Every Play By Shakespeare, Ranked And Graded

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:

 

D

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.

37. Pericles

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.

 

C

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.

25. Cymbeline

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.

 

B

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.

 

A

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.

13. Coriolanus

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?

 

A+

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.

6. Othello

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.

5. Macbeth

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.

 

A++

1. Hamlet

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.

And Hamlet.

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17 comments on “Every Play By Shakespeare, Ranked And Graded

  1. 1.King Lear
    2.Hamlet
    3.The Tempest
    4.Henry IV, part 1
    5.Macbeth
    6.Othello
    7.Midsummer Night Dream
    8.Merchant of Venice
    9.Antony and Cleopatra
    10.Romeo and Juliet
    11.Henry IV, part 2
    12.Twelfth Night
    13.Julius Caesar
    14.Winter Tale
    15.Henry V
    16.As You Like It
    17.Richard III
    18.Much Ado About Nothing
    19.Measure for Measure
    20.Troilus and Cressida
    21.Coriolanus
    22.Richard II
    23.Taming of The Shrew
    24.All Well That Ends Well
    25.Cymbeline
    26.King John
    27.Timon of Athens
    28.Henry VIII
    29.Loves Labour Lost
    30.Comedy of Errors
    31.Titus Andronicus
    32.Merry Wives of Wyndsor
    33.Henry VI, part 2
    34.Two Gentleman of Verona
    35.Henry VI, part 3
    36.Two Noble Kinsmen
    37.Péricles
    38.Henry VI, part 1

  2. The Original Post’s grading of the plays has some flaws. I do not agree regarding Romeo and Juliet. Granted there are some well-written passages, but you can find those in almost all of the plays. I don’t think they end up making for what I feel to be a rather two-dimensional, highly cliched romance. RJ had its antecedents and cousins all over the world (Vis and Ramin, Tristan and Isolde, Bayad and Rayad, Layla and Majnun, etc.)
    I would boost Coriolanus into the A+ category and demote Romeo and Juliet to the B or C category.
    I think the original post is outright wrong to rank Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline so lowly. These are both well-written, psychologically penetrating “Problem Plays” that show the Bard at his best. Winter’s Tale, in many ways, prefigures developments in modernist and avant garde writing. It should be in the A or A+ categories.
    Richard III is NOT cartoonish. The character is notorious and stands out but I think he does so in a way that makes him also believable and real. Richard II, I think, should be given equal ranking though. It has some of Shakespeare’s best speeches and its protagonist is equally interesting (I refer to Bolingbroke). It is written entirely in verse and has some of Shakespeare’s best verse too.
    King John is also given far too low of a ranking. Shakespeare’s best female speeches are here.
    Last but not least, I think we should get rid of the A++ category. Although some Shakespeare plays may be more influential and artistically superior to others, you can’t really pinpoint one as his greatest. Hamlet is certainly among his crowning gems but it does not necessarily outrank classics like Macbeth, Othello or King Lear. King Lear, in particular, ought to give Hamlet a run for its money as one of Shakespeare’s most complex, finely wrought and culturally significant works. Its meditation on madness and paranoia have inspired many a work of art in western literature and world culture. It even inspired Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who adapted it for his film Ran. Really let’s get rid of this category.

    My Favorite Shakespeare plays:

    1.) Macbeth
    2.) Coriolanus
    3.) Richard III
    4.) Richard II
    5.) The Merchant of Venice
    6.) The Tempest
    7.) Troilus and Cressida
    8.) King John
    9.) The Winter’s Tale
    10.) King Lear
    11.) Cymbeline
    12.) Julius Caesar
    13.) As You Like It
    14.) Othello
    15.) Henry V
    16.) Henry IV – Part 1

  3. Thank you for taking the time to write up your opinions. I enjoyed reading them very much. I also enjoyed the alternate views expressed in the other comments, I wish the tone was, perhaps, a bit less harsh, but the various opinions are enlightening.

  4. After reading Hamlet, I feel it is far from the greatest work by Hamlet because of an inconsistent objective correlative and the fact that it is a stratification. MacBeth, on the other hand, nails the objective correlative.

  5. Getting back in to reading through the “complete works” and looking for a place to start. This looks to serve well a quick guideline as I agree with the sentiments on R+J and especially Coriolanus.

    I’ve always held Macbeth over Hamlet, so a re-read may be in order for those. I’m very light on the comedies other than MSN’sD. Thanks for this post.

  6. I notice the original ranked list found nothing to say about Hamlet except that the ranker liked it a lot. It’s difficult to know exactly how Shakespeare’s plays were actually presented and there are some refreshing new thoughts, for example, about audience participation and that the to-be-or-not-to-be speech was mostly a comic joke, with Hamlet perhaps clinging to sanity. That must hurt those who exalt it, or they may like it more for this interpretation. Hamlet has many of those tricks common in Shakespeare and a little annoying: a play within a play and comic relief like gravediggers that has little to do with the story – although I love it too. People forget to mention that Shakespeare gets away with some of this stuff because of his awesome poetry.

  7. Pingback: Effing Feline approaches the tail of the tale | Ed Hoornaert (Mr. Valentine)

  8. I would personally rank Romeo and Juliet lower (probably in the B range), but I was quite happy to see my favourite Shakespearean play, Henry IV Part 1, given an A+

  9. Awesome, very fun to read! I disagree with some of your rankings, of course, but agree with the majority.

    My top five would be:

    1. Hamlet
    2. Twelfth Night
    3. The Tempest
    4. Henry V
    5. Much Ado About Nothing

  10. I’m glad to find someone agrees with me on Two Gentlemen of Verona. I actually did not know that was pretty universally hated until recently.

    You definitely undersell The Winter’s Tale. I would almost copy and paste your description of The Tempest to describe my feelings towards it. Then again, The Tempest is bottom five for me, so who knows?

    My personal top 10:
    1. Richard III
    2. Hamlet
    3. Othello
    4. Henry V
    5. Henry IV, Part 1
    6. Macbeth
    7. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    8. Coriolanus
    9. Richard II
    10. Julius Caesar
    My opinions are a bit weird, to be honest, because I’m probably the one person on earth who prefers Tate’s Lear to Shakespeare’s.

  11. Shakespeare’s plays are really the best work of fiction, Hamlet being his masterpiece, maybe the greatest work of fiction.
    Pls, do not compare the deepless and wordy Quixote with Shakespeare plays.

    • Please don´t compare the overrated Shakespeare with the likes of Dante and Cervantes. More than 100 of the greatest writers in the world (some of them had the Nobel prize) ranked Don Quixote the best literary work ever. Period. Who the heck are you?

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