Picking the top 5 plays by Shakespeare is sure to spark a quarrel. “Where’s King Lear? What about The Tempest? No Winter’s Tale ... are you serious?”
But if your favorite play hasn’t made the cut, you can argue your case on our Readers Respond: Best Plays – Shakespeare page.
Top 5 Plays by Shakespeare
Considered by many to be the Bard’s greatest play, this deeply moving story follows Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, as he grieves for his father and avenges his death. Possibly drawing on William Shakespeare’s personal experience of loosing his own son, Hamnet, in 1596, this play manages to explore the complex psychology of its tragic hero hundreds of years before the emergence of psychology as a concept. For this alone, Hamlet deserves the number one spot in our list.
- Romeo and Juliet
Shakespeare is perhaps most famous for Romeo and Juliet, the classic story of two “star-crossed lovers”. This play has seeped into the consciousness of popular culture: if we describe someone as romantic, we might describe him as “a Romeo”, and the balcony scene is possibly the world’s most recognized (and quoted) dramatic text. The love story unfolds against the Montague-Capulet feud – a subplot that pervades the entire play and provides the memorable action scenes. Shakespeare gets straight down to business at the start of the play and stages a fight between Montague’s and Capulet’s serving men. The key reason behind Romeo and Juliet’s popularity is its timeless themes; anyone of any age today can relate to a story about two people from very different backgrounds falling head-over-heels in love.
Macbeth deserves its place on this list because it is “tightly written”. Short, punchy and intense, this play follows the rise and fall of Macbeth from soldier to King to tyrant. Although his characterization is astutely written and the plot is perfectly formulated, it is Lady Macbeth that steals the show. She is one of Shakespeare’s most enduring villains; capable of manipulating the weaker Macbeth. It is her ambition that drives this play forwards with such intensity.
- Julius Caesar
Loved by many, this play follows Marcus Brutus and his involvement in the assassination of Roman emperor, Julius Caesar. Those who have not read the play are often surprised to learn that Caesar only appears in a handful of scenes – rather, the audience is asked to invest in Brutus’ conflicting morals and his psychological journey throughout the play.
- Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing is Shakespeare’s most loved comedy. The play mixes comedy and tragedy, and is therefore one of the Bard’s most interesting texts from a stylistic point of view. The key to the play’s popularity rests on the turbulent love-hate relationship between Benedick and Beatrice. The two are locked in a battle of wits – although we know they really love each other; they just can’t admit it to one another. Some critics class Much Ado About Nothing as a comedy of manners, because it pokes fun at aristocratic behavior and language.
So there we have it – five of the best plays by Shakespeare. If you were hoping to see The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor or A Midsummer Night's Dream, then I can’t blame you for feeling cheated!
Remember: you can argue for what you think should be in the top five on our Readers Respond: Best Plays – Shakespeare page.