivalesque way!

23. Troilus and Cressida

I tell thee I am mad in Cressid’s love;
Thou answers’t she is fair, Purest in the
open ulcer of my heart 
(Troilus, I i, 51-52)

One of the best of Shakespeare’s Greco and/or Roman plays, Troilus and Cressida is a cerebral and rich deconstruction of not only the famous Trojan wars and their personnel, but also of themes such as love, honour, statesmanship and warfare. The ending is a touch abrupt as Troilus and Cressida’s parting and divided love is left underdeveloped, and Hector emerges almost too late as a tragic ‘sacrificial’ hero.

22. Henry VI: Part 1

Believe me lords, my tender years can tell
Civil dissension is a viperous worm
That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth 
(King Henry, III i, 72-74)

This is a great romp of a play – highly exciting and full of ripe, juicy characters. It’s arguably lacking in a little poetry and grandiosity, and at times Shakespeare is a touch clunky in managing his disparate plotlines (especially the early York/Lancaster skirmishes). All in all though, a breezy read!

21. King John

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conquerer,
But when it first did help to wound itself. 
(Bastard, V vii, 112-114)

An interesting hotch-potch of a history play, almost playing as proto-commentary on/satire of the sheer incestuousness of royal families in the Middle Ages. The plot meanders a touch, although there are lots of well-realised, three-dimensional characters, and Arthur and King John get quietly affecting death scenes.

20. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

And as imagination bodies forth
The form of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. 
(Theseus, V i, 14-17)

A lovely, ethereal fantasy-cum-nature play whose enduring popularity is due as much to the fact there’s nothing else quite like it in the Shakespeare canon. It’s gorgeous to read, fun to watch, and perhaps my only quibble is it’s a touch undramatic – though that’s strangely in keeping with the play’s cyclical/eternal beats.

19. Richard III

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York 
(Richard I i, 1-2)

Breezy and colourful, Richard III jettisons the more panoramic canvas of its three predecessors for a riotous, almost pantomime portrayal of Richard’s vainglorious, bloodlusting (and at times, comic) move for the crown. What it lacks in depth, it makes up for in pure theatricality, as Richard makes the audience guilty conduit on his giddy journey to the throne. Richard III is a ripe role for an actor, though Macbeth is the deeper, more serious work about the mitigations of violent ambition.

18. Timon of Athens

O, the fierce wretchedness that glory brings us!
Who would not wish to be from wealth exempt,
Since riches point to misery and contempt? 
(Flavius, IV i, 30-32)

This is a much more philosophically forceful and searching treatise on the folly of materialism and the true value of friendship than Shakespeare’s more vaunted morality piece – The Merchant of Venice. The second half of the play as Timon descends into a base, savage existence is really quite ‘Learian’ and apocalyptic. The play’s only fault is that it’s more of a moral exercise than a dramatic piece, and the events seem born from a playwright’s attempt to proselytise rather than coming organically from story and characterisation.

17. King Lear

We are not ourselves
When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind
To suffer with the body 
(Lear, II ii, 279-281)

An unremittingly bleak and unquestionably strong treatise on man’s primal obsolescence against the forces of nature – Shakespeare, radically in the play, compels his king from the hubris and pomposity of the opening act, to a poor, homeless madman almost immediately. In some respects, it’s less a ‘tragedy’ than a colossal dirge or an exercise in apocalyptic pessimism, as all the characters either die, go mad, are forced to beg or change their identity. The only reason I don’t quite uphold Lear’s ‘connoisseurs’ reputation in the Shakespeare canon is that it’s not very entertaining and a touch pulverising in its profundity.

16. Henry V

He that outlives this day and comes safe home
Will stand a-tiptoe when this day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian. 
(Henry V, IV iii, 41-43)

Rousing, soaring lyricism and oratory lies at the heart of this play that sets the civil strife of the English history tetralogies aside for one chapter, to characterise the glory of Henry V and English military success in France. Its patriotism veers between the uplifting and the xenophobic, but the play does touch on the morality of kingship familiar from the other history plays, and there is enough humour and cynicism to offset the jingoism.

15. Henry VI: Part 3

I that have neither pity, love, nor fear (Richard, V vi, 68)

What a rip-roaring, page-turner of a political thriller this is! All out civil war has struck, and the nobles, armies and even the French switch sides countless times between Lancaster (Henry VI) and York (Edward IV). Richard Crookback though is now the key panto villain in all this – people even call him Dick! – ready to assume his life’s dream ‘role’ in/as Richard III.

14. Coriolanus

His nature is too noble for the world.
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident
Or Jove for’s power to thunder. His heart’s his mouth. 
(Menenius, III i, 255-257)

Coriolanus is a thorough, lucid and masterly treatise on the mitigations of courting public opinion and the difficulty in maintaining the honour of one’s personal conscience amid the swirl of politicking and nefarious interests. Unsurprisingly it has a very contemporary resonance, and although there’s a lack of true poetry or epic tragedy, it’s a brilliant plot, and Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s most three-dimensional protagonists.

13. Henry IV: Part 2

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. (Henry IV, III i, 31)

Henry IV: Part 2 is the complete counterpoint to Part 1. Where Part 1 was youthful, boisterous and a quasi-essay on mentoring and maturation, so Part 2 is solemn and stark, with all the characters – but particularly Henry IV – beset by illness and malaise. Hence Falstaff’s lone voice of comedy transmits less as the jovial source running through Part 1, but now as more immoral, deceiving and out-of-step with the tone of proceedings.

12. Love’s Labour’s Lost

Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves,
Or else we lose ourselves to find our oaths. 
(Biron, IV iii, 337-338)

An exhilarating, if exhausting, exposition of wordplay, puns, pedantry and poetry – Love’s Labour’s Lost is a linguistic feast. It’s almost too rich a feast at times, as there really is little respite from the relentlessness of the play’s wit and intricacies. There are some sensational pay-offs though. The verse is at times gorgeous and rhythmic, and there’s real ingenuity in the piece’s theatricality – notably when the four suitors sequentially reveal their love poems (some are even sonnets) in a Russian Doll-style conceit. Even if Shakespeare is showing off a touch, this is a literary tour de force.

11. Two Noble Kinsmen

We are an endless mine to one another:
We are one another’s wife, ever begetting
New births of love; we are father, friends, acquaintance
 (Arcite, II ii, 79-81)

A massively underrated little gem of a play – Two Noble Kinsmen is a classic ‘tragicomedy’, getting huge dramatic mileage out of Palamon and Arcite’s feud over Emilia, and the quandary it places both of them (and Emilia) in. The play also operates with tongue firmly in cheek – regularly lampooning the sometime fickleness and pomposity of the mens’ heroic posturing. There’s also a thematically rich subplot about the lesser characters, including the pathos-ridden Jailer’s Daughter. In fact, it’s one of the best and most justified ‘servile characters’ strand of any of the comedies.

10. The Tempest

This is as strange a maze as e’er man trod,
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of.
(Alonso, V i, 245-247)

Clearly a work enveloped in notions of mortality and recompense, The Tempest is a deceptively rich, beautiful fable which melds together natural and fantastical tropes for a staggering ode to one man’s playing out of his final deeds. Though technically a touch wordy, allusive and ‘undramatic’, on a third reading, I now detect a much greater sense of poignancy and humanity.

9. As You Like It

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.
(Jaques, II vii, 139-142)

Perhaps Shakespeare’s most underrated play? It’s a work abundant in humanity, philosophical richness, lyrical pleasure and dramatic sophistication. It’s also his happiest, most joyous and loving play. There isn’t a single character who doesn’t have at least one redeeming feature (or indeed achieve ‘redemption’ at some point in the play), and Rosalind is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest female character – resilient, charming, funny and clever.

8. Twelfth Night

I do I know not what, and fear to find
Mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind.
Fate, show thy force. Ourselves we do not owe.
What is decreed must be; and be this so. 
(Olivia, I v, 298-301)

An almost perfect romantic comedy where Shakespeare built upon (and corrected) the ragged raw materials of The Comedy of Errors for far greater effect. The whole thing floats along effortlessly: from the gorgeous verse, the clever tonal balance between the ornate (almost to a comic extent) aristocratic characters in Orsino and Olivia, and the gaggle of drunks, clowns and servants. The subplot involving the humiliation of Malvolio is a crowd-pleaser each time I see it, and the cross-dressing/mistaken identity theme is movingly done.

7. Henry IV: Part 1

I know you all, and will a while uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun. 
(Hal, I ii, 192-194)

This is a cracking page-turner of a play with so much going on in the course of five acts. It’s a political intrigue piece, a light bawdy comedy, and a ‘coming of age’ drama all in one. A lot of focus goes on the Hal/Falstaff scenes, but the ‘rebel’ moments with Hotspur and co have their own ironic vein of humour, and the play offers rich analysis of various father/son, mentor/apprentice paradigms.

6. Romeo and Juliet

Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight,
For I never saw true beauty till this night.
(Romeo, I v, 51-52)

This is a quite staggering treatise on young, all-consuming, doomed love, scored to some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, and with some devilishly cruel plotting thrown in!

5. Othello

O beware, my lord, of jealousy,
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on 
(Iago, III iii, 169-171)

Othello is perhaps Shakespeare’s most bravura exposition of stagecraft. It’s a simple tragedy in essence – laid bare plainly in the opening scene when Iago puts forth his plan to ruin Othello. This Iago does by displaying the skills of an arch dramatist: through language, insinuation and the clever (sometimes improvised) manipulating of the incidents that swirl around the bevy of players. It’s a beautifully realised play, and Othello himself is a great character case-study: a vulnerable, artificially constructed ‘outsider’ brutally exposed by Iago.

4. The Winter’s Tale

To mingle friendship farre is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me. My heart dances,
But not for joy, not joy. 
(Leontes, I ii, 111-113)

A beautiful, evocative fable – it functions as a tonal riff on ire and redemption: from the cold court of Sicilia, to the pastoral utopia of Bohemia, the sixteen year time gap, and the younger characters mirroring some of the crises/dilemmas of the previous generation. It has a lovely, moving conceit at the end with Hermione, and Leontes’ sudden, violent lurch to tyranny in Act One, Scene Two (perhaps the best scene in all of Shakespeare’s plays?) is gripping stuff.

3. Macbeth

I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more
Returning were as tedious as go o’er. 
(Macbeth, III iv, 135-137)

A thick, pungent, uncanny atmosphere hovers over this profoundly wise and timeless essay on the wilful corruption of a man’s soul. The beauty of the play is how it conjures ‘evil’ out of roots so unlikely, so banal (but therein lies the genius), as phantasmic predictions, an ambitious wife, a hasty act, and a growing sense of weariness and malaise, all conspire against Macbeth.

2. Richard II

For well we know, no hand of blood and bone
Can grip the sacred handle of our sceptre
Unless he do profane, steal or usurp. 
(Richard II, III iii, 78-80)

A play of genius that opens on a seemingly minor quarrel between two noblemen – mediated fecklessly by the cocooned monarch, Richard II – but which goes on to have far-reaching effects for British history and the nature of kingship for ever more. The play’s an ever-so-clever deconstruction of the monarchy’s loss of sanctity (why we still have a monarchy some four hundred years after Shakespeare wrote this I will never know), and Richard II is one of the great Shakespearian characters – as another commentator put it, he’s like a “petulant child” as he poetically processes his sheer disbelief and grief as his reign disintegrates before his very eyes.

1. Hamlet

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable…And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? (Hamlet, II ii, 250-255)

Shakespeare’s crowning glory: a philosophical text to rival any world religion (and without any superstition required – this actually engages with all the existential elements relevant to the human condition.) It’s a dramatic tour de force too: each scene is immemorial, each soliloquy (not just Hamlet’s) is a minor masterpiece, and it’s his most moving play, his funniest play, and his most ingenious dramaturgical work too (there’s even a play within a play!)

(August 2015)

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