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Five underrated Shakespeare plays to read immediately

“Hamlet,” “Othello,” “King Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet,” … Shakespeare’s most famous plays stand as iconic pieces of drama and literature. Nearly everyone knows them, and most can even quote a line or two. However, Shakespeare wrote 36 plays (or 37, or 38, depending on who you’re talking to) and much of his lesser-known work is just as good, or even better, than some of his famous work in my opinion. So to save you some time, I am providing five recommendations for underrated Shakespeare. Some plays are fun, some are political, some are heartbreaking, but every play has something to offer. I always recommended seeking out movies and stage performances of Shakespeare’s work (it was made to be seen and heard, after all), but reading plays is also a great way to consume them. So, to make use of your copious free time during midterm season, here are five underrated Shakespeare plays to go read.

“Coriolanus”: “Julius Caesar” gets all the love, but in my opinion, this is Shakespeare’s best Roman play. Set during the wars between the Romans and the Visigoths, Coriolanus follows the story of renowned military general Caius Martius and his struggle to adjust to civilian life. It’s uber-political, with a great message about political campaigns and classism that still rings true today. There’s a healthy dose of homoeroticism, a terrifying female lead who puts Lady Macbeth to shame, and the intrigue and plot twists will keep you on the edge of your seat. As a tragedy, “Coriolanus” ends badly, but there’s still something cathartic about it. If you’re looking for more political drama in your Shakespeare, or if you’re a fan of queer subtext (or just text) in Shakespeare’s works, this is the play for you.

“Cymbeline”: At its core, Cymbeline is Shakespeare’s greatest hits montage, but it’s a greatest hits montage in the best way possible. Shakespeare reuses all of his plotlines while crafting a unique story about the adventures of Briton Princess Imogen, as she faces doltish suitors, evil stepmothers and the invading Roman army. Imogen really is one of Shakespeare’s most loveable heroines. “Cymbeline” is bursting with plot, with a jaw-dropping twist in Act IV and enough characters and hijinks to keep you entertained throughout. It’s very hard to be bored by Cymbeline, and the unabashed wackiness of the plot is a ton of fun. There’s also a very relevant message about the dangers of nationalism running through the play. But mostly, it’s just a good time. 

“Henry VI”: Technically, this is three plays for the price of one! “Henry VI” is a trilogy, made up of the aptly named “Henry VI part I,” “Henry VI part II” and “Henry VI part III.” These plays follow the story of the Wars of the Roses, and as an added bonus, they’re the plays that inspired “Game of Thrones.” There’s scheming and intrigue galore, some great romance storylines, a populist uprising and some seriously epic battles. There are also amazing female characters who drive the plot forward, a rarity in Shakespeare’s histories. In my opinion, these plays are some of the most underrated in Shakespeare, and “Henry VI part II” in particular is a personal favorite of mine. They can be a bit dense to read, but if you get a good edition (I recommend the Arden), or if you can find a good production nearby (Shakespeare and Company in western MA is doing “Henry VI part II” this summer!) they are absolutely worth your while.

“Measure for Measure”: The problem play to end all problem plays, “Measure for Measure” has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in popularity among Shakespeareans. However, it’s still relatively obscure for most people. The play follows the efforts of the nun Isabella to free her brother from a death sentence. What could have been dull legal drama explodes into something much more substantive and much more important. “Measure for Measure” is a play about sexual assault, fundamentalist Christianity, sex work, justice, mercy and morality. It’s dark, twisted, surprisingly funny at times and incredibly relevant to our modern day. The play comes with an obvious trigger warning, but if you want to see how Shakespeare tackles difficult issues, this is a great play to read.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor”: Essentially “The Real Housewives of Elizabethan England,” this play is the closest Shakespeare ever got to a pure sitcom. The play follows the beloved character Falstaff through more of his failed money-making schemes. Facing eviction, Falstaff plans to seduce the two richest women in town. The problem? He sent them identical love letters! The wives work out the ploy immediately, and hijinks ensue. Add in a comedy Frenchman, a classic true-love plot and some cheese-eating Welsh faeries, and you’ve got yourself a winner. “Merry Wives” is laugh-out-loud funny, and it stars some of Shakespeare’s strongest women. It often reads like an ode to Shakespeare’s hometown, which only adds to the charm. This is the play I always read to aid my mental health, it’s just that fun.


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