This year, I read all of Shakespeare’s plays. I don’t know why, exactly, I decided to do it, but I did. I’d meant to read the poetry, too, but that didn’t happen. Another time. Since I love to rank things, I thought it would be fun to discuss the experience a bit and rank my most and least favorite plays of his.
I decided to read them chronologically (as best I could manage, the dates are often uncertain), and I’m glad I did. Shakespeare’s career has a clear arc. He is very, very inconsistent early, has a middle period in which almost everything is a masterpiece and closes uncertainly, if not so spottily as he starts. At the beginning of his career, he reads like someone still learning his craft, and at the end, he reads as someone straining against his limitations. There is very clear development and it’s interesting to watch it unfold. Writers like Shakespeare are too often spoken of in hushed tones, as though they were not human. Well, he was. He was human. He was a great writer much of the time, but sometimes, he kind of stunk. It happens. There’s a reason his lesser known plays are lesser known.
Time for a bit of ranking. I read a total of 39 plays with an average rating of 3.9 our of 5 (that’s not bad!). I’m going to start with the ten worst. These are the plays that you’d have to pay me to revisit…
- (the worst) Titus Andronicus – This was a first of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and I find it completely worthless. It is steeped in misogyny and pointless violence (early Shakespeare was often quite misogynist, something that he seems to have gotten past in his later work).
- All’s Well that Ends Well – The only play other than Titus to garner the lowest rating (1/5).
- Troillus and Cressida
- Timon of Athens
- Edward III (3-5 are all collaborations and likely suffer by way of the collaborators more than Shakespeare)
- The Taming of the Shrew
- Love’s Labours Lost (the comedies were often disappointing, he uses the same jokes over and over).
- Pericles, Prince of Tyre (another collaboration)
- Henry Vi, Part 2
- The Merry Wives of Windsor
The above group represents all of the plays which garnered a rating below a 4. What follows is a list of all 5s. These are my favorites in some kind of preferential order.
- The Tempest
- King Lear
- As You Like It
- The Winter’s Tale
- Julius Caesar
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- Richard II
- Henry IV, Part 2
I am, it seems, one for the tragedies and romances. As noted above, the comedies don’t often work for me, though some of them are truly brilliant. There is a wonderful run of histories that begins with Richard II and runs through Henry the V. These work as one long narrative, and Shakespeare is nearly always on his game.
Still, time has spoken about certain plays for a reason. There’s nothing surprising about my favorite plays by Shakespeare. Perhaps the best surprise for me was too discover how much I loved Macbeth after hating it in high school. I also found Othello improved upon re-reading.
There we go. It was a long project and I’m not entirely sure it was worth it. But I did it, and it is something to be able to say I’ve read them all. I do not, however, advise you to do the same.