Last year I read everything Shakespeare wrote. Here now are my final notes on the plays. The grades only represent how much I enjoyed reading each work; they are not meant to be an objective measure of quality:
38. The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Almost a total loss. There are a few cute parts and clever lines, but this juvenile, obvious mess of a play is clearly the work of someone still getting the hang of playwriting. I’m not one to judge past works by present standards, but the casual misogyny of the conclusion is jaw-droppingly awful.
Nearly as bad as Two Gentlemen. Yes, the last act has some very nice stuff, and I actually liked Act IV, but the first three acts are so wretched they almost seem purposely bad. At one point, a character remarks on how poor his speaking is. A meta joke?
36. The Two Noble Kinsmen
This late work is far more complexly plotted and artfully written than the two plays above, but while those areas are much more competent, this play suffers from an identity crisis. Too light to be tragic and too violent to be comedy, this one also has little to say about human nature, an unforgivable sin for Shakespeare.
35. The Merry Wives of Windsor
A star vehicle for a great but minor character from other plays—Sir John Falstaff—this play is no different from a thousand other vanity project spinoffs: it loses the original charm completely. Still, there are quite a few funny, if lowbrow, jokes here.
34. The Taming of the Shrew
Surprisingly disappointing. I didn’t see this as equally celebrating and lampooning everybody, but as harshly tormenting too many characters, including Katarina. The men vying for Bianca are no more than the pathetic fools that modern TV makes men out to be. Worst of all, the arbitrary framing device seemed just that to me: random. Sadly, that’s an apt example of what’s wrong with this play.
33. The Winter’s Tale
The blend of comedy and tragedy is not as haphazard as in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but still uneven and prickly. However, the writing is excellent and the story is impressively unique in the Shakespearean canon. An interesting and often enjoyable oddity.
32. 2 Henry VI
Despite a thrilling plot (covering the same history that inspired Game of Thrones), this one left me a bit cold. Treacherous, incompetent nobles throughout are contrasted with the treacherous, incompetent populist rebels of Act IV: young Shakespeare is already wonderfully and wisely cynical about human nature. Deserves another read.
31. King Henry VIII
The last history—indeed, the last play—is surprisingly thin, thematically, stylistically, and otherwise. Not bad by any means, but still not nearly as powerful as it could and should have been. Still, the cardinal is a gripping tragic figure.
30. Henry IV pt. 2
The weakest of the Henriad is still worthwhile. Like Henry VIII, the work is too thin, too obvious. What’s here is good, but milked, instead of fleshed out.
29. Titus Andronicus
Wrongly maligned as a bad play, Titus is daring, brash, and challenging. Still written too early to be a great tragedy, it’s promising and offers much food for thought (no pun intended).
28. 3 Henry VI
Now this is a story of blood and guts! All-out war models the nature of chaos here, and we are swept up in the darkness. Not the highest art, but unrelentingly powerful.
27. The Comedy of Errors
A cute early comedy where the deck is stacked so much—two sets of identical twins where each set of brothers has the same name, for some reason—that hilarity couldn’t not ensue!
26. Timon of Athens
Underappreciated. A cautionary tale about trust and spendthrift abandon, this is easily Shakespeare’s most bitter work, an antisocial diatribe where nearly nobody comes out clean.
Clever plotting saves what might otherwise be a leaden, plodding story. This late tragicomedy (actually, one of his better jobs of blending genres) uses nearly every clichéd trick in the book, but still comes out above average, if only barely.
24. King John
Actually, all I remember of this one is a scene where two noble factions, warring for the crown, meet outside a gated city and ask the peasants inside which of them should be king. A voice inside essentially replies, “We don’t care.” Good on you, Will.
23. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Another disappointing surprise. Yes, it’s clever and light, but that’s also a problem: beyond fluffery like “the course of true love never did run smooth,” this play really has very little to say. Of course, I’m asking for something the author all but disavows in the title. Not every play has to tackle the meaning of life.
22. Twelfth Night
One of the best comedies, nearly perfect in execution. Fun and smart, it absolutely deserves its reputation as a classic.
21. Antony and Cleopatra
Unlike the history plays, the story here just doesn’t flow organically, I feel. Odd. A great work, admittedly, but I hated Cleopatra, every whiny, selfish, bratty, stereotypical moment of her…or maybe that was all just to set up her awesome final lines at the end.
20. Love’s Labours Lost
Linguistically, Shakespeare’s most brilliant play. The content is light stuff, even for a comedy, but the story here is an excuse for wit to run amok. Unfortunately, I felt that that smirking pedanticism often got in its own way. Too much of a good thing mars this nearly spotless gem.
19. Troilus and Cressida
Also underappreciated! This companion to Homer’s Iliad is powerful! Sadly, it doesn’t quite achieve its tragic ambition, but the scale and setting left me breathless. Ulysses is one of Shakespeare’s most perfectly realized characters. Read Homer first, then enjoy this treat for fans.
18. 1 Henry VI
Propaganda as art. I loved Talbot—though some see him as parody, I took him at face value—and how could anyone not be overwhelmed by the “villainous” Joan of Arc? Yes, you read that correctly. Weird and bracing.
17. Richard II
A grand tragedy–very well structured and delivered. I’ve read this one twice, and each time, the deposed Richard seems to devolve more and more into a petty, thwarted child. It’s a punishing but powerful character arc.
16. Much Ado About Nothing
Great in every sense: cleanly complex plot whose threads intersect in all the right places, interesting characters whose sparring is linguistically and thematically satisfying, and a whole lot of implied profundity about the human condition.
15. All’s Well That Ends Well
I liked this more than most people seem to. One of the more serious comedies, the hero(ine) is a bastion of reader sympathy, and the villain is truly spiteful. Like Much Ado, the thoughts are genuinely deep, delivered in the most memorable of language, and the resolution has a verisimilitude that challenges as much as exults. I realize that last bit separates me from most readers, but that’s how I felt.
14. Henry V
The only flaw here is Act V: each time I’ve read this, I’ve felt that this fundamentally unserious act–full of pettiness and prettiness–is a poor match for the rest of the play. It’s anticlimactic. Other than that, it’s a juggernaut of everything anyone could ever want from Shakespeare.
Perhaps the most underrated of Shakespeare’s plays. Certainly his most political and, to my mind, the one most relevant to the world scene today. Coriolanus is an effective leader whose success alienates him from the people, whom he serves but doesn’t really love, while his enemies are selfish schemers who take advantage of the people’s emotions to antagonize him and forward their own hidden agendas. Get it?
12. Richard III
Yes, this is a shallow cartoon of a tragedy, just as much as Titus, but how do you not love Richard? He’s the Hannibal Lecter of the Shakespearean canon: a one-dimensional James Bond villain of undiluted evil. Watching him ruin the whole world around him is a special sort of pleasure, and Shakespeare knows it: we identify with this fantasy monster from the first line of the play through to the end. The scene where his past victims show up to taunt his unconscious is even better than the similar scene in Julius Caesar.
11. Measure for Measure
Shakespeare’s most overtly moralistic play. This one takes the great conflicts and insights of the other tragicomic “problem plays” and focuses them into a brilliant fusion of penetrating, illuminative social criticism. Also, it contradicts the old dictum I’d been taught that Shakespeare has no positive leaders.
10. The Merchant of Venice
All the virtues of the last several plays I’ve ranked here are now rolled into one.
9. Henry IV pt. 1
Great story of character contrasts in a coming-of-age setting. More young people should read this one.
8. Romeo and Juliet
I hate Romeo, but that doesn’t change the fact that this play constantly displays some of Shakespeare’s very best writing–each time I read it, I’m increasingly impressed by the sheer perfection of its poetry.
7. Julius Caesar
Like R&J, I’ve read this many, many times, thanks to being a high school teacher. It gets even better each time. Truly, a deep well. All at once, an ode, an elegy, and a cautionary tale at several levels. Absolutely immortal.
Maybe the most perfectly realized of the tragedies, Othello captivated me. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it before. Pared down to the bone even more than Macbeth, it goes surprisingly deep under into its characters’ heads for such a short, simple play. An amazing achievement.
The most thorough and detailed study of the voluntary ruination of a man’s soul ever attempted. The equal of any Biblical tragedy.
4. The Tempest
The ultimate tragicomic “problem play,” I actually think of this one as something new and forever unique–a whole genre unto itself. Surprisingly simple (though not as much as Othello) and pure in an elemental sparseness, it has an almost scary power to it. Remember in Fellowship, when Galadriel almost took the ring from Frodo? Like that.
3. King Lear
I actually thought this was only “very good” the first time I read it. This time, the staggering majesty of it leaped off the page. Never has random human folly been laid so bare. The biggest revelation for me this time was the daughters: they don’t know they’re villains. Not at all. They truly think they’re justified, even doing the right thing. But they are just peripheral: Lear is a story about men (even the famed Cordelia is absent for all but the beginning and end)–these men all hurt and suffer and soldier on the way men really do. You’d think such a narrative would be more universal, then, but there’s nothing else out there like it.
2. As You Like It
Shakespeare’s most perfect comedy by far. Every word is golden: the humor succeeds at every level it attempts (and those are many), the language is equal to that in any other play, and the characters are all divine in their utter humanity. The climactic battle of wits is between secondary characters–perhaps the greatest of the many humanist touches in Shakespeare–and it is marvelous. Any modern movie would be lucky to have a final confrontation of supporting iconoclasts half so impressive.
There’s no way to oversell this or to do it justice, either, so here it is: Hamlet is clearly the greatest work of fiction ever produced. Most everyone accepts that, but even then I think we don’t appreciate it. This was my third time reading it, and the thought ever at the front of my mind was that one could easily find great new stores of value in it no matter how many times they read it.
I’ll put it this way: you know how devotees of various faiths around the world spend their lives in the disciplined study of their various sacred texts? One could do that with Hamlet. It is that profound and that rewarding. Trying to place it on a list like this and grade it is pointless: its worth is orders of magnitude beyond its peers. In the solar system of Shakespeare, my other “A” plays all add up to Jupiter, but Hamlet alone is the Sun.
There are those few artifacts whose nature permanently boggles the greatest of human minds, those very few things that eclipse even the other great masterpieces of human history: Mozart’s Symphony 41, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, the Bible, the Constitution, the pyramids.