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Shakespeare 400: 10 Best Plays of All Time

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2016 has been proclaimed by many as the Year of Language and Literature for marking some important literary milestones in history and 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare crowns them all! People from around the world unite in their celebrations of the Bard’s eventful life and his enduring legacy.

For those of you who would like to revisit Shakespeare’s timeless classics, we have selected ten most dazzling works of imagination ranging from biting satirical comedies to poignant tragedies.

Hamlet

Image credit: Writer's Theatre

Since the day of its publication, Hamlet has captivated generations of readers inspiring a myriad of adaptations. Set in Denmark, the play is centred around young Prince Hamlet who grieves the loss of his father resenting his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle Claudius. Hamlet’s near-suicidal despair and anger are perceived as a direct threat to the reputation of the royal court. The story reaches its climax when the young prince encounters the ghost of his late father who reveals the spine-chilling truth behind his untimely death. Driven by rage and desire to avenge the king, Hamlet resorts to feigning insanity in order to carry out the spirit’s commands.

To this day, William Shakespeare’s play remains one of the most revered literary works that has contributed many common expression to the English language.

Macbeth

Image credit: Theodore Chasseirau 1855

Written in the 17th century, Macbeth exposes all-destructive political ambition to rise to the power and tyranny. Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy tells the story of a Scottish general who receives a prophesy from three witches predicting a royal future for the soldier. Driven by dark desires and spurred on by his wife, Macbeth unleashes his deadly obsession with power setting in motion his murderous plan to fulfil his ambition to the throne.

Shakespeare deftly articulated the pagan belief system by enthusing the play with magic, sexuality and herbalist experimentations fuelling the already spreading witch-fear in England. Notorious for its superstition and witchcraft, Macbeth was often considered to be cursed by many actors.

Julius Caesar

Image credit: Alastair Muir

Transport yourself to the ancient Rome and discover William Shakespeare’s version of the turbulent rule of one of the most prominent historical figures responsible for the rise of the Roman Empire. The story focuses on Julius Caesar, who, upon his return from the war, progresses swiftly within the Roman political system by introducing social reforms and centralising the bureaucracy in the Republic. However, his whirlwind success intimidates his fellow politicians. Unable to resolve underlying conflicts within Senate, he is assassinated on the Ides of March by Cassius and his conspirators. Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare, the master of human mind, also highlights the psychological journey of Marcus Brutus as well as the moral battle with his conscience.

The Tempest

Image credit: John William Waterhouse 1916

A tale of absolution and reunion, The Tempest is often referred to as “the most lyrical play”. It offers a unique perspective on maritime events at a specific time in history when Europe begins the exploration of the New World. This wonderfully compelling story describes the consequences of a shipwreck caused by a storm. When the surviving passengers are washed upon the enchanted island, the fate brings them face-to-face with their sworn enemies- exiled Prospero and his daughter Miranda desperately seeking the revenge for betrayal and the loss of their property. The play skilfully captures different shades of human nature interweaving different subplots together at a crucial intersection point where “all is well that ends well”.

The comedy of errors

Image credit: Loyola Park Theatre

The shortest and the most entertaining comedy written by William Shakespeare captivated Elizabethan audiences with its intriguing plot line and timeless puns. In The Comedy of Errors, a man who is sentenced to death for trespassing is given a limited time to find his long-lost twin son. As the story unfolds, we learn that two sets of male twins were separated at birth in a shipwreck many years ago. However, when Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio, unknowingly end up in the city of Ephesus, home to their twin brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus, a series of wild mix-ups associated with mistaken identity result in false accusations, arrest and mayhem. The play of human error is injected with slapstick humour, gags and word play making it one of the most enthralling theatrical pieces.

King Lear

Image credit: Sir John Gilbert

Loosely based on the life of the legendary King Leir of Britain, the play explores a complex relationship between an ageing monarch and his three daughters. Determined to ease the burden of his royal duties, the title character decides to divide the realm among his female heirs, offering the largest share of his estate to the most loving daughter. Unable to flatter, the youngest daughter speaks bluntly and honestly about her feelings, infuriating her father. Driven by rage, the king disinherits Cordelia and orders her banishment. Cordelia’s misfortune offers some opportunities to her sisters, who take the full advantage of this familial disaster. Profoundly tragic, King Lear explores some intricate issues of cruelty, the wickedness of heart, the weakness of human nature, the all-forgiving love and kinship.

Romeo and Juliet

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Inspired by a medieval tale, which was later translated into verse, Romeo and Juliet offers a delightful escape to 14th-century Italy. The most romantic play of all times tells the story of two “star-crossed” lovers who are caught in the middle of a feud between Montague and Capulet families. Shakespeare demonstrates his unparalleled dramatic skill by incorporating various subplots and switching from comedy to tragedy to underline the growing tension between the characters. The concluding couplet of the poem ”For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo” emphasises the catastrophic consequences of a doomed love.

The taming of the shrew

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Indulge yourself in a battle of wits in this boisterous comedy set in Padua. The play follows the lives of two young men, hopeful Lucentio and manipulative Petruchio and two daughters of a wealthy merchant. While the oldest daughter Katharina is described as hot-tempered, “curst and shrewd”, the youngest daughter Bianca appears to be subservient and demure, winning her father’s affections. When Lucentio declares his love to Bianca, he discovers an obstacle to their happiness. According to the old tradition the eldest daughter must wed first. Determined to unite with the object of his desires in a holy matrimony, Lucentio devises a plan involving his friend Petruchio. Seduced by the size of the dowry, Petruchio arranges to marry Katherine against her will. From bizarre wedding ceremony to unorthodox honeymoon, self-proclaimed shrew-tamer Petruchio is trying to break his wife’s spirit through emotional abuse. However, he is confronted by an acid-tongued Katherine who despises his sexist remarks and rebels against patriarchal culture and female obedience. Despite its controversial reputation for portrayal of abusive behaviour and misogynistic attitude toward women, the play represents a double satire on both sexes.

Much Ado About Nothing

Image credit: Marcus Stone 1861

One of the most dazzling comedies ever written, Much Ado About Nothing combines the elements of satire and reflection on the issues of war, politics, love and chivalry. Set in Sicily, the story features two pairs of lovers. While Claudio and Hero represent a conventional and insipid couple whose prospective marriage is jeopardised by the false accusations of Hero’s infidelity, the same cannot be said about Benedict and Beatrice.

Their turbulent love-hate relationship prompts the young lovers to engage in a "merry war of wits” characterised by scalpel-sharp humour, witty one-liners and a crackling fire of dialogues. The first English comedy of manners satirises aristocratic behaviour and criticises social standards in the 16th century.

A midsummer night's dream

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Roam through magical woodland in Shakespreare’s most frivolous and fanciful play, which is believed to be commissioned for a high-profile wedding of the time. This bewitching tale of love triangle and unrequited love takes place on Summer Solstice, the night when dream spirits, derived from folk tradition, are in their highest potency. When events conspire against four Athenians forcing them to spend a surreal night of mayhem in enchanted forest, feuding fairies and other supernatural creatures cast magic spells on young lovers manipulating them into engaging in absurd hijinks. In the comedy, sorcerous sprites play an equally important part in the development of the plot influencing the outcome and adding another dimension to a story. Garnished with fantasy, sprinkled with a pinch of whimsy and seasoned with mischief and confusion, Midsummer’ Night Dream remains one of the most fascinating plays ever written.

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