Everyone knows Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard III (or knows of them at least). Even Richard II, As 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.
1. 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 sealed 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 Fact: The 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.
2. 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 Fact: It 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.
3. 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 Fact: The 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!).
4. 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 Fact: This play has the largest cast of all of Shakespeare’s plays, with over fifty named parts and several smaller roles.
5. 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 Fact: Although 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.
6. 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 Fact: Vladimir 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…’).
7. 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’.
8. 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 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’.
9. Troilus and Cressida. The 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).
10. 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…