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Ranking every Shakespeare play: part two

Welcome back to my ranking of every Shakespeare play! This week, we are looking at my top nineteen plays, all of which are fabulous in their own right. In case you missed the first article, I have seen and/or read every Shakespeare play, and have decided to compile my own (definitive) ranking of them. Here we go!

  1. Coriolanus – Shakespeare at his most political, the double whammy of Coriolanus and Volumnia makes this one of the canon’s most fascinating character pieces. It’s a play about war, and what it does to people. It’s a play about the relationship between parent and child. It’s a play about politics and class. Intrigued? You should be. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a healthy dose of homoerotic tension in Act IV.
  1. The Winter’s Tale – Lyrical, strange and quietly gorgeous, this play shows humanity descend to its worst and then grow towards redemption. The trio of women at its core (Hermione, Paulina and Perdita) are truly fantastic, and Leontes’ paranoia is frighteningly believable. The second half is dragged down by some deeply unfunny comedic subplots, but the main plot more than makes up for it.
  1. As You Like It – A relatively uncomplicated pastoral comedy, with one of Shakespeare’s best heroines in Rosalind. Orlando is the OG himbo, and the joie de vivre this play exudes is just magical. The ending of the play is a little bit questionable, but as a whole, it’s lovely.
  1. Cymbeline – You’d be forgiven for calling this “The Greatest Hits of William Shakespeare.” It’s practically bursting at the seams with plot, as Shakespeare tries to reuse nearly every storyline from his previous works. Yes, it can get a little overwhelming and ridiculous at times, but it’s carried by the energy, dammit! The play also features one of Shakespeare’s most loveable heroines in Imogen, it manages to handle its wide range of genres, tropes and subplots quite well and there’s some interesting commentary on nationalism.
  1. The Merry Wives of Windsor – Essentially “The Real Housewives of Elizabethan England,” this play is just a ton of fun. The women run the show, and I love them for it. There are so many uproariously funny moments, the buck-basket scene is some of Shakespeare’s best comedy writing, and something about this play still feels fresh after over 400 years. THINK ON THAT, MASTER BROOK!
  1. Romeo and Juliet – A play that’s become so cliche it can be hard to strip it back and look at the text itself.  Once you get through all the cultural baggage though, it’s brilliant. The poetry is gorgeous, and the play tackles difficult themes with ease. This is a story about first love and loss. It’s about abusive parenting, child marriage and inherited trauma. It’s an incredibly dark, but deeply necessary, piece of work.
  1. Richard III – This is a dark, twisted play and a fitting end to the War of the Roses cycle. Richard himself is a fascinating villain. Plus, it’s a history play, and there are women in it! Plural! And all the scenes involving the play’s women are fantastic. The ghost scene always sends a chill up my spine. The only thing I can say against this play is that it may be a *smidgen* too long.
  1. Henry IV, Part I – I tend to forget how good this play is, and any time I revisit it I’m pleasantly surprised. It could do with some more women, and some of the political goings-on are a bit dull, but anything with Prince Hal and Falstaff is great. The storyline of the rogue prince coming of age and shouldering true responsibility will always be a winner. And as an added bonus, we get some top-tier banter between Hotspur and Owen Glendower.
  1. Henry VI, Part II – Is this the best history? Maybe not, but it’s my favorite history, and this is my list, so there. This is Game of Thrones without the dragons. The political scheming is amazing, Margaret and York are brilliant leads and the falls of Gloucester and Suffolk are extremely compelling. The Jack Cade subplot still has a lot to say about populism today, and this play brings me great amounts of joy that no other history can quite achieve. 
  1. King Lear – I know many people who would be furious that this play isn’t in my top five, but for me, the stuff with Lear being senile really drags, and the Goneril/Regan catfight over Edmund is one of my least favorite plotlines in all of Shakespeare. Still, when this play is good, it’s great. The storm scene is rightfully considered a classic, and everything with Cordelia and Lear in Act V is beautiful and heartbreaking, and always makes me cry.
  1. The Tempest – There’s something oddly majestic about The Tempest, considering it’s basically about a bunch of dudes (and a nature spirit and teenage girl) running around on an island. But it’s a MAGIC ISLAND, and all the stuff about revenge and mercy and freedom is excellent. The play’s core trio of Prospero, Ariel and Caliban is fantastic, and in the wake of the last two centuries, there’s a ton of interesting stuff in this play to unpack about colonialism and liberation.
  1. Measure for Measure – This is the play I would dub “a play for our time” (IYKYK). It’s almost shockingly contemporary, discussing corruption, the nature of law, sexual assault, the legality of sex work and the dangers of fundamentalist Christianity. The play is urban, gritty, dark and doesn’t shy away from tough issues. Pompey and Lucio bring some much needed levity to the proceedings, and Isabella and the Duke are some of Shakespeare’s most complex characters. Angelo wins the prize for “Shakespeare villain I most want to punch in the face.”
  1. Twelfth Night – A joyous comedy with an undercurrent of melancholy, and probably Shakespeare’s queerest play. For once, the ridiculous subplot (this time involving the puritanical Malvolio and yellow tights) actually lands. Any scene with Viola and/or Olivia is lovely, and by some miracle the identical twins plot device doesn’t seem contrived. For me, this is Shakespeare’s best use of crossdressing.
  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – So much fun! If you think too hard you might notice some issues, but you’re not meant to think hard about a play like this. You’re meant to sit back and enjoy the ride. The play handles all its plot threads brilliantly, every scene is a ton of fun and of course, it features the original Short Queen in Hermia. In my opinion, this play is the best entry point for someone new to Shakespeare’s work.
  1. Antony and Cleopatra – Certainly not a play for beginners, but an absolute treat once you’ve gained familiarity with Shakespeare’s language. Cleopatra is a truly great part (she’s totally crazy, in the best way), Antony’s moral dilemma is gripping and the geopolitical struggle between Egypt and Rome is some of the largest-scale storytelling in the canon. The poetry is some of the most beautiful in all of Shakespeare. This play is a commitment, but it gives back in full and deserves recognition as one of Shakespeare’s best plays.
  1. Much Ado About Nothing – Move over, Jane Austen, it’s Shakespeare who invented the modern romcom, and he did it with this play. Benedick and Beatrice are the greatest couple in the canon, hands down. The banter is flawless, and the serious side of this story keeps the play from becoming too goofy. The interrogation scene is hilarious, and the chapel scene is some of Shakespeare’s best dramatic work.
  1. Macbeth – A fantastic horror thriller, the way this play handles ambition, madness and evil is unparalleled. It’s a play that still holds so much power in the theater community that many don’t dare to speak its name. The Macbeths are a fascinating couple, the witches are terrifying and the play zooms along at a great clip, which only heightens the adrenaline-fueled tension.
  1. Othello – In my opinion, this is Shakespeare’s best-written play. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything to cut. Othello is probably the most straightforward of Shakespeare’s big tragic heroes, in that he is a great man undone by a tragic flaw, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a brilliant character. Iago is rightly lauded as one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains. And what makes this play truly great is how it explores what oppression—both racism and sexism—can do to a person’s psyche, and how it can lead to tragedy.
  1. Hamlet – Yeah, this is a basic top pick, but it really is that good. Every lead character is amazingly complex and well written. As a revenge tragedy, it’s subversive and brilliant. The poetry is perfect. This play is the most-studied English text (after the Bible) for a reason. Its language is so rich, its characters are so fascinating and its themes are so universal that there is always more to discover and tackle with Hamlet. This is, in my opinion, Shakespeare’s greatest play, and quite possibly the greatest play in the Western theatrical canon.

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