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Top 10 Shakespeare Plays

No doubt every Shakespeare fan has his or her own short list of the Bard's greatest works. Although each play is a treasure that I have enjoyed more than once, I have whittled down my list of favorites to the following ten. For extensive resources please click on the play name.

1. Hamlet

Since its first recorded production, Hamlet has engrossed playgoers, thrilled readers, and challenged even the most gifted actors. No other single work of fiction has produced more commonly used expressions. If you are sure in your heart of hearts that every dog will have his day, you are echoing the philosopher-prince.

2. Macbeth

Each time I read this whirlwind tale of murder, betrayal, and lusty ambition, I find an even greater appreciation for Shakespeare's unsurpassed ability to tell a riveting story with transcendent poetic imagery. In our modern history of tragic theatre, Macbeth has no equal.

3. Julius Caesar

Although there were earlier Elizabethan plays on the subject of Julius Caesar and his turbulent rule, Shakespeare's penetrating study of political life in ancient Rome is the only version to recount the demise of Brutus and the other conspirators.

4. The Tempest

Hailed as a stunning climax to the career of England's favorite dramatist, The Tempest is a play praising the glories of reconciliation and forgiveness. Some believe that Prospero's final speeches signify Shakespeare's personal adieu from the stage.

5. 1 Henry IV

Many believe 1 Henry IV to be Shakespeare's greatest history play. The unforgettable characters Hotspur, Prince Hal, King Henry, and the jovial John Falstaff affirm John Dryden's assertion that Shakespeare was "the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul."

6. King Lear

Despite the relatively simple primary plot -- an aging monarch who decides to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters -- King Lear is the most complex and analytical of all Shakespeare's great tragedies. The play is an efficacious exploration of the boundlessness of evil, suffering, and love.

7. Romeo and Juliet

Celebrated for the radiance of its lyric poetry, Romeo and Juliet was tremendously popular from its first performance. The sweet whispers shared by young Tudor lovers throughout the realm were often referred to as "naught but pure Romeo and Juliet."

8. King John

In the shadow of Shakespeare's second tetralogy of history plays lies this neglected masterpiece. The play is cursed with the egregious reputation of being Shakespeare's great artistic failure. Never has a work so remarkable been so consistently underrated. With its vigorous plot, immortal verse, and subtle combination of Tudor and Machiavellian theories on kingship, King John is worthy of rediscovery.

9. Much Ado About Nothing

The happy conclusion of Much Ado About Nothing is the reason we classify the play as a comedy. However, the true humor in the drama is left to the remarkable collection of supporting characters who dazzle us with wit and confound us with absurdity.

10. The Winter's Tale

The Winter's Tale is considered a romantic comedy, but tragic elements are interwoven throughout the play. First produced at the Globe around 1610, it is one of Shakespeare's final plays. For a first-hand account of the staging of The Winter's Tale in Shakespeare's London, please click here.

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Top Shakespeare Plays. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2006. < >.


More Resources

 Shakespeare's Reputation in Elizabethan England
 Quotations About William Shakespeare
 Portraits of Shakespeare

 Shakespeare's Sexuality
 Shakespeare's Boss: The Master of Revels
 Hamlet Essays and Study Guide

 Macbeth Essays and Study Guide
 Othello Essays and Study Guide
 Romeo and Juliet Essays and Study Guide
 Julius Caesar Essays and Study Guide

 Shakespeare's Metaphors and Similes
 Shakespeare's Blank Verse
 Elements of Comedy

 How many plays did Shakespeare write?
 Shakespeare Timeline
 Edward Alleyn (Actor)
 William Kempe (Actor)

 What is Tragic Irony?
 Characteristics of Elizabethan Tragedy

Did You Know?

microsoft images Shakespeare was familiar with seven foreign languages and often quoted them directly in his plays. His vocabulary was the largest of any writer, at over twenty-four thousand words. According to James Davie Butler, "the total vocabulary of Milton's poetical remains is more nearly seventeen than eighteen thousand (17,377); and that of Homer, including the hymns as well as both Iliad and Odyssey, is scarcely nine thousand. Five thousand eight hundred and sixty words exhaust the vocabulary of Dante's Divina Comedia." (The Once Used Words in Shakespeare)

Notes on Shakespeare...

Richard Shakespeare, Shakespeare's paternal grandfather, was a farmer in the small village of Snitterfield, located four miles from Stratford. Records show that Richard worked on several different farms which he leased from various landowners. Coincidentally, Richard leased land from Robert Arden, Shakespeare's maternal grandfather. Read on...

Shakespeare acquired substantial wealth thanks to his acting and writing abilities, and his shares in London theatres. The going rate was £10 per play at the turn of the sixteenth century. So how much money did Shakespeare make? Read on...

Henry Bolingbroke, the eldest son of John of Gaunt and the grandson of King Edward III, was born on April 3, 1367. Henry usurped the throne from the ineffectual King Richard II in 1399, and thus became King Henry IV, the first of the three kings of the House of Lancaster. Read on...

Known to the Elizabethans as ague, Malaria was a common malady spread by the mosquitoes in the marshy Thames. The swampy theatre district of Southwark was always at risk. King James I had it; so too did Shakespeare's friend, Michael Drayton. Read on...

Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most captivating and complex figures in history. In 1152, Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet (later to become Henry II). Their son, John, was born in 1167 and is the title character of Shakespeare's history play.

More to Explore

 The Chronology of Shakespeare's Plays
 Establishing the Order of the Plays
 Settings of Shakespeare's Plays by Location
 Historical Settings of Shakespeare's Plays by Date

 Shakespeare in Old English?
 Shakespeare's Influence on Other Writers
 Daily Life in Shakespeare's London

 Life in Stratford (structures and guilds)
 Life in Stratford (trades, laws, furniture, hygiene)
 Stratford School Days: What Did Shakespeare Read?

 Games in Shakespeare's England [A-L]
 Games in Shakespeare's England [M-Z]
 An Elizabethan Christmas
 Clothing in Elizabethan England

 Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare's Patron
 King James I of England: Shakespeare's Patron
 The Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare's Patron
 Going to a Play in Elizabethan London

 Ben Jonson and the Decline of the Drama
 Publishing in Elizabethan England
 Shakespeare's Audience
 Religion in Shakespeare's England

 Alchemy and Astrology in Shakespeare's Day
 Entertainment in Elizabethan England
 London's First Public Playhouse

 Shakespeare's Boss
 Shakespeare's Audience
 Shakespeare Hits the Big Time