We HATE lists, don’t we?
Except, actually we bloody love them, if it’s something we’re interested in.
That said, the last thing we want is a list that agrees with our perceptions – the dopamine rush of validation is very short-lived compared to the opportunity to passionately argue our disagreement. We LOVE subjective opinions. Trust me – my wonderfully fulfilling University years were full of essays arguing the toss – why, for example:
- Dracula should not be judged for his ‘special dietary requirements’, whereas Van Helsing and his bunch are vindictive bastards;
- we ought to respect Edward Hyde for his refreshing honesty, as opposed to Henry Jekyll‘s hypocrisy; or
- Ursula K. Le Guin’s (RIP) The Left Hand of Darkness, whilst a superb book, had no place in the Science Fiction module
You get the picture: English Lit is a tailor-made subject for those who are argumentative and prepared to do the spadework to back-up their cockiness …
But, to the main subject of this post.
Spend enough time online in places where your obsession is discussed and you’ll be asked about your ‘favourites’. Recently I couldn’t, and still can’t, answer a ‘favourite play‘ question – like the narrator in Nick Hornby‘s High Fidelity who had a meltdown when asked about his favourite songs, but I thought I would have a go at this, a top ten, inspired by the other online efforts, and piqued by a relative lack of love for any flavour of Richard. That plus more love for Comedies than I can generally muster, on the whole.
Never one to resist a challenge, I decided to limit my pitches to just 50 words each.
I also decided that this could be an annual ceremony – hence 2018 in the post title. I can’t name a single favourite simply because there are complex factors that change it weekly, and sometimes more frequently. So I’ve decided to do this on or about the end of March every year, to see if there are any changes.
So, the winners are …
Mine are presented in no particular order, although the first five – perhaps controversially, as they don’t include Hamlet or Lear – are reasonably settled. And you might find a surprising omission from the ten …
1 Henry IV Possibly the most complete of the plays: the young wastrel with the disreputable father-figure, who eventually has to set aside childish things, and the hot-headed hero whose wonderful wildness leads to his downfall. By turns genuinely hilarious, heroic, and a harbinger of future tragedy for the irrepressible Falstaff.
Richard III The ultimate adult pantomime. From the opening soliloquy, we’re complicit in the career and increasingly-inexcusable acts of the Tudor dynasty’s public enemy number 1. We laugh with Richard, we excuse his crimes, and in quintessentially tragedic manner, we regret his passing even as we understand its necessity. Unforgettable stuff.
Julius Caesar Jealous conspirator hoodwinks an ‘honourable’ but ultimately deluded tragic hero to engineer the greatest betrayal in literature after the Bible – ask Dante. Caesar is flawed and complex, and his playboy best friend possibly the best Shakespearean orator. Inescapably topical, attractively supernatural, exploring the competing groups a successful ruler must satisfy.
Richard II Lyrically beautiful, a poignant tale of a man out of place and out of time. Historically, the most topical Elizabethan exposition of Monarchy, posing questions about what happens when your leader is unfit for purpose – for whatever reason – and there’s no obvious successor. These ideas remain relevant in multiple arenas.
The Tempest If viewed as his final solo effort, this becomes a poignant, intensely meta-theatrical ‘swan song’. Prospero’s double-edged love of the written word has blighted his life – beyond hope, he receives a chance to redeem himself. Its colonial overtones still have something to say about 21st-century race relations.
– – –
The next five occupy a separate league of their own – much like the football clubs that won’t make the Champions League, but could do very well indeed in the Europa League (whatever that is, lol) …
Much Ado About Nothing The most satisfying and joyous Comedy: two pairs of romantic leads require a touch of magic to come together – the first through a classic practical joke which humbles the proud; the second via a necessary deception to avert a potential tragedy. Add hilarious ‘mechanicals’, and the picture is wonderfully complete.
Hamlet The quintessential conflict of a thinker disabled by the imperative for action. Hamlet distils the essential elements of generic Revenge Tragedy but creates a Single Malt, not a blend. The play explores our parental relationships, how they infect our romantic lives, and how we respond to life’s ‘slings and arrows’.
King Lear Poses questions which aren’t just for the ‘mature’ audience. How do we treat our parents as they age; how do we treat our children as we consider our own mortality? Have we ever really considered those worse off than us? Do we assume that women are somehow ‘nicer’ than men?
Macbeth The relatively simple plot belies many more complex elements – perhaps we’re too familiar with Macbeth and James I to consider how the relatively powerless can achieve change; or the extent to which our decisions are illogical; or that what we aspire to is rarely what we hoped it would be.
Othello Love is perhaps the most selfish emotion. Othello explores more than just simple jealousy. How is it influenced by self-perception, by others’ reinforcement of our fears or the perceived value of our ‘possessions’? If jealousy is a kind of Revenge (capitalisation intended), are Othello AND Iago doomed to failure?
– – –
What, no Romeo and Juliet? Nope, (not) sorry! That said, there’s every chance it could be in next year’s top ten – other honourable mentions go to Titus Andronicus, 3 Henry VI and, I think, Measure For Measure.
I’d love to hear from you, arguing for your own favourites. Argue why I’ve got this horribly wrong. Do it in 50 words, if you’re feeling flash …
One thought on “The 2018 Shakespeare Top 10”
“whereas Van Helsing and his bunch are vindictive bastards;”
“whilst a superb book, had no place in the Science Fiction module”
I would genuinely like to hear these arguments hahaha
I would like to play this game because my Shakespeare tastes are pretty controversial, I think, and I DO have a mean ranking. Let’s have an argument…
Julius Caesar – My favourite character whose tragic flaw is being “too noble”, Cassius is devious yet their friendship is real, I genuinely prefer the style to the more convoluted style of other tragedies, hews close to Plutarch…I like this play so much I forgive it for making everyone believe “Et tu, Brute”.
Richard II – My favourite character type is a jerk who is sympathetic while not really redeemed, and Richard II is the greatest example. This play questions the idea vs the practicality of kingship in quite bold fashion, contains the most blank verse, highly quotable, Richard vs Bolingbroke is epic, also, DEPOSITION SCENE.
Hamlet – I feel like the quality of this play can’t be denied which frustrates me. As I get older, the more I feel like its popularity is due to the fact that it reflects critical interpretation. Nonetheless, the language is beautiful and I always enjoy (?) reading it.
Othello – Another Brutus-like noble individual being destroyed slowly so of course I like this play. Iago is the best villain; he has showboating qualities of RIII but also genuinely terrifying. Also has the weird distinction of being the only tragedy that actually makes me sad enough that I dislike rereading it.
Coriolanus – One of the weirdest and most ambiguous protagonists. Is he a hero? Is he a villain? Hates people yet has his own moral code, loyal yet treacherous, the monster that Roman created out of ideal Roman virtues…also grain shortages, Roman political squabbling, everything you want, THE MOST UNDERRATED PLAY EVER
Richard III – This play always just reads to me like a black comedy. It’s a nice bridge between the maturity of the later plays and the crowd pleasing gore-fest of the Henry plays. I like Richard’s total lack of repentance and the crazy curse battles, REVENGE OF MARGARET.
Macbeth – The mature version of a murderous paranoid king, this was an “every time I read it I forget about it afterwards” play until I saw the Ian McKellen/JDench version which was some crazed psychological horror and super intense. Still I always tend to lose interest once Macbeth goes full psycho.
Henry V -Nothing wrong with this play and it’s a staple of the canon but sadly, an “every time I read it I forget about it afterwards” play for me so I can’t comment on it sanely.
Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3 – good old fashioned early modern style backstabbing festival
Henry IV – I rank this play so low because I’ve only read it once and didn’t really understand it, for shame.
Romeo and Juliet – I don’t like this play and no amount of people saying it’s not that bad will convince me otherwise.
King Lear – The main play I have a grievance with because everyone else loves it but I’ve read it many times in hopes of appreciating more with no success at all. 😦
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – I don’t get why everyone likes this either; I find it all extremely annoying.
The Taming of the Shrew – It bothers me that no one can seem to decide if this is just really sexist or a satire but either way, meh.
The Winter’s Tale -I read this one recently in hopes of finding another obscure gem like Coriolanus but this play is 100% pure craziness in the Cymbeline mold speaking of which
Cymbeline – AN INCOMPREHENSIBLE MESS
Pericles, Prince of Tyre – This is so terrible. Strangely, I read the original story in ancient greek first and then thought, “This is totally bonkers. Oh, a Shakespearean version? That will be funny!” WRONG
Henry VI, Part 1 – It’s a hard battle for last place, and I feel like this play (unlike Pericles) at least has one good scene with the roses, but on the other hand I literally fell asleep while reading it.