Favourite Shakespeare plays

Here’s the chance for a bit of listmania–what are your top five favourite Shakespeare plays, and why?
Before I list my own faves, I’d like to give you a bit of my own personal background regarding Shakespeare. As a child growing up in a French family, albeit mostly in Australia, Shakespeare didn’t actually feature high or even at all on my line of vision until I went to high school (except for the fact I had heard his name before–on a record my father bought, Shakespeare Songs and consort music, sung by the great counter-tenor, Alfred Deller; so I actually first met the bard as a songwriter, not a playwright!) My parents had a very dim opinion of the playwright. French translations of Shakespeare have been very, very bad until fairly recently, unlike the German, Italian and Russian ones, and French critical opinion of Shakespeare not been very high(he offended against Cartesian logic, apparently, and against classical structure). So I certainly did not approach him with any idolatry at all.
The first play of his I ever read was ‘The Merchant of Venice’. It was a revelation to me. We had the good fortune of having one of the most brilliant English teachers you could hope for, to introduce us to Shakespeare. She truly loved the works, but without any foolish reverence. She also arranged to take us on excursions to see the plays on the stage, and organised film days to watch screened versions. The plays burst on me with all the force of reality, of revelation, and of passion. The combination of extraordinary intelligence, imagination, daring eroticism, ribald humour, tragic spirit, natural magic, tragedy, compassion, marvellous characterisation, darting wit and thunder-and-lightning energy and lyricism–and so much more–that makes up the astonishing genius of Shakespeare, is something that has continued to nourish, inspire, challenge and liberate me. I don’t like everything of his equally, but everything of his is worth knowing, nevertheless. And the best is perfect.
So here’s my five top favourites..

1.Twelfth Night: not only the best of Shakespeare’s plays, but the best play ever written, in my opinion. A perfect gem, containing comedy, tragedy, the erotic and the tragic, the horrible and the hilarious, in a perfectly balanced cocktail, with some of the best and most complex characters ever penned–and the lightest, most wonderful of touches, yet with no tweeness whatsoever. I have seen this play many times–on stage as well as on screen(very best screen version is Trevor Nunn’s enchanting late 1990’s version, starring Helena Bonham Carter, Imogen Stubbs, Imelda Staunton, Richard E.Grant, Nigel Hawthorne, and Mel Smith.) I love this play so much that it’s directly inspired two of my novels–The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare(2003) and Malvolio’s Revenge(which comes out this year).
2.The Tempest: A close second to Twelfth Night. As you might imagine, this gorgeous play is also one of the inspirations of ‘The Tempestuous Voyage’. Such an assured, melancholy yet funny and romantic and utterly magical play!
3. Romeo and Juliet–simply the best portrait ever of youthful love, braggadacio, and wild emotion, crushed by the madness of revenge and feud. I still thrill to the glorious declarations of passion that Romeo and Juliet give to each other, and the intoxicating nature of the play.
4. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What a lovely, lightsome thing, so full of that combination of the earthy and the ethereal which makes Shakespeare’s fantasy absolutely real in every way..This play also inspired one of my own novels, Cold Iron(1998, reprinted 2001, also published in the USA as Malkin, 2001).
5. Othello–for its chilling portrayal of true evil, and the downfall of a good man, and a loving, innocent woman, this play has no rival. Iago freezes my blood every time, and though I sort of sympathise with Othello, I hate his guts too for being such a weak, trusting, blustering silly billy of a man who’d rather trust that creep of an ensign than his own beautiful, bright and loving wife. I saw a most wonderful stage performance of it recently, by Cheek by Jowl, an English theatre company, which featured an extraordinaryoung Nigerian actor as Othello–a suffering, blustering but noble mountain of a man, whose murder of his frail, tiny and gallant wife was the most shocking thing I–and most people in the audience, I think–had ever seen on stage in a long time. And Iago was played most wonderfully, sneakily well, showing the emptiness as well as the ugliness of evil, with the lightest of touches. His portrayal also made me realise something–in some ways, Iago is the very sinister version, the darkest shade of all, of an ambiguous, funny but also deeply unpleasant character like Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night..
OK, you might say. Where’s Hamlet, Richard III, the Henrys, As You Like It, and so on? Well, truth is I love them all–I’m not too keen on Titus Andronicus, I must say, though–but if push comes to shove those are the ones I love best of all. Over to you!

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Rowen
2022 years ago

Top 5??? Hey – I went to a public school.

Best: Hamlet. Worst: King Lear.

But I did do some grat post-modern deconstruction of Wheels Magazine in year 9….

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Here’s mine:

1. Twelfth Night. The perfect comedy, both witty and wise – the literary equivalent of Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’. Have wonderful childhood memories of seeing it played in Melbourne, with Judi Dench (no less) as Viola.

2. Macbeth. Extraordinary atmosphere, most of all. but also a study of a man’s descent into evil, victim of his own ambitions and desires, preyed on by dreams and temptations. really liked Polanski’s film of the work.

3. King Lear. Language of unbelievable force, recalling the ancient incantatory use of words as spells and curses. I almost feel physically afraid when I read Lear.

4. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pure delight from end to end.

5. Richard III. Extraordinary study of pure evil (I’m influened by Olivier’s fimed version here).

Also rans: Hamlet, As You Like It, Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet (but not the Baz Luhrman version)….

Fyodor
2022 years ago

1. Henry V – English thrash the French, again. Kenny Branagh’s version the best, if only for Brian Blessed’s pronounciation of “dauphin”
2. King Lear – don’t trust your kids. 1970’s BBC TV version the best, though Kurosawa’s “Ran” is spectacular
3. Macbeth – the Scottish play, best rendered by Kurosawa in “Throne of Blood”
4. Twelfth Night – the original and best comedy of errors
5. The Merchant of Venice – worth every pound – looking to Al Pacino’s take on Shylock

Alan
Alan
2022 years ago

1. Hamlet, whose main character keeps reincarnating in novel after novel

2. Romeo and Juliet, which is actually about state failure, not adolescent passion

3 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, just because it is

4. Macbeth, the best version is the Bush, Blair and Howard co-production Shock and Awe

5. Henry V if only for the agony the line about turning balls to gunstones causes to adolescent boys

david tiley
2022 years ago

Twelfth Night – so gorgeous
Hamlet – cos its got self doubt and a great ghost. Best version is Kotsinev, shot only in the Autumn so it took seven years to make.
Macbeth – best version is Throne of Blood, as Fyodor says
Richard 3 – the relationship with the audience is just so beautifully managed. RSC on Teev did a beauty sixties version as part of The Hollow Crown.
Troilus and Cressida – only one written for inside, commissioned by the Inns of Court, only played once in Shakespeare’s lifetime. A revelation dripping in cynicism.
Midsummer…. cos I did it at school. Played the Wall. Says a lot really.

Impossible to finish – Othello. So harrowing.
So many of them are just fabulouso.

I first came across Shakespeare as a bored and lonely seven year old in Darwin. Macbeth was on the radio. I was scared shitless, busting for a piss and riveted to the Victrola. No better literary gift can be given a child.

Caz
Caz
2022 years ago

1. King Lear
2. Macbeth
3. Hamlet
4. Othello

All of the above because they were superb blood baths. Sorry, Tarantino, but Shakespeare mastered that artform first.

5. Twelfth Night

Just for something different…

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

“Romeo and Juliet, which is actually about state failure, not adolescent passion”.

I realise I’m rising to the bait here but…ummmmm….somehow I think I must have missed that bit.

And Caz – the bloodbath is much older than Shakespeare. It was really invented by Homer. Try reading The Iliad in direct translation, as opposed to the sanitised ‘re-tellings’ we got as kids. It’s terrifying. Peckinpah and Tarantino are nothing in comparison.

vee
vee
2022 years ago

Merchant of Venice – the loveable shylock – lol
romeo and juliet – romantic tragedy
midsummers night dream – wonderful comedy
Henry V – didn’t go much on it but the only other one I’ve read

Shakespeare is good because he brings issues up relevant to today still.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

“extraordinary intelligence, imagination, daring eroticism, ribald humour, tragic spirit, natural magic, tragedy, compassion, marvellous characterisation, darting wit and thunder-and-lightning energy and lyricism” – not a bad list.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Hamlet – the characters hold two or more opposing notions simultaneously, and so the mirror is held up to nature

The Tempest because we meet Arial and Caliban, the most fantastical beings.

Macbeth I love those witches and the conscience inspired madness of Banquo and blood.

The Merchant of Venice The clarity of Portia and the gut twisting sympathy I have for Shylock, no matter the interpretation.

Henry V What a hero! The contrast between the objectives of the state and the visceral intensity of individuals in battle.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

So the above is me – jen – and while I’m setting that straight

before anyone starts thinking, but surely Banquo isn’t mad I apologise for my clumsy syntax

– Could read – the pricks and torrents of conscience, made dramatically obvious by that ‘great ghost’ Banquo ( I agree David) and the blood that persists.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

The Tempest – the first bit of barditry I got into. I remember reading it at the same time I discovered science-fiction and thinking, whoa! mysterious islands, magic, monsters and hot chicks, damn this guy is good. And then I saw Forbidden Planet.

Othello

boynton
2022 years ago

Yes Hamlet’s is the essential blogging question: To b, or not to b.
Or maybe Lady M says it just as well: Out damn blogspot.

Tempest, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Lear, errr…As You Like It (latter cos I studied it about 5 years running and all the world’s a stage etc)

Tony.T
2022 years ago

You’re collared, Nabakov, me old son. Get thee to a colliery.

Trevor Cook
2022 years ago

1. Hamlet – favourite since school. The essential artistic depiction of the clash between the man of action and the man of contemplation. Outer engagement in the world vs. inner life. “Whether it is nobler in the mind…

2. Julius Caesar – great portrayal of an historic event, and the dilemma of an action (intervention’s) consequences. And the “I come not to praise but to bury speech” is just sensational

3. Macbeth – read this again last year after 20 years in politics and business – absolutely scary how well Shakespeare understands

4. Romeo and Juliet – again Shakespeare is just so good at huge themes, romantic love in conflict with the evil realites of politics and the pragmatic world generally. Its been done millions of time but I don’t think anyone has done better than WS

5. Richard 3 – saw it a couple of years ago with John Bell – magnificent

Rafe
2022 years ago

Hamlet and Macbeth, did them at school and know them best. Like Trevor, really appreciated the great Hamlet speeches.

scot
scot
2022 years ago

macbeth – the corruption of power

hamlet – the corruption of indecision

romeo & juliet – the corruption of love

king lear – the corruption of family

richard III – the corruption of politcs (as if a plantagenet could ever be a sympathetic character in tudor england!)

PS does anyone have or know where to obtain the teleplay version of Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth?

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

Not in any order.

1. Hamlet
2.The Tempest
3. Othello
4. King Lear
5. Coriolanus. I’m surprised noboby has mentioned this one. A very powerful play.

By the way, I found Frank Kermode’s “Shakespeare’s Language” an excellent and stimulating read.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

I made my list and discovered it was identical to Trevor Cook’s. I suppose Lear and Othello should be there somewhere, but I just find them too cruel to really enjoy. Don’t know Coriolanus at all, I’m asamed to say. Will keep a lookout for a film or a production.

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

I don’t know of a filmed version, or seen it on stage.

I’ve listened to an excellent audio version with Rich Burton in the lead role. Picked it up for 5 bucks at an ABC shop sale.

I’d love to see it on stage.

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

PS I also think Julius Caesar is up there.

PPS I also thought Bell’s Richard was terrific.

Best “Tempest” I have seen starred Barry Otto as Prosper and a young Cate Blanchette as Miranda. In the Space Theatre in Adelaide in 1995.Easily one of the best nights I have spent at the theatre.

69
69
2022 years ago

i was just trying to find some good ifo on why othello is relevant today but i got this crapy little nerd site….SCREW YOU ALL YOU LOOSEEERS

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

Well I trust your tiny shout of rage here will lead to bigger things elsewhere 69. ‘Cos it ain’t doing much here but fragmentary and urbane comments about badly slung monkey shit.

(OK, tested that one-liner on that poor crash test dummy. Time to release it into the wild.)