We rank our ten favorite Shakespeare plays

Sargent - Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Macbeth may not be one of our favorite Shakespeare plays, but this portrait of Ellen Terry playing Lady Macbeth is probably our favorite picture by John Singer Sargent

Since starting the Emsworth blog, we’ve been amazed to see how many first-rate websites and blogs are devoted more or less exclusively to Shakespeare. The one we like best and visit the most is the indispensable Shakespeare Geek, whose learned readers happily debate such enduring questions as whether Hamlet’s mother was in on the murder of his father. The Geek has guest appearances from Shakespeare experts, passes along news from the world of Shakespeare scholarship, and cheers the ongoing impact of Shakespeare on culture.

The Geek recently invited readers to rank their favorite ten Shakespeare plays so he can poll the results. This is our list:

10. Measure for Measure. A bracingly earthy play in which a hypocritical judge sentences fornicators to death, but demands sex from a woman who seeks mercy for her brother. Angelo is one of our favorite villains. And there’s the glorious cameo role of Barnardine, the reprobate who successfully insists that he’s too drunk to be executed.

We were delighted to learn recently that, back in the early 1800s when Thomas Bowdler prepared his editions of Shakespeare with the smutty parts taken out or rewritten to make them suitable for family reading, he threw up his hands and gave up Measure for Measure as an incurable case.

Shylock -- Al Pacino (2004 movie)

Al Pacino as Shylock

9. The Merchant of Venice. The first Shakespeare we ever read and still a top favorite, even though we have yet to see a good production. Who can resist either the trial scene or the “In such a night” duet of Lorenzo and Jessica?

We’d like a moratorium on the whining about the ethnic stereotypes in this play. Sure, Shylock’s character shows evidence of the ingrained prejudices of the day, but the playwright’s affirmation of our common humanity was a breakthrough. And as Portia says, “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces.”

8. Troilus and Cressida. All good literature and drama is “relevant” (how we despise that tiresome word!) in today’s world. But what Shakespeare play presents a more apt metaphor for our own times than this tale of Greeks, lost in sensuality and relativism, who have lost the sense of what they’re fighting for, or why it makes any difference which side they’re on? The play’s attractions include two of Shakespeare’s most repulsive characters, Thersites and Pandarus.

Falstaff - Orson Wells

Orson Wells as Falstaff

7. Henry IV, Part 1. The play that gives the best sense of England in the Bard’s own day. Prince Hal’s slumming with Falstaff is great fun.  But the picture of Falstaff’s manning his regiment with unarmed peasants for cannon fodder is sobering. Those were cruel times.

If the Shakespeare Geek were inviting his readers to rank their favorite practical joke scenes in Shakespeare, our favorite would be the prank Falstaff’s fellow villains played him on the highway near Gadshill. (Our second favorite is the hilarious scene in All’s Well in which the blindfolded Paroles, believing himself a prisoner of the enemy, doesn’t hesitate to betray his comrades.)

Prospero -- John Gielgud

John Gielgud as Prospero

6. Othello. So many Shakespeare plays revolve around characters like Iago who control and manipulate people around them that we’ve often thought the playwright must have had recurring fantasies of having godlike control over his fellow humans. But none of the Bard’s other puppet masters is so thoroughly sociopathic as Iago. The visceral impact of the final scene is unparalleled.

5. The Tempest.  Gonzalo will forever be a hero to Emsworth and all bibliophiles because he made sure the castaway Prospero was supplied not only with food and clothes, but also with books:

Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnish’d me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.

Even the wretched Caliban knew the value of Prospero’s books:

First to possess his books; for without them
He’s but a sot

4. Hamlet. For all the usual reasons, we never tire of Hamlet. And the comic relief — the garrulous Polonius, the traveling players, the gravediggers — always comes just when the play needs it the most.

Fuchsia -- Mervyn Peake's drawing

Mervyn Peake's drawing of his own character, Fuchsia

3. Twelfth Night. Here we confess that since boyhood we have been prone to hopeless crushes on fictional female characters: Mona in Elizabeth Enright’s The Four-Story Mistake, Perry Mason’s secretary Della Street, Titus Groan’s sister Fuchsia in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, Bobbie Wickham in P. G. Wodehouse’s Wooster/Jeeves stories, Jane Austen’s Emma — and the quick-witted, slender-figured Viola, heroine of Twelfth Night.

Feste’s our favorite Shakespeare fool. There’s just no other Shakespeare comedy that we like nearly so well.

2. Julius Caesar. A gripping story, the best plot of any Shakespeare play. So many delicious scenes: Cassius’s courtship of Brutus, the assassination of the tyrant Caesar, the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, the exquisite quarrel between Brutus and Cassius — and especially the cameo appearance of the unfortunate Cinna the poet. “Tear him for his bad verses!”

Brian Bedford as Lear

Brian Bedford as Lear at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, 2007

1. King Lear. This is Emsworth’s favorite Shakespeare.  We identify in an alarming way with Lear, with his monumental mistakes of judgment, with his inability to swallow his pride, with his instinct for the grand and the dramatic.  And Emsworth has three daughters too (and is counting on them to take care of him in his old age)! 

The comic moments in King Lear almost overshadow the tragic. Just when his heartache is most acute, Lear has the presence of mind to address “Poor Tom” with a self-deprecating witticism: “Didst thou give all to thy two daughters?”


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19 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] taking this one straight out of Emsworth’s blog because he basically called me out by […]

  2. […] taking this one straight out of Emsworth’s blog because he basically called me out by name: If the Shakespeare Geek were inviting his readers to […]

  3. […] To see the list and decide if you agree, go to the Emsworth blog. […]

  4. thank god the first list without romeo and Juliet, his most overrated and actually poorly written. Great list

  5. P.S. Personally, I’m all in favor of ending sentences with prepositions. We shan’t be slaves to convention!

  6. Hey, nice piece on Pacino, and nicely written. I wasn’t going to try to get to NYC to see him acting in the park (too much extraneous noise outdoors), but I’d make an effort to see the show if they bring it to a theater. And I missed Looking for Richard entirely. Must get a copy somehow. Maybe my daughter can get it on Netflix. Will you get to see this Merchant yourself?

    And I like your bit on the parallel plots in The Merchant. Of course none of these parallel details were accidental. Just when you get frustrated with Shakespeare for some of his seemingly slapdash plot turns (like the end of As You Like It), you forgive him for the care and thought he put into material like this.

  7. ok – here’s the link for the article I used the photo for, (for which I used the photo):


    And here’s another on MoV. I teach the parallel plots.


    (my pseudonym is Leah…)

  8. OF course King Lear is #1. It’s the best play I’ve ever read in my life. It’s more powerful and bigger than any one person can play.

    If you want to see my meager article on Merchant and Al Pacino, I’ll send you the link. But I’d rather wait till I write a real article on King Lear. Keep up the good work!


  9. Проект. Куплю срубов
    Нужен штукатур

  10. Carole,
    I loved Olivier as Richard III too. Was startled to see that, next year (2011) at the Stratford Festival, Richard will played by a woman, Seana McKenna! Guess we’ll be seeing a little more of Richard’s feminine side. But she is a world-class actress, and I fully expect it will work.

  11. Laura,
    I poached the Pacino pic from who-knows-where on the internet and claim no rights in it whatsoever. So use it with my blessing! Looking forward to your article.

  12. Wonderful website!

    I would like to use your Al Pacino picture in an article. Please let me know if that’s okay, and I’ll send you the link. Your website and credit will be on the article, and I make no more than two or three dollars for the article (really.)

    Thank you.

    Laura Bernell

  13. Richard 111 is my favourite Shakespeare play for two reasons really, one is it was my first Shakespeare play i saw when very young, and two i was introduced to it by Laurence Olivier through his wonderful film performance as Richard 111. I became an instant fan not just of Olivier but also of Shakespeare’s works. I think that much of the play is Tudor propaganda personally as i have read many books on Richard and i was a member of the Richard 111 society for quite awhile and this image of Richard as a complete monster who will stop at nothing to gain the throne and kill everyone in his path i think is untrue. But discussing the play by Shakespeare i have said i think it is a wonderful play and such characters with Richard at the helm. I have recently purchased the DVD of Olivier’s film of Richard 111, and i think personally that production made in the 1950’s is one of the best filmed Shakespeare ever done. Olivier’s performance was amazing he really got under the skin of Richard and made the part his own. I also have Olivier in Othello, and Henry V, and Hamlet he did bring Shakespeare to the masses i think.Problem is with Shakespeare is the language many people i know say they can’t understand it and it is to flowery, but i try to explain to them you don’t have to understand every word to get pleasure from his plays, as long as you know the story line you can follow the plot so to speak. I think that Shakespeare was the greatest dramatist that ever lived his plays cover so may aspects of life and human nature and still relate to life today.

  14. William S.: Allowing myself only ten choices made for tough choices. Richard III really is a favorite of mine too. To be honest, though, the play lost a few points with me for the very reason you cite: I can’t convince myself that Lady Anne really WOULD have made that 180 degree turn from hating and despising that murderer to hopping in the sack with him.

  15. What no Richard 3 in the top ten?!

    that scene with Lady Anne convincing her to bed him after mudrdering her husband in sight of his coffin? his connivings against family and country? Here is a true villain. A royal villain.

    and no Makkers either?

    but then we all identify with different bits of the Bardalicious one.

    yours in the name of

  16. Great List, hard to argue with. Fun blog! (Which I’ve just discovered.)
    Wow. A National Review/Buckley-Reading, Oxford-Believing, Rochester-Living Writer. Wish I knew who you were.
    ~ A fellow NR/B-R, O-B, R-L W.

  17. All my life I’ve been searching for someone else — anyone — who’s also read and loved Titus Groan. Your comment is close enough. I can die content.

  18. I can’t help but love a post that mentions both Peake and Enright.

  19. Great list and I love your reasons!
    And although I am female, I too loved Mona Melendy and Emma along with the brilliant Viola!

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