The best of the Bard’s plays, with some interesting facts about them
Every Shakespeare play is a classic, of course. But William Shakespeare left behind nearly forty plays, including his collaborations with John Fletcher and others, and it would be disingenuous to claim that they all have equal ‘classic’ status among the Bard’s work. What we’ve compiled here, then, is less a definitive list of ‘best Shakespeare plays’ and more a small selection of some of his most talked-about, reread, performed, and adapted plays. We’ve included some facts about them as we go. We’ve not attempted to place them in any preferential order: that would be a step too far. But what, if you had to choose, would be the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays?
Romeo and Juliet. The most famous scene in this play, written in the mid-1590s, is the ‘balcony’ scene – though there has been some debate about whether it would have originally contained a balcony when originally performed. (Shakespeare simply has Juliet appearing ‘at a window’ in the stage directions.) Nevertheless, Romeo and Juliet has captured the world’s imagination as a classic tale of doomed young lovers (though the story, as with most of Shakespeare’s plays, wasn’t originated by the Bard himself, but adapted from earlier sources). Thousands of Valentines are written to ‘Juliet’ each year in Verona.
Macbeth. Based on a real king and queen of Scotland named Mac Bethad mac Findlaích and Gruoch, Macbeth was composed shortly after the Gunpowder Plot of November 1605, the Catholic conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London and, with them, King James I of England. James, of course, was already King James VI of Scotland when he came to the English throne in 1603, and he claimed descent from Banquo – hence the prophecy surrounding Banquo’s descendants in the play. In 1849, the play caused a riot in New York, which arose after two rival actors fell out.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies, this play is about ‘the course of true love’ and how it never runs smooth. The enchanting story of magic and fairies has inspired some unusual adaptations: in 1911, Herbert Beerbohm Tree staged a celebrated production of the play which included live rabbits on stage. It’s even influenced Hollywood blockbusters: the director of the 1988 action movie Die Hard, John McTiernan, was inspired to have the events of the film take place over a single night by reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
King Lear. This play, which opens with the titular king preparing to divide his kingdom up between his three daughters Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia, was based on an earlier play about ‘King Leir’, king of ancient Britain. In the original chronicle on which that earlier play was itself based, the story has a happy ending – but Shakespeare saw the potential for tragedy in this tale of parents, children, siblings, and civil war. The play also, somewhat pleasingly, contains the earliest known reference to a ‘football player’ – though footballers weren’t paid nearly as much in Shakespeare’s day.
Hamlet. Based on an earlier play, now sadly lost, Hamlet is often considered Shakespeare’s masterpiece. It certainly marked a turning point in his development as a playwright, seen in the more intense and psychologically complex soliloquies spoken by the title character. Composed in around 1600-1, Hamlet has received the somewhat unusual honour of being translated into Klingon. The Klingon Hamlet, whose full title is The Tragedy of Khamlet, Son of the Emperor of Qo’noS, was translated by Nick Nicholas and Andrew Strader of the ‘Klingon Shakespeare Restoration Project’, using the fictional language from the television series Star Trek. Is this Shakespeare’s best play of all? T. S. Eliot didn’t think so, as he argued in his 1919 essay on Hamlet.
The Tempest. Often read as Shakespeare’s farewell to the London stage, this play was first performed in 1611 and was, indeed, the last play Shakespeare wrote entirely on his own. After writing this play about a shipwreck and a magical island, Shakespeare went on to collaborate with John Fletcher on several plays, including Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost play Cardenio, based on a story from Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
Richard III. Interest in this play has always been high, but it has received a boost in the last few years following the discovery of the real King Richard III’s remains underneath a Leicester car park. One of the most intriguing discoveries that followed was the fact that the real King Richard, although not exactly a ‘crookback’ (he is described, in brilliant Shakespearean metaphors, as a ‘bottled spider’ and a ‘bunch-back’d toad’ in the play), did suffer from scoliosis and a slightly deformed spine – meaning that the propaganda which Shakespeare’s play helped to perpetuate had some basis in fact.
Othello. Shakespeare’s great tragedy about the dangers of jealousy – memorably described in the play as ‘the green-eyed monster’ – is subtitled The Moor of Venice, pointing up Othello’s ethnic and religious identity as a North African Muslim. In Shakespeare’s source material for the play, a short Italian novella titled Un Capitano Moro, many of the characters that Shakespeare includes in his play are featured, but all except one are simply known by their rank or title. The one exception is Desdemona. Her name, fittingly, means ‘ill-fated’.
1 Henry IV. This is probably Shakespeare’s most widely praised history play, although Henry V is also much-loved. The standout scene takes place in the Boar’s Head tavern, the favourite haunt of young Prince Hal (later to become Henry V) and his friend, the avuncular knight Sir John Falstaff, whose favourite pastimes are eating, drinking wine, and having his end away. Having received a summons to appear before his father – King Henry IV, of course – the young Hal and Falstaff play-act what they imagine the meeting will be like, revealing, in the process, more about the distant relationship between the king and his son, compared with Hal’s warm friendship with that personification of England, fat John Falstaff. But at the end of the scene comes a twist – though we’ll say no more here, for fear of offering spoilers…
Twelfth Night. This play was probably first performed on 2 February 1602, or Candlemas – which was the end of the Christmas festival at the time. Twelfth Night focuses on two twins, Viola and Sebastian, separated as a result of a shipwreck. Viola disguises herself as a boy to get close to Duke Orsino (whom she loves), in the process attracting the attention of Olivia, who falls in love with the new ‘boy’ at the Duke’s court. This play was recently performed at the Globe in London, starring Mark Rylance as Viola and Stephen Fry as Malvolio, the steward trying to dampen everybody’s holiday fun.
So much for Shakespeare’s ‘greatest’ plays – but what about his lesser-known ones? Continue your Shakespearean journey with our pick of Shakespeare’s best underrated plays, and some interesting stories behind them. For more play recommendations, check out our pick of the best plays by women, the best ancient plays, and the greatest Restoration comedies and tragedies.
Image (top): Poster for Thomas Keene Macbeth production, c. 1884 (author: W.J. Morgan & Co. Lith.); Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): A scene from Twelfth Night by William Hamilton, c. 1797; Wikimedia Commons.