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Ten Underrated Shakespeare Plays

Everyone knows Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, HamletMacbeth, and Richard III (or knows of them at least). Even Richard IIAs You Like It, and Antony and Cleopatra can be said to be well-known William Shakespeare plays. But what about the others? He wrote or collaborated on nearly forty, after all. Here are ten of the least-known plays by the Bard, with the reasons why people should read them (or reread them), along with an interesting fact about each. We hope you enjoy them. If you like this list, be sure to check out our follow-up pick of Shakespeare’s ten best plays (complete with interesting trivia about them) our interesting facts about Shakespeare too.

shaks11. King John. This is one of the Bard’s least-performed plays, although it was popular with the Victorians because of its pageantry and medieval pomp. Nevertheless, the play has been adapted for the big and small screen on several occasions, with King John – he who signed the Magna Carta in 1215 – being played by Leonard Rossiter in a 1984 BBC adaptation, the opening scene of which can be viewed here. It was also the very first Shakespeare play to be filmed, in 1899 by Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Recommended edition: King John (Arden Shakespeare).

Interesting FactThe phrase ‘gild the lily’ derives from this play, though it is the result of a misquotation. The actual line in King John reads, ‘To gild refined gold, to paint the lily’; over time, this has been abridged to ‘gild the lily’, hence the phrase.

shaks22. Henry VIII. Given the perennial popularity of the Tudors, as witnessed by the glut of television dramas and documentaries, it’s perhaps odd that this – the one Shakespeare play to deal with that dynasty – is among his least-known. It’s believed to have been, along with The Two Noble Kinsmen, the result of collaboration between Shakespeare and fellow playwright John Fletcher. Anyone who’s intrigued by the ‘break with Rome’ and Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon should find much to enjoy here. Recommended edition: “King Henry VIII”: Third Series (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series) (The Arden Shakespeare).

Interesting FactIt was during a performance of this play that the Globe theatre burned down in 1613. A cannon shot, used for special effects in the play, hit the thatched roof of the playhouse and it quickly burned to the ground.

shaks33. Cymbeline. This is unusual among Shakespeare’s plays, being one of the ‘problem plays’ – named partly because the central character must face some sort of social problem (in this case, Cunobelinus, the British king – or ‘Cymbeline’ – has to deal with the Romans who have occupied Britain) and partly because the play doesn’t fit comfortably into either genre, comedy or tragedy. This play, written late in Shakespeare’s career, features the famous song ‘Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun’ (which, despite its status as a great tragic lament, is actually sung to an empty tomb, since the character in whose honour it is performed is not actually dead). Recommended edition: “Cymbeline” (Arden Shakespeare: Second Series).

Interesting FactThe girls’ name Imogen derives from this play – probably from a misprint. Somewhere along the line, the pre-existing name ‘Innogen’ (meaning ‘girl, maiden’) was misread as ‘Imogen’, with the ‘nn’ being confused for a letter ‘m’. Girls named Imogen have been thankful ever since (or should be!).

shaks44. Henry VI Part 2. The second part of the Bard’s trilogy of plays about Henry the Sixth – part of his larger tetralogy of plays about the latter stages of the Wars of the Roses (the culmination of which was Richard III) – is the most accomplished of the trilogy. It was one of his early plays, but represents a vast improvement on the first part of the cycle. Its standout scenes undoubtedly involve the rebels, led by Jack Cade, marching on London (echoing real-life events in the capital in 1450 where the conflict centred on London Bridge). Undoubtedly the most famous line from the play is uttered by Dick the Butcher, one of Cade’s rebels: ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!’ Recommended edition: “King Henry VI”: Pt. 2 (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series) (The Arden Shakespeare).

Interesting FactThis play has the largest cast of all of Shakespeare’s plays, with over fifty named parts and several smaller roles.

shaks55. Coriolanus. This one is about the Roman leader who conquered the city of Corioles, hence his nickname (or ‘agnomen’) of Coriolanus. The leader returns home to Rome but ends up being condemned as a traitor (for railing against the common people) and exiled from the city. (What happens after that, we won’t say, as we don’t want to offer too many spoilers.) T. S. Eliot, in his 1919 essay ‘Hamlet and His Problems’, considered Coriolanus a greater achievement than Hamlet (which he considered a failure). It was filmed by Ralph Fiennes in 2011, with Fiennes playing the title role. Recommended edition: Coriolanus: Third Series (Arden Shakespeare) by Shakespeare, William 3rd (third) (2011) Paperback.

Interesting FactAlthough the title character’s name is pronounced with the final two syllables pronounced as ‘anus’ (leading to many jokes), in classical Latin the name would have been pronounced to rhyme with ‘bananas’, with an ‘a:’ rather than ‘ei’ sound on the penultimate syllable.

shaks66. Timon of Athens. This play features a generous man who gives away his money to hangers-on, and ends up becoming a misanthrope, exiling himself from Athenian society to go and live in a cave. The play is widely viewed as something of an experiment; many scholars believe the play to have been the work of two hands, namely Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton. Recommended edition: Timon of Athens (Arden Shakespeare: Third Series).

Interesting FactVladimir Nabokov borrowed the title of his classic novel Pale Fire from this play (and fittingly, since this was an act of borrowing, and Nabokov’s novel is about literary theft, the precise lines he pilfered from were ‘the moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun…’).

shaks87. Love’s Labour’s Lost. This is quite an early Shakespeare comedy, and involves the king of Navarre and three male companions agreeing to take an oath to swear off the company of women for three years. It is unusual among Shakespeare’s plays in that it has no obvious prior sources in historical chronicles or earlier plays or poems. Recommended edition: “Love’s Labours Lost” (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series) (The Arden Shakespeare).

Interesting Fact: This is the play which contains the nonce-word Honorificabilitudinitatibus, which translates as ‘the state of being able to achieve honours’. It appears in this play and this play alone (this phenomenon is known as a hapax legomenon). This mysterious word has also been cited as ‘evidence’ for the Baconian theory – that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays – on the strength of the fact that Honorificabilitudinitatibus can be rearranged into the anagram hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi, which is Latin for ‘these plays, F. Bacon’s offspring, are preserved for the world’.

shakes78. All’s Well That Ends Well. Another of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’. The main problem with them seems to be that nobody likes them, at least relatively speaking, hence their presence on this list. George Bernard Shaw liked this one, though (although he considered Shakespeare overrated in general and even wrote a puppet play, Shakes versus Shav, arguing that he was the better craftsman), and particularly liked the play’s heroine, Helena. Helena loves Bertram, who reluctantly marries her on the order of his father, the King of France. Bertram tells Helena that she may not call him husband until she receives a ring from him and can bear him a child. What follows involves one of the staples of Shakespeare’s problem plays – the so-called ‘bed trick’ – but, as the title suggests, everything is destined to work out for the best in the end. Recommended edition: All’s Well That Ends Well (Arden Shakespeare: Second Series).

Interesting Fact: Slightly off-topic, but rather interesting nevertheless, one of the original titles Tolstoy considered for War and Peace was ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’.

shaks99. Troilus and CressidaThe Bard’s retelling of the classic love story between the Trojan prince and the daughter of a Trojan priest who has defected to the Greek side in the Trojan war. (It had previously been told by Chaucer in his poem Troilus and Criseyde.) It has also been described as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. Nobody has known what to do with it: the first printing of it, as a Quarto edition in 1609, labelled it a ‘history’, while the First Folio (printed in 1623) put it with the tragedies. It is now widely regarded as a tragicomedy. Recommended edition: Troilus and Cressida (The Arden Shakespeare).

Interesting Fact: This play may have helped to popularise the verb ‘to pander’, as in ‘to pander to someone’s wishes’. The noun ‘pander’, as in a go-between, predates Shakespeare by over a century, but the verb is only attested from the early seventeenth century as was possibly a Shakespearean coinage (the first use of the verb is, oddly enough, from another of the Bard’s plays, Hamlet).

shaks1010. The Comedy of Errors. This play – the inspiration for the musical The Boys from Syracuse – involves the mishaps and misunderstandings which ensue when two sets of identical twins, separated at birth, find themselves in the city of Ephesus at the same time. This was another early comedy – thought to have been written by Shakespeare in around 1594 – and so lacks the sophistication of the later comedies (though not in terms of its convoluted and contrived plot structure!). Recommended edition: “The Comedy of Errors” (Arden Shakespeare: Second Series).

Interesting Fact: This is the shortest of all of Shakespeare’s plays. There’s another good reason to read it: even if it doesn’t turn out to be among your favourite plays of the Bard, at least it won’t take long to find out…

If you enjoyed these Shakespeare posts, you might also enjoy our pick of the best books written about Shakespeare and our interesting facts about Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on July 1, 2013, in Literature, Plays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 100 Comments.

  1. Of these plays I have seen two performed. All’s Well That Ends Well is funny in places if you like that kind of thing, but the plot is tedious and predictable: girl gets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back.

    Comedy of Errors I had to read in college and thought it was painful in its punning and slapstick. Then I saw it performed a couple of years ago, and it was great fun on stage if you didn’t take it seriously.

    You don’t mention Titus Andronicus, my least favorite play.

    • I’ve not got much time for Titus either, which is a bit of a pastiche of Seneca (or at least it reads/performs like pastiche), and shows the revenge tragedy in its early, raw form before writers – including Shakespeare himself, but also Thomas Middleton – modified and developed it, making it a more subtle and complex genre.

      • What interesting about TITUS ANDRONICUS is that, for all its problems (and it has a lot of them), it makes for quite a lively staged production. I’ve seen two productions of it, and both were entertaining nights of theater.

        • I saw the Loughborough Students’ Union Shakespeare Society perform Titus a couple of years ago, in which they reversed all of the gender roles and so Lavinia becomes a man who is raped by two women. Was an interesting new take on the play in many ways – I agree, in performance it can work quite well…

    • All’s Well… is my favourite underrated Shakespeare. Perhaps because I read it, rather than seeing it performed so it went by a bit quicker. Also perhaps because I was a teenager when I read it, and I also read Clamorous Voices alongside it. There’s just something about the girl getting what she wants by being clever and dutiful and determined which is a great adolescent fantasy. (Real life doesn’t quite work like that unfortunately.)

  2. desfischersseele

    You are right! I like Shakespeares plays
    well and read more after looking Al Pacinos ‘Looking for Richard’. But I don’t know those one. Thanks a lot for your inspiration.

  3. I love Coriolanus – I think it tells us more about politics and the public than anything I ever read. I’m not a fan of the histories – but it’s nice to hear some other recommendations than the usual!

    • I know, it’s a shame Coriolanus isn’t better known! It tends to get overshadowed by Hamlet, Lear, etc. Fiennes’ film helped to bring it to a wider audience, though, I think. I wonder how many people were sent to Shakespeare’s play as a result of it…

      • I work as a dramaturg with a very smart, sometimes edgy, theater company in Minneapolis called Frank Theatre, and some of us have been lobbying the artistic director to do a production of CORIOLANUS. I’ll keep you informed of our progress.

  4. I remember seeing The Comedy of Errors performed by a relatively small group – they kept charging in and out of the hall they were performing it in, it was so funny!

  5. I’ve long had a soft spot for “Love’s Labour’s Lost”. It’s not popular because it is (deliberately) plotless, and because it’s full of wordplay that is virtually impossible to follow without notes (and then, the immediacy is gone). However, it is still possible to mount good productions: the first production of any play I ever saw in Stratford was a production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” back in ’78, directed by John Barton and featuring Michael Hordern, Jane Lapotaire, Michael Pennington, and the late, lamented Richard Griffith. It was just about the more perfect and magical evening I have spent in a theatre.

    “Henry VI Part Two” has a tremendous theatrical vigour. The old BBC Shakespeare did a superb job of this one (Jane Howell directed this as part of a tetralogy which included the other two Henry VI plays, as well as the better known “Richard III”). Seeing “Richard III” in the context of the preceding plays in the series cast it in an entirely new light. I think by the time Shakespeare completed the series with “Richard III”, he knew what a great genius he was. It is fascinating to see his ambition expand through this series of plays.

    “Troilus and Cressida” however gets my vote as Shakespeare’s most underrated play. It’s his blackest play – and this could be the reason for its neglect. It’s a play that doesn’t offer the audience any hope at all: the characters aren’t even offered the stature of tragic protagonists. It’s perhaps still a bit too much for us. But I think it’s a magnificent work.

    • Thanks for the comment, as ever! You’ve done well to see Love’s Labour’s Lost performed, and to catch some good productions (especially involving the great Griffiths). I’ll have to look on Youtube to see if any decent past productions have been uploaded, as I’ve never seen that in performance. I was hoping the BBC would follow up their success with last year’s ‘Hollow Crown’ versions of the later tetralogy by doing justice to the earlier quartet this year, but alas, even with the buzz surrounding Richard III recently, no such adaptations have materialised. That old BBC Shakespeare production sounds like it’s worth seeking out though. Great recommendations. I’m going to reread Troilus over the summer, as reading about the play was partly what inspired me to write this post. I agree that it’s certainly a very dark representation of love, honour, and human behaviour. As you say, maybe producers/directors (and we academics, too – though I don’t teach much Shakespeare, alas) are to blame for assuming it’s *too* bleak for people to enjoy…

  6. Excellent, factual essay. I am looking forward to watching Fienne’s film, and bringing up to date my readings of Shakes.

  7. MARK WHELAN'S LITERARY BLOG

    Reblogged this on Mark Whelan's Literary Blog.

  8. Stuff Jeff Reads

    Great post. Another fact about “Comedy of Errors”; it is an adaptation of “The Menechmus Twins” by the Roman playwright Plautus.

  9. I have to admit, I’ve never heard of Coriolanus. Really interesting post, thank you!

  10. Coriolanus is one of my favorite things ever written by anyone ever. It is astounding, and particularly relevant to our modern times, and I highly recommend it to everyone!

  11. In college, I watched Love’s Labour’s Lost and found parts of it very funny. I thought the ending was off, and for me, did not match the story. That is one thought I recommend everyone read. Thank you for such a great post! ~ Rebecca

    • Thanks for your comment, Rebecca! I agree, LLL is a bit of a mixed bag for me. I can see why it isn’t so celebrated as other comedies, but you certainly get something a little different from the other, better-known plays.

  12. Interestingly, Henry VI part 2 was written before parts 1 & 3. Part 2 was such a smash hit with Elizabethan audiences that Shakespeare wrote a sequel, and followed that up with a prequel. Personally I’d have included Titus Andronicus (currently playing in a very good RSC production at the Swan Theatre) instead of Coriolanus, and Two Gentlemen of Verona instead of Comedy of Errors, which is done a great deal. Titus is a hard slog in many ways, with a lengthy opening scene probably written by a collaborator, and many horrors to endure if you want to enjoy the language. Maybe not a good one for relative beginners. Two Gents is a delight, with many themes that Shakespeare would develop in later plays, though it doesn’t have the same punch as Much Ado or As You Like It. Having seen Two Gents recently, I’m not surprised that Shakespeare avoided bringing animals on stage in future plays – the dog stole the show, as dogs are wont to do.

    • Ah, really? That is interesting about part 2 being written earlier than 1 and 3. Thanks, Sheila! I thought about including Titus but didn’t because I know it has garnered quite a lot of support (and been adapted a fair few times) by students in recent times, because of the horrific spectacle of the thing, I suppose. I also don’t rate the play much; but then this is a contentious list which I knew people would wish to quibble over, and rightly, too. You’re right, I should have put in Two Gentlemen, I think – I actually quite like it. Your comment about the dog in the play put me in mind of Shakespeare in Love – I think that scene in the film reflects how the play has been overshadowed by the dog for the last 400 years!

  13. The film Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes was one of the best films I have ever seen with a modern retelling of this story. Despite the use of Shakespearian language it was very easy for the modern person to follow the plot line … I can’t recommend it highly enough.
    Thank you, as usual, for this summary, IL … it made everything very clear.

    • And thanks for your comment, as ever, Angela! Much appreciated. I’ve added your blog to my library ‘Café’ at the top of this blog by the way. I must confess I haven’t actually seen the Fiennes film, only clips, but everything I’ve heard about it, and the bits I’ve been fortunate enough to see, have borne out what you say here. Will have to take the time to watch it soon.

  14. Bless you, IL! And do find time to watch Coriolanus … I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

  15. Thank you for your blogpost! I’ve only ever read one of those plays (A Comedy of Errors), I need to step it up! I agree with the other blogger’s comment about Titus Andronicus. It was quite a disappointing play.

  16. Reblogged this on Rosemarie Cawkwell and commented:
    I’ve heard of most of them and I’m going to see Coriolanus in London next February. I’ll know how to pronounce it properly now :-D

  17. I had to think about the bananas/Coriolanus point, and then I saw the “a:” and realized it must be the UK pronunciation of “bananas,” not my US one with /æ/ in the second-to-last syllable. I’d have to rhyme it with “upon us” or something. Thanks for the post!

  18. What a fantastic blog post! Out of all 10 I’ve, shamefully, only read Henry VI Part 2, and that’s with an English Lit degree to my name! It’s amazing how overlooked some of his plays are but I’ll definitely make more time for some more obscure Shakespeare – loved the interesting facts too.

    • Thanks! Much appreciated, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. If you enjoyed Henry VI Part 2, then I’d recommend going to King John next – not the most celebrated of the Shakespeare histories, but I think a good performance of it – the Rossiter one is on Youtube in its entirety I think – gets all the pomp and pageantry across nicely. Would be interested to see what you think of it!

  19. Hi thanks for this…anything that draws attention to the values in Shakespeare is worthwhile. It is surprising to me how difficult it is to get my “peers” interested in Shakespeare at all – they are intelligent people, well-educated as in university graduates, and yet find the Bard “not accessible” or something like that. It’s their loss but it’s a tragedy in its own right.

    Meanwhile, the note about Troilus and Cressida doesn’t seem quite right to me, The First Folio printed the play between the tragedies and histories according to David Bevington’s Arden edition you have pictured (I have a digital edition of the Folio from Project Gutenberg that doesn’t have it at all). He says that while the quarto called it a history, the folio calls it a tragedy and the table of contents doesn’t make it clear either. Since my (digital) copy of the Folio doesn’t have the play in it, it’s not in the contents list either.

    Meanwhile, the preface to one of the quartos (“to the ever reader”) contradicts the other quarto take by saying the play has never been performed but goes on to say that it is a comedy fit to be compared with the best of Terence and Plautus. It is not clear just what kind of play it actually is: I plan a post on my own blog about the play soon. I’ve seen it three times – in Stratford in the 1980s, and twice in Scotland; each production was wildly different from the others.

    The story of Troilus and Cressida does not come from the ancients and has a medieval source;

    The meaning of the word “pander” I take from the play is “pimp”.

    As Bevington says, Troilus and Cressida is “an amazing play”. For anyone interested, his edition is wonderful.

    Thanks again.

    • That’s great, thanks Steve! Some excellent notes on Troilus and Cressida, and we take your point about ‘pander’ – though the verb is also evidently derived from Pandarus, if not from Shakespeare’s play itself. We may never know for sure…

  20. Thank you for the reminder! I loved Comedy of Errors, as well as the others.

    When I was reading Shakespeare in college (English Lit. major) I at first found some of the old language troublesome until I learned some of the slang. Then, one day, one of my professors from Oxford was sitting in his classroom as we came in. He said nothing. When we finally settled down, he still didn’t speak. Then he suddenly opened the book and began reading. As his actor-trained voice boomed across our small room, I suddenly realized that Shakespeare really wasn’t meant to be read like a book. It’s meant to be seen and heard. He did nothing that day except read Shakespeare, the way a well-trained stage actor would read it. The whole class. By the end, we were all living in the story and understanding the art of the word better than any critical lit. discussion could have achieved in an hour.

    I’ve never forgotten that class.

    • Wow, sounds like one of those once-in-a-blue-moon classes that just blows you away. I think a lot of people need – and lack – that one hour to ‘convert’ them to Shakespeare, the rhythms, the emotive power of the language, and the characters. Great stuff!

  21. I’d add The Winter’s Tale and Pericles (Shakespeare most likely wrote roughly half of the play) to this list. Both such interesting subject choices for a man approaching the end of his career, especially if read in concert with The Tempest.

    • Pericles is an excellent addition, though I think The Winter’s Tale is not quite underrated enough, at least to my mind. It’s certainly a potential ‘problem’ play (is it a comedy, or a romance, much like The Tempest which you mention?), but rather celebrated these days for its insight into love, jealousy, and gender politics…

      • Fair point with regard to The Winter’s Tale, though I find that outside of academic circles, few know it well (or, in the case of my students, few have even heard of it!).

        • That is interesting – I think where I teach it’s quite well known because it’s one of the set texts on a core module in British Drama, so it’s always good to hear what it’s like elsewhere. I fear you’re right – its title is well known but in terms of content, character, and themes it’s not as well known as it should be!

  22. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    For all you Shakespeare fans out there (and we are legion).

  23. I saw a production of The Winter’s Tale last year. An odd mix of comedy, tragedy, romance, and ephemera, but it worked for me.

    • Superb. I’ve never seen it performed, though I’ve heard good things from people who have, like your good self. Will have to check Stratford/London for new productions in the future.

  24. I admire your expertise! This is a fascinating post. Years ago I went to England with a group of writing teachers. They wanted to see plays, so we must have gone to 20-25 of them in a three week period, many of them Shakespeare. As I read through your list, I’m sure I must have seen some of those, but it’s been so long I don’t remember. I loved the article, though. Thanks a lot for following my blog. I’m honored since there are so many blogs available. I will be following yours as well. :) I look forward to becoming better acquainted and informed through the years. :) Marsha :)

  25. Sam Lundberg

    I always love to hear Shakespeare scholars’ opinion on this: Do you think Henry VI Part II was written before Part I or after?

    • Yes, I’d be keen to hear more about this. I always thought they were written in order, purely because the quality of the first is so much weaker than that of part 2, but I know this has been challenged by scholars…

  26. Great post. I am doing Master’s thesis on Hamlet (ahh how original!… )…

    But I have to say that even the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays need close reading and re-reading. Just because they’re popular doesn’t mean that people get all the wonderful complexities, ironies and humor in them.

    Very often I would re-read one of Shakespeare’s “popular plays” and come upon dozens of new discoveries and epiphanies.

    As for underrated plays, I thought you would put Measure for Measure in the list? It too is one of the problem plays and defies genre-classification.

    King John, I think, was a collaboration, not entirely written by Shakespeare? …..

    Anyway, thanks for the post. You’ve definitely inspired me to read some of the plays in the list.

    • Thanks Rajiv some very good points. One could say that all of Shakespeare’s plays are underperformed. I am very envious of you being able to do a master’s thesis on Hamlet; what a great topic!

      • Cheers for your comments Steve. It’s rare to come across a New Zealander on WordPress.

        Well, the grass is greener on the other side. I just posted a comment on someone’s blog regretting that I am not doing master’s in History instead!

        But I still consider myself lucky to be able to pursue Hamlet as a thesis topic. So I will stop moaning and count my blessings :-)

    • I completely agree: there are always new things to be said about Shakespeare, especially as careful close readers are relatively rare. And there are always new insights to be had into Hamlet! I’ve always had a soft spot for it, despite what T. S. Eliot thought.

      I didn’t put Measure for Measure on the list since, despite my own fondness for it, I felt it wasn’t neglected enough, though now I reflect I suppose the plot isn’t that well known, and it is an oddity among Shakespeare’s plays in all sorts of ways (only one set in Vienna, another ‘problem play’, etc.). I wasn’t aware King John was a collaboration – my understanding was that Shakespeare collaborated very early on and very late in his career (Titus, 1 Henry VI; Henry VIII, Pericles, Two Noble Kinsmen), though I know there are exceptions in between, too…

      • I must admit, I am more interested in reading Shakespeare than watching his plays being performed. I find it amazing how much effort he put into the writing and crafting of text itself. Of course, it is great to see those plays performed, but the text itself is so literary, complex and quotable.

        I don’t think people should feel guilty about neglecting some of Shakespeare’s plays. His body of work is quite large, compared to other contemporary playwrights. Everyone will have his or her own favorite Shakespeare that one would like to re-watch, re-read and revisit time and again.

        Claiming one’s love for Hamlet is so cliche. But yes, I LOVE Hamlet. And…, screw T.S. Eliot on that count. He was merely trying to grab attention.

        I need to CLOSELY read more of Shakespeare plays. It is very interesting to notice Shakespeare’s obsession with certain themes, phrases or ideas. Wider reading of his “other” plays gives newer insights into our own “favourite” Shakespeare plays.

  27. Thanks for this post. The Henry VI plays are underappreciated; they ought to be required reading for all aspiring politicians, to learn the dangers of extreme partisianship. If you haven’t already, you might look up “An Age of Kings,” the 1950s BBC adaptation of the history plays from King John to Richard III. It’s a little clunky in spots (what do you expect on a 1950s BBC budget?) but it’s worth a look. Funny Shakespeare never got around to writing Henry VII. On a different subject, I once saw a performance of Comedy of Errors with real identical twins playing the Antipholuses. A neat idea–but it may have left the audience almost as confused as the characters….

    • Haha! Yes, I can imagine that that level of authenticity might be one step too far in terms of preventing audience comprehension… That ‘Age of Kings’ production sounds intriguing, so I’ll definitely be seeking that out, especially as the Henry VI trilogy is so rarely performed in its entirety (I think the RSC did the whole thing over one long afternoon two or three years ago, though I never went to see it, alas). I think I’ll enjoy it, by the sound of it! It’s the quality of acting that matters – it’s what made last year’s BBC Hollow Crown adaptations such a joy, in the main. No need for flashy sets or a large supporting cast: play it roughly as it might have been played on the stage in Shakespeare’s time, with plenty of drama, a bit of action where necessary, but also lots of close-up emotive detail. Thanks for your great comment, which has been very useful :)

      • The Age of Kings BBC series was published as a (presumably abridged) paperback – it was my first introduction to Shakespeare and I loved it.

      • Oops! Sorry, that should have been King Richard II to King Richard III (which sounds so short when it’s phrased like that, but one forgets how many Henries are interposed between). I’ve still never seen a production of King John. But it’s interesting to see on “AOK”‘s cast list such up-and-coming actors as Sean Connery, Judy Dench, and Julian Glover….

  28. am very fond of reading Shakespeare have read bunch of his plays and stories. Loved reading the post. Keep posting :)
    http://foodpeopleloveandstuff.wordpress.com/

  29. I memorized them all when I was studying for Jeopardy.

  30. Love Coriolanus, liked Timon of Athens. Troilus and Cressida is a little dull for me; Chaucer’s version is one of my all-time favorite poems, but Shakespeare’s left me uninspired. I might need to read it again, though.

  31. I have always had a soft spot for Cymbeline and its glorious heroine. The Comedy of Errors is all too frequently performed in the US – I would rather see more productions of the so-called problem plays, including Measure for Measure. All’s Well is another favorite, as are King John and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Troilus & Cressida and Coriolanus have both felt very timely of late – Oregon Shakespeare Festival did a very good Iraq-war T&C last season. I’m still waiting for a production of Two Noble Kinsmen…

  32. Excellent list! I always wonder why no one talks about Loves Labours Lost. That was always one of my favorites. I could see a great modern adaptation of that play being created.

  33. Thank you for the great list! The only one of these plays that I have read is Troilus and Cressida, during a college course on the literary history of the Trojan War. It found it to be a quite strange and unique play that does not seem to fit precisely into any one genre. I’m not even sure if tragicomedy describes it properly.

    By the way, what is your preferred edition of Shakespeare’s plays? I notice that you have images of the Arden volumes in your post; would that be your recommended version?

    • Not being “interesting literature” but keen on Shakespeare, Arden is my preferred edition but Oxford also does some good ones. It is pretty amazing to me that the only one of these plays you have read is perhaps the most problematic of all Shakespeare and to me it is wonderful that you penetrated so deeply into it.

      The best Ardens I have read (not necessarily on this list) are Harold Jenkins’ Hamlet, Kenneth Muir’s Macbeth, and King Lear,,Frank Kermode’s The Tempest, and Jonathan Bate’s Titus Andronicus. The last one changed my mind about the play; I had been corrupted by prejudice which was of course my own fault. Hope you read more of Shakespeare Brian.

    • Thanks for the comment, Brian! I agree with Steve about the Arden editions: they’re often the best, and have extensive notes (on the same page as the text, so none of that fiddly ‘go to the back of the book every time you want a word glossed’ business you get with Penguin editions). But then I think the Oxford editions have the same advantages. Overall, I have more good Arden editions (I agree about Kermode’s The Tempest being very good) than any others. That said, their Hamlet edition (Third Series, so not Jenkins’s I don’t think, though I’m not sure) deviates from the best-known version of the play quite a bit, since the editor has made some unusual choices when it’s come to conflating the Q2 text and the Folio version. On the whole, though, I think Arden are superb.

      • Arden has done a new Hamlet that I haven’t read that “replaces” the Jenkins edition. It is very fat. Oxford did a Hamlet (said to be “the most complete” or some such) shortly after Jenkins’ was out and called it “magisterial”.. To me it was as hard to put down as a good detective novel. David Bevington’s Troilus and Cressida is in a class of its own compared to all others I’ve seen.

  34. I was surprised to see Coriolanus in the list. I remember seeing it at Stratford decades ago with Charles Dance in the lead role (for the record, it was fantastic) and I’ve seen it since in Liverpool – but I suppose, on reflection, it’s not performed that often. I’ve also seen Troilus and Cressida twice, both times at Stratford.

  35. abandonedriddle

    Reblogged this on One reader A thousand lives.

  36. Great post!
    I’m glad ‘King John’ is at the top of this list. I didn’t know the play at all until recently, when the BBC did it as part of their ‘Hollow Crown’ series (alongside Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V), with Ben Whishaw as King John. it was a fantastic adaptation, with some interesting religious imagery, and made me wonder why the play isn’t more widely performed – especially since it has some fantastic (and well-known) speeches in it. Perhaps it’s because the plot is quite political…? Who knows. I feel as though a revival is in order!

    • Agreed, the Hollow Crown series was superb! It was Richard II though rather than King John – though they’re both great medieval-era Shakespeare plays. Ben Whishaw was great – I missed the Michael Jackson overtones to his performance (the monkey, the voice) picked up on by some of the reviewers, but for me his rendering of the role worked! Richard II is a little more widely performed I think (though not as much as, say, Richard III); King John definitely deserves more revivals! (There was one a year or two ago by the RSC I think, but there should be a TV/film version :)

      • How embarrassing! Well, I guess that just proves that both plays aren’t performed enough, as if they were, i would never have confused them. That’s what I like to think, anyway…
        Interesting about the Michael Jackson overtones to Whishaw’s Richard II (got it right that time!), though. I didn’t pick up on it either, and I’m not sure I read any reviews of The Hollow Crown.
        But, speaking of The Hollow Crown makes me think of Tom Hiddleston… I’m very excited about the production of Coriolanus that he’s in this winter. And I totally agree that it’s another underperformed play. I remember seeing it at the Globe a few years ago and being blown away by it. Hopefully the brilliant Ralph Fiennes film will have rekindled interest in the play. And Tom Hiddleston in the lead role probably won’t hurt its popularity either!

        • Don’t worry, it’s actually thrown out an interesting parallel between the two plays in how the king and his advisers/nobles in both plays clash and end up in direct conflict – and interesting connections are the bread and butter of Interesting Literature! And thanks – I had no idea about Tom Hiddleston being in Coriolanus this winter, that’s fantastic – one to look out for. Superb! It does indeed look as though Coriolanus’ status as an underrated play is not likely to continue for much longer :)

          • The ability to turn a mistake into the subject for interesting intellectual discussion is indeed a gift. Use it well!
            The Hiddleston Coriolanus will definitely be one to look out for, and should be easy to get to see even if it does sell out, because NT Live are broadcasting to cinemas worldwide. They showed Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth the other night, and they’re broadcasting Adrian Lester / Rory Kinnear in Othello in September. Let the Shakespeare onslaught begin!

  37. I found “King John” to be an excruciatingly boring experience when I saw the BBC’s version of it. (In fact, I watched all of their complete Shakespeare plays. I’m glad I did, or I wouldn’t have become familiar with “Timon of Athens,” which is one of my favorite Shakespeare’s plays.

    Also, Roger Daltry, singer for The Who, did a charming job of playing the lead role(s) in “A Comedy of Errors.”

  38. Reblogged this on Stripped down and commented:
    For many literature geeks, this doesn’t go unnoticed. :)

  39. ‘To gild refined gold, to paint the lily’ Interestingly, I recently read that in Conrad’s book “The Duel.” He didn’t have it in quotes, either. I thought it was a great line. I’ve seen everyone of Shakespeare’s plays, thanks to the BBC. Some were tough to sit through. But most are pretty good. The Henry the VIs were pretty good, thanks mostly to the actor the BBC chose to play the role.

  40. I have not read any of the above listed, I am limited to A Midsummer Night Dream, Othello and As You Like It.

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