The renowned English playwright, often referred to as the Bard, is an integral part of English literature. William Shakespeare’s top 10 plays display a diverse range of emotions and storylines, from tragedies such as King Lear to comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The best Shakespearean plays have influenced generations. And his plays continue to entertain international audiences with powerful themes, evocative characters, and eloquent language.
It was hard to select Shakespeare’s top 10 plays, as it is subjective as to which are the best – discarding approximately 28 was painful. Luckily, we are able to tap into the thoughts of literary experts to help us in areas such as:
- depth of characters,
- dramatic tension, and
- the brilliance of language used.
Our top 10 plays are some of the most influential, remarkable, and cherished pieces of literature in history.
- Key Takeaways
- Shakespeare’s top 10 plays feature diverse themes and powerful characters.
- Literary experts consider character depth, wit, language, and dramatic tension.
- The best Shakespearean plays still captivate audiences and influence literature.
Who was Shakespeare the Playwright
William Shakespeare is often regarded as the greatest playwright in the history of English literature. His creative genius and mastery of the English language have made him an iconic literary and theatrical figure. His prolific body of work comprised approximately 38 plays. I say approximately because:
What is certain is that the best Shakespearean plays have stood the test of time and continue to be performed and studied worldwide.
We can categorise Shakespeare’s top 10 plays into three genres.
Shakespearean tragedies are renowned for their captivating plots, complex characters, and profound themes. His most famous are:
- King Lear,
- Macbeth, and
King Lear and Macbeth, highlight the flaws of the human condition, leading to the downfall of the protagonist. The two intense dramas are marked by depth of character and the exploration of complex emotions.
Shekespeare’s tragic masterpieces explore aspects of human nature, revealing the darker side of ambition, love, power, and revenge. They offer an extraordinary exploration of the human condition.
Audiences witness the devastating consequences of flawed human decisions and the darker aspects of human nature. These timeless works continue to captivate and deeply resonate with people across generations, making them an essential part of world literature.
We celebrate Shakespeare’s comedies for their wit, love, and humour. They exhibit his unrivaled skill with language and his ability to convey profound messages through laughter and love. They highlight the full spectrum of love and relationships, from infatuation to enduring friendship.
While each play is unique in theme and tone, they all share a common thread of wit, captivating characters, and engaging stories. They often feature complex plots, intricate wordplay, and delightful characters that have engaged readers and theatregoers for centuries. This has made them enduring classics in English literature.
Two of the most famous comedies are:
- The Merchant of Venice and
- The Tempest.
Other notable Shakespearean comedies are:
- Twelfth Night,
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and
- Much Ado About Nothing.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, highlight Shakespeare’s ability to entertain with wit, humour, and intricate plots. Often featuring mistaken identities, misunderstandings, and playful banter, these plays show the lighter and more cheerful side of the Bard’s work.
Shakespeare uses key events and figures from English history as themes for Richard III and Henry V. These two plays offer insights into the political landscape of the period when the monarch’s ruled. They display Shakespeare’s ability to bring historical events to life through powerful storytelling and memorable characters.
Shakespeare’s Top 10 Plays
While opinions may vary on the best Shakespearean plays, we have clebrated his plays for centuries, and a few consistently emerge as top contenders. Here are Shakespeare’s top 10 plays – the ones we consider to be the most iconic and well-regarded:
King Lear is a great tragic work. Written between 1599-1601, it explores themes of power, betrayal, and familial relationships. The plot revolves around the aging King, who descends into madness after dividing his kingdom among his three daughters based on their declarations of love for him.
A tragedy, written around 1606, Macbeth delves into the corrupting nature of power and ambition. The play tells the story of Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman driven by his wife’s and his own ambitions to commit murder and seize the throne, leading to his own downfall. Note the complex character of Lady Macbeth. The play has been adapted numerous times for film, with great actors playing the two main characters.
Romeo and Juliet
Written around 1594 Romeo and Juliet was hailed as the definitive romantic tragedy.
The play centres around two young lovers from feuding families in Verona, whose love leads to their tragic demise. The play’s themes of love, conflict, and fate have resonated with audiences for centuries.
One of Shakespeare’s most iconic works, the tragedy was written between 1599 and 1602. Hamlet follows the story of the titular character, Prince Hamlet of Denmark, as he seeks to avenge the murder of his father the King of Denmark. The play is rich in philosophical musings, emotional turmoil, and intricate plotting, making it a favorite among scholars and audiences alike.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A whimsical comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream highlights Shakespeare’s skill with wordplay and humour. Written around 1595, the play tells the story of four young Athenian lovers and a group of amateur actors, who find themselves entangled with woodland fairies and their magical mischief. We know the play for its enchanting atmosphere and beautiful poetry.
A powerful exploration of jealousy and betrayal. The play follows the tragic story of Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army, whose life is destroyed by the manipulations of his ensign, Iago. Through its complex characterisations and exploration of racial dynamics, the play raises essential questions about trust, love, and the destructive power of jealousy.
The Merchant of Venice
Featuring a unique blend of comedy and drama, the play weaves together themes of love, deception, and justice. The Merchant of Venice is set against the backdrop of Venetian society. Antonio is the merchant, and the play revolves around him, his friend Bassanio, and a moneylender called Shylock. In a complex plot, Shakespeare explores love and friendship, as well as the harsh realities of anti-Semitism in the period. Though labeled as a comedy, the play also contains poignant moments and dark undertones, highlighting Shakespeare’s ability to deliver messages of social critique while still providing an entertaining experience.
A magical tale of love and redemption, The Tempest is set on a remote island ruled by the exiled sorcerer Prospero. The story is filled with magical elements and fantastical creatures. As Prospero orchestrates events to regain his rightful place in society, the play examines themes of forgiveness, power, and the manifestation of one’s desires. The Tempest effortlessly combines comedy and enchantment, resulting in a delightful and thought-provoking work of art.
A comedy, Twelfth Night is set in the fictional kingdom of Illyria, where a young woman named Viola is shipwrecked and separated from her twin brother, Sebastian. To survive in this new land, Viola disguises herself as a man and takes the name Cesario. She then serves Duke Orsino and falls in love with him, but he is in love with a noblewoman named Olivia. Olivia, however, falls in love with Cesario, not realising that he is a woman in disguise. In the end, the characters all come together for a happy resolution, with Viola revealing her identity and marrying Duke Orsino.
Much Ado About Nothing
A comedy, Much Ado About Nothing is about two couples – the witty and sharp-tongued Beatrice and Benedick, and the sweet and innocent Hero and Claudio. The story takes place in the Italian city of Messina, where the two couples are brought together for a series of events, including a wedding. However, the villainous Don John plots to ruin the wedding by falsely accusing Hero of infidelity. Claudio believes the accusation and publicly shames Hero at the wedding ceremony. With the help of the bumbling constable Dogberry and his guards, the truth is eventually revealed and the play ends with the two couples happily united.
All these plays represent Shakespeare’s mastery of a range of genres, including tragedy, comedy, and romance, and continue to captivate audiences with timeless themes and linguistic brilliance.
Shakespeare’s Influence and Impact
William Shakespeare has had an enormous influence on historical and contemporary works of literature. His unique ability to blend complex themes and psychological depth in his characters has been a major factor in the enduring relevance of his plays.
In England, Shakespeare’s work has been a cornerstone of the theatrical and literary tradition for centuries. His plays have been performed by many theatre companies, and his texts studied in schools and universities. And they shaped the evolution of English literature more than any other playwright’s works.
Rich language, intricate storylines, and timeless themes typify Shakespeare’s plays. That is why they continue to resonate with modern audiences and influence contemporary playwrights and filmmakers.
Shakespeare’s impact goes beyond individual playwrights and authors. It has permeated many aspects of culture, including language, thought, and education. His innovative use of language expanded the limits of expression, with a wealth of words and phrases that are still in use today.
William Shakespeare contributed to the richness and complexity of the English language more than any other writer. And he made it more flexible and adaptable for modern communication.
Shakespeare’s influence and impact on both historical and contemporary works are immeasurable. His ability to address complex themes and represent human nature in a realistic and relatable way ensures that his plays will continue to be studied, performed, and celebrated for generations to come.
Shakespeare’s plays are renowned for memorable and complex characters. Their wide range of personalities and emotions have mesmerised and enthralled audiences for hundreds of years. In this section we take a quick look at a few of the most powerful and influential characters who drive the plots of Shakespearean plays.
Hamlet is well-known for his introspective and philosophical nature. The Prince of Denmark (Hamlet) is a complex and enigmatic character in William Shakespeare’s play – Hamlet. He is the central figure in the tragedy. A multifaceted character with a complex and conflicted personality, his intellectual depth, indecisiveness, and moral dilemmas make him one of the most intriguing and iconic characters in English literature.
A pivotal figure in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is driven by ambition and a thirst for power. She manipulates her husband into committing heinous acts. Her descent into madness, fueled by her guilt and paranoia, reflects the all-consuming nature of unchecked ambition.
She serves as a cautionary tale about the consequences of unchecked ambition and moral compromise. Her character undergoes a significant transformation, from a calculating and manipulative woman to one plagued by guilt and her madness. This makes her a complex and tragic figure.
Jealousy plays a vital role in the character of a skilled general and loving husband. Othello is overcome with rage and suspicion due to the machinations of the cunning and envious Iago.
Othello is a complex character whose noble qualities are marred by his tragic flaw, leading to his ultimate downfall. His character is a study of the destructive power of jealousy and manipulation, making him a compelling and tragic figure in Shakespeare’s play – Othello.
The tragedy of Othello highlights the destructive consequences of jealousy and mistrust.
Henry IV. Shakespeare’s comedies offer unforgettable characters. A roguish and jovial character, Falstaff contrasts with the more somber themes present in Shakespeare’s historical plays. His antics and wit make him a favourite among audiences and a symbol of comic relief within the larger narrative.
Sir John Falstaff is a memorable and comical character in Shakespeare’s works, known for his wit, humor, and larger-than-life personality. He provides a rich source of comedy and entertainment in the plays in which he appears, making him a beloved and enduring character in the world of literature.
Falstaff appears in several Shakespeare plays, most notably Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
These characters, among many others, demonstrate not only the depth and variety of Shakespeare’s creations but also their ability to resonate with audiences and provide timeless insights into the human condition.
Language and Style
Shakespeare’s works are renowned for rich language and beautifully crafted poetry which enhances the depth of the themes he explores.
He uses figurative language, such as:
- similes, and
His writing style, rooted in the Elizabethan era, can be both elegant and complex, making the experience of reading his plays a unique and rewarding challenge.
Understanding the Language
Despite the intricacies and occasional difficulties in understanding the language of his plays, Shakespeare’s mastery of the English language is evident in every work. Not only did he contribute to the development of the language itself, but he also had an incredible knack for capturing and expressing complex emotions and ideas through his verse. His works laid a foundation for what is considered the pinnacle of English poetry.
The themes that Shakespeare explores in his plays remain relevant today:
- Power struggles, and
These universal themes allow his works to be adapted and appreciated by each new generation of audiences. Furthermore, his skill in using the language and style of his time intensifies these themes, making them even more engaging and thought-provoking.
Challenging and Rewarding
Reading Shakespeare, especially for first timers, can be a challenging yet rewarding experience. The language, while dense and often difficult to fully grasp, provides a sense of beauty and depth that is simply unmatched. By studying the intricate details of the language and his style, readers can appreciate the genius of Shakespeare and the lasting impact of his works on literature and culture.
The Concept of Love and Romance
Shakespeare’s work has always been admired for its brilliance in portraying human emotions, especially the complexities of love and romance. While many of his plays explore distinct aspects of love, two notable examples are Romeo and Juliet and Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies. The play revolves around the close friendship of Valentine and Proteus, and their respective romantic relationships. As the story unfolds, the concept of love is depicted as fickle and subject to change, leading to deceit and betrayal. This play displays the lighter and often humorous side of Shakespeare’s approach to the theme of love.
Both plays emphasise the importance of love as a driving force behind their respective plots, despite being different in tone and outcome. Through these works Shakespeare displays the power of love to conquer all, whether it be in the form of a romantic tragedy or a clever comedy.
His mastery over the theme of love and romance continues to captivate audiences through his clever use of language, poetic devices, and deep understanding of human nature. Timeless tales give modern readers and viewers the chance to connect with the emotions on a personal level. The collective makes his work still relevant and cherished in the 21st century.
Expression of Power and Ambition
William Shakespeare was masterful in his depiction of themes of power and ambition in his plays, drawing readers and viewers into the psychological depths of his characters. Among the rich variety of his works, some plays stand out as strong examples of Shakespeare’s treatment of power and ambition.
A prime example of a character-driven plot, centered around the complex figure of King Richard. His relentless pursuit of the crown demonstrates Shakespeare’s exploration of power-hungry rulers. The play dives into the dark psychology of Richard’s ruthless machinations, revealing a villain bent on obtaining power at any cost. Adapted for film in 1955, Richard III is a most powerful drama.
Shakespeare brings the theme of ambition to the fore, using the political turmoil of ancient Rome as the backdrop. One of the driving forces in the tragedy is the tension between Caesar’s desire for power and the contrasting motives of those around him.
A key moment in the story is Marc Antony’s famous speech in which he dissects Caesar’s ambition and refutes the allegations made by Brutus and the other conspirators.
The ambition of rulers in Shakespeare’s plays often leads to their eventual downfall. For example:
- Macbeth’s desire for power results in a brutal and twisted path, leading to his tragic end.
- Richard III’s ruthless ambition leads him to his destruction.
- Julius Caesar – the ambition of the characters fuels the political intrigue and tragedy that define the play.
Throughout the complete oeuvre, Shakespeare skillfully portrays the intricate dance between power and ambition, shedding light on the consequences of rule. Understanding these plays allows readers to appreciate not only the brilliance of Shakespeare’s writing, but also the timeless lessons about human nature that are relevant today.
In all his works, Shakespeare’s talent for crafting memorable dialogue and linguistic richness is evident. His plays often feature soliloquies that shed light on a character’s inner thoughts and motivations, as well as carefully constructed dramatic tension and multi-layered plotlines. Shakespeare’s contributions to English literature have left an indelible mark on theatre and are still widely celebrated and enjoyed.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which Shakespeare play is considered his greatest work?
Many consider “Hamlet” to be Shakespeare’s greatest work due to its intricate plot, complex characters, and famous soliloquies. The story of the Danish prince grappling with his father’s death, revenge, and existential questions has captivated readers and theatre audiences for centuries.
What are the best plays for new Shakespeare readers?
For those unfamiliar with Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet is often recommended as an accessible introduction, due to its recognisable story and themes of love and tragedy. Other suggested starting plays are from Shakespeare’s comedies:
- Much Ado About Nothing – for its wit and banter, and
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream – for its magical and whimsical elements.
How do Shakespeare’s comedies rank?
Shakespeare’s comedies are well-regarded for their wit, humour, and use of language. Ranking highly among his comedies are:
- Much Ado About Nothing,
- As You Like It, and
- Twelfth Night
Among the best Shakesperean plays these create:
- comedic misunderstandings,
- mistaken identities, and
- complex character dynamics.
And they comment on societal norms and expectations.
Which Shakespeare plays are best for students?
For educational purposes, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet are taught in schools because of:
- thematic relevance,
- memorable characters, and
- the use of well-known literary devices.
These plays serve as an introduction to the language and themes found in Shakespeare’s works and they encourage discussion and analysis among students.
What are some highly ranked adaptations of Shakespeare’s works?
Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted into numerous films and stage productions over many years. Some standout adaptations are:
- Baz Luhrmann’s modernised Romeo + Juliet,
- Kenneth Branagh’s adaptations of Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry V, and
- Julie Taymor’s unique interpretation of Titus Andronicus titled Titus.