Of all the arts, I confess that writing is my favorite. Of all the writers, I believe William Shakespeare to have been the greatest who ever lived. And so I have focused my exploration of art, and of writing, on Shakespeare’s plays. After a marathon plow through the lesser-known of these, I’ve now read 36, nearly the entire canon. I’ve left out Henry VIII, mostly because I’ve heard bad things, and The Two Noble Kinsmen, mostly because I’ve heard Shakespeare didn’t write most of it. I’m sure I’ll get to those two eventually, but I don’t expect they’ll displace many of the 36 from their current locations.

For now, though, I present my totally biased and non-professional list of Shakespeare’s plays, in reverse order from 36 to number 1. I could be argued out of any of these unschooled opinions, and I’ll probably change my mind several times before I’m done. Here goes:

36. Timon of Athens

I didn’t like this at all. Timon was first a cartoon of generosity, then a cartoon of miserly grumpiness. No characters stood out, and I was glad when it was done. Maybe there’s more here than I realize, but I don’t plan on returning to this one any time soon. ‘Nuff said. Grade D

35. Henry VI part 2

I read all the Henry VI plays together, and while elements of I and III stood out, from this one I barely remember a thing. Let me make a plug, though for The Hollow Crown series by the BBC. This recently-released series condenses the four plays of the minor Henriad into three episodes, with all the important events of parts 1, 2, and 3 in the first two episodes leading up to the glorious Richard III (starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard). Grade C

34. The Merry Wives of Windsor

When I saw this performed at Schiller Park, it was laugh-out-loud funny. But the writing itself isn’t up to Shakespeare’s standards. The way this play undoes Sir John Falstaff’s wit makes it one of my least favorite to read. But I would’t mind seeing it again. Grade C

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above: Michelle Weiser and Elizabeth Harelik in The Merry Wives of Windsor at Schiller Park in 2014

33. Troilus and Cressida

I love the premise of undoing the cardboard heroes of the Iliad. Achilles as mob boss, Helen as airhead, and the nasty honesty of Thersites are great fun. The two title characters didn’t do much for me; this one may deserve another reading, as the language is dense and rich. For now, not one of my favorites, but not bad. Grade C

32. Taming of the Shrew

The language is rich and evocative and the characters are complex, but I can’t get past the fact that this is essentially a tale of spousal abuse. If someone treated one of my daughters this way, I’d want him in jail. One of the recurring themes in my study of Shakespeare is that he helped us become better people. This early work shows men in particular at their abusive worst. Kate’s final speech can’t be excused away, though one scholar I encountered makes the interesting point that because Kate’s argument is secular, rather than religious, we in the audience are free to disagree. Maybe, but whatever Elizabethans thought, we’re better than this now. Grade C

31. The Two Gentlemen of Verona

After reading many of Shakespeare’s late plays, this early effort was refreshing in its simplicity. Like Shrew, however, this effort plays fast and loose with the idea of men owning women as trinkets, to be given away at will. It’s silly and unbelievable, but touches on many of the themes Shakespeare will revisit to better effect. Launce and his dog are hilarious and move this up a few spots in the rankings all by themselves. Grade C

30. Pericles

Marina in the brothel is brilliant and fun, and the reunion scenes are gratifying, but the beginning part of this play is dull as dishwater. Once you get through the first two acts (which are irredeemable), the play is better seen than read. The BBC version, in particular, has the romance between Pericles and Thaisa unfold slowly and deliciously, making her “death” that much more tragic and her reunion scene, while understated, deeply moving. Speculation is that Shakespeare only wrote the second half of Pericles; if so, he wrote the better half by far. Grade C+

29. Henry VI part 1

A good deal of this play is silly male bravado, but when Shakespeare introduces the French warrior Joan la Pucelle (whom we know as Joan of Arc) everything changes. She is alive – her character fairly jumps off the page, and suddenly Shakespeare is writing something very different from any play I’ve so far reviewed. Joan dominates this play, even though she fights for the hated French and in the end is burned as a witch. A portent of things to come. Grade B

joan la pucelle

above: Laura Frances-Morgan as Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) in The Hollow Crown

28. The Comedy of Errors

Despite being totally unbelievable, I liked this play a lot. The complex plot comes together in (for me) surprisingly satisfying ways. The romance between Antipholus of Syracuse and Luciana is fun, and the two Dromios play up the confusion about their identities to great effect. There’s a lot here, and somehow Shakespeare makes it all work well. A fun and funny, if not particularly meaty, play. Grade B

27. Coriolanus

And so begins the enigma of the Roman plays. All of them are written well, but they all feel cold to me. Coriolanus, the anti-democrat, feels the coldest of the four. There’s nothing wrong with this play, I just can’t get myself to care about the world Shakespeare describes here. All four Roman plays probably deserve more of my attention; I just can’t get excited about them. Grade B

26. Julius Caesar

Mark Antony’s famous speech is the best thing here. Caesar is amazing – deeply flawed and yet still regal. Brutus is a bore. The only interesting thing about Brutus is how bad his instincts are. He’s literally wrong about everything – killing Caesar, not killing Antony, letting Antony speak at the funeral, and all his military decisions are disasters. Another Roman play, another well-written play, but another play that left me cold. I just couldn’t care about anyone once Caesar and Brutus’ wife Portia left the stage. When Brutus died, I was glad it was over. Grade B

25. Titus Andronicus

I expected to hate this play, but despite its grisly reputation I found parts to be interesting and fun. Titus himself is incomprehensible, reminding me of nothing so much as Jim’s caricatured vision of Abraham chopping children in two on a whim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But tragic Lavinia is interesting (until Titus unaccountably kills her – what?) and Aaron the Moor is a great early villain. Nothing next to Iago, of course, but here you find hints of what Iago will be. When Aaron defends his infant son against the world, I found myself rooting for him to win. Revolting in its brutality, but otherwise not as bad as its made out to be. Also, Julie Taymor’s faithful-to-the-text movie Titus is definitely worth watching. Grade B

Harry Lennix as Aaron the Moor

Above: Harry Lennix as Aaron the Moor in Julie Taymor’s excellent Titus

24. Henry VI part 3

This is just a great story, picking up where part 2 left off with non-stop action. By the end Richard of Gloucester has burst into life to take over the play, easily dominating Henry VI and the other bland characters that ran the show in part 2 (other than Queen Margaret, that is. She’s awesome). Richard will, of course, become the title character in the brilliant Richard III (see below); he was worth waiting for. Grade B

23. All’s Well That Ends Well

I liked this play a lot. It’s similar in many ways to another play (Measure for Measure) that is one of my surprise favorites, but not quite as good, I think. Helena is a strong female character, but why is she so enamored of the sullen and stupid Bertram? Loud-mouth Parolles is hilarious. Grade B+

22. Cymbeline

This is probably Shakespeare’s most complicated plot, mixing magic, folklore, Renaissance and Roman motifs, mistaken identities, feigned death, war and peace, gambling over a woman’s fidelity, voyeurism, and probably a dozen more that I’m not thinking of now. Through it all, the female lead Imogen stands out as one of Shakespeare’s best characters. It feels as if near the end of his career Shakespeare emptied the cupboard, taking all the ideas he’d ever stored up and tossing them into this play. It’s a little overwhelming, but Imogen saves it. Grade B+

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Above: Imogen being peeped at in her bedchamber by the devious Iachimo

21. King John

In the first act we meet Philip Faulconbridge, soon recognized as the natural son of Richard the Lion Hearted and renamed Richard the Bastard. In this otherwise dreary play (with one exception that I’ll get to), the character simply labeled “Bastard” in the stage directions steals the show. He is funny, irreverent, brave, wise, loyal to a fault and yet able to see through the posturing and evil intentions of all those around him.

Faulconbridge makes this play worth reading, and you wish his character could reappear in a better play. You always want to hear more from him. The only other memorable moment comes when young prince Arthur pleads with his captor to not put out his eyes. You’ll have to read King John to find out what happens. Another quick note, the Catholic Church comes off looking really bad here. You wonder if that was Shakespeare or some outside pressure. Grade B+

20. Antony and Cleopatra

And finally the last of the Roman plays. This is supposed to be a masterpiece, but other than the wonderful fifth act I just don’t see it. We never get into Antony’s head, and the promise he showed in Julius Caesar is just a shadow now. I did love the character of Enobarbus (played by Patrick Stewart in the BBC production), and his description of Cleopatra’s appearance on the Nile is one of the great passages in Shakespeare.

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burnt on the water. The poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumèd that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion—cloth of gold, of tissue—
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature.

But Cleopatra’s performance in Act V saves this play for me. Her interaction with the clown giving her the fatal asps is both funny and touching. We get to see her as a real person for the first time, and her character is both strong and frightened, vulnerable and regal. The politics give way to a real person before us, looking at her life and making choices for herself. Grade B+

19. Love’s Labour’s Lost

Deeply silly and at times hilarious, I almost love this play. The only reason it isn’t an A for me is that I find the play within a play at the end rather dreary and hard to get through. In performance it is better than when read, and the version of the play I watched (on video) in the reconstructed Globe theater did this section justice. I could listen to Rosaline all day, and the scene in which the four men are all revealed to have broken their vow to forego women is one of the funniest in all of Shakespeare. This is the last play on my list that doesn’t get at least an A, and I could be persuaded to move it up. Grade B+

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above: Gemma Arteton as Rosaline in a 2007 production of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the restored Globe Theatre in London

18. Much Ado About Nothing

I love, love, love this play. The main plot is silly and unlikely, but still satisfying. The main attraction, though, is the slow unfolding of the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick. The Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson movie of this play is one of my favorite Shakespeare movie adaptations, taking place in a sun-drenched Tuscany with stirring music and a brilliant supporting cast including Kate Beckinsale and the gorgeous Denzel Washington (I’m hetero, but wow). Michael Keaton as Dogberry is one of the greatest clowns in Shakespeare. I’m also a fan of the Joss Whedon version. It’s just a great play. Grade A

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above: the cast of 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing

17. Henry V

Henry V (once Prince Hal) is terrifying (“your naked infants spitted upon pikes”). He’s also deeply motivating (“We band of brothers”). The play is elitist (hardly anyone “of name” is killed on the English side), but also populist (“I think the king is but a man as I am”). When Henry V orders his old drinking buddy Bardolph hanged, you know he’s stepped as far away as he can from Falstaff (see the Henry IV plays to come). Henry V (the play, rather than the king) is at once pro-war and anti-war, highlighting the importance of growing up and the inevitable regret for what is left behind. You have to read all the Henriad plays in order (starting with Richard II) to see how triumph and tragedy are far from opposites, but inevitable bedfellows. As always in Shakespeare, but rarely as poignantly as here, we see that kings for Shakespeare are just people, humans thrust into this impossible tragic comedy called life – and so are we all. While I can’t say I love this play, I see it as the meaningful end of a powerful journey. Grade A

16. Richard III

The other Henriad, beginning with Henry VI part 1, ends here in brilliant technicolor. Richard III is a cartoon, but what a cartoon! The promise he shows at the end of Henry VI part 3 is fully realized in this play. Sir Ian McKellan’s portrayal as a Nazi-like Richard is beyond brilliant and so much fun that you’ll wonder how any Shakespeare villain can ever be better. And yet they are. This play is a guilty pleasure – ridiculous in the extreme, but if you don’t find yourself laughing evilly, you’re not human. If you liked Frank Underwood in House of Cards, you will love Richard III – Kevin Spacey, who had just finished playing Richard when House began, essentially borrowed Richard’s character and gave him a southern drawl to make Frank. Just like in House of Cards, it’s more fun to watch Richard rise to power than to see his inevitable downfall, but it is a wild, fun ride all the way to “My kingdom for a horse!” Grade A

15. Richard II

The recent BBC series The Hollow Crown starts with Richard II and goes all the way through the Henry plays to end with Richard III. They’re all worth seeing, but for sheer revelation of what its play is about, I think Richard II might be the best of the bunch. The language in Richard II is simply stunning, the poetry setting the scene and the character of Richard so utterly that you feel like you know him. He is melodramatic, overwrought, childish, and self-centered, and then he falls and you find yourself in deepest sympathy for one who only found himself when it was too late. Also in this episode Sir Patrick Stewart plays John of Gaunt, who gives the play’s most famous speech:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

That Patrick Stewart, he is something.

Richard II has his share of memorable speeches, himself. In fact, “the hollow crown” a fitting name given to both halves of the BBC series, comes from Richard himself:

for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Grade A

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above: Ben Whishaw as Richard II prepares to hand over the crown to Henry Bolingbroke

14. Henry IV part 2

Though this play pales a bit in comparison to part 1, it further explores one of Shakespeare’s great characters, the fat knight Sir John Falstaff. The older (and fatter) I get, the more I appreciate Fat Jack. Here we get an often more subdued, but still hilarious, Falstaff as he struggles to stay relevant in Prince Hal’s evolving circle. When Hal, now Henry V after his father’s death, finally rejects Falstaff (as was foreshadowed in the brilliant tavern scene in part 1, more on that below), we feel it as deeply as if the rejection were our own. A great play in its own right, and a bridge to the very different character of Henry V. Grade A

13. The Winter’s Tale

How can a play I love this much be only number 13? King Leontes’ jealousy hearkens back to that of Othello, but with the king playing his own Iago. Hermione’s pain is matched by her grace, as once again Shakespeare gives us a female character who has much to teach the silly men around her. Leontes, in his madness, loses wife, son, and daughter, and the future seems bleak.

When the play moves from Sicilia, a land that seems to be in perpetual winter (hence the title) to the endless summer of bucolic Bohemia in Act IV, we meet Hermione and Leontes’ lost daughter Perdita, whose charm and beauty make us all wish to be young again. The crazy characters, the dancing, the singing, the food, and most importantly the blossoming relationship between Perdita and Florizel make Act IV as different from the first three acts as anything in Shakespeare. When the two worlds come together in Act V, Shakespeare gives us his most moving reunion scene and one of his happiest endings – except, of course, for poor Mamillius, showing, maybe, that there’s always a price to be paid for irrational behavior. There is so much richness in this play, and I’ve barely reached the surface here. The Winter’s Tale is one of a kind, and I could easily be persuaded to move it higher (but what could possibly go down?) Grade A

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Above: Perdita by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys

12. Romeo and Juliet

What can be said that hasn’t been said a thousand times over? Everyone knows the story, of course. Besides (arguably) Hamlet, it is the most famous of all Shakespeare’s plays. The crazy thing to me is that it’s become such an integral part of our societal fabric. It’s a story of teenage lust, disobedience to authority, murder in the streets, and suicide. And we teach it in high school? It must be pretty good, then.

Juliet is the center of this play. Romeo is a pretty strong character, but he’s totally overwhelmed by this young girl in love. When she says, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” you get the feeling that she (and Shakespeare) have tapped into the ultimate mystery and power of the female. All men know instinctually that women are by far the superior sex; Juliet is the very essence of that superiority.  I marvel at her words and her thoughts throughout the play – and yet she’s not even my favorite of Shakespeare’s female characters.

I can’t leave without mentioning Mercutio, whom it is said Shakespeare had to kill off lest he take over the play. Mercutio is imagination run rampant – you’d love to read a book that was just his stream of consciousness. He is raunchy and hilarious, and the perfect foil to the depth of feeling expressed by Juliet – though of course the two never meet. Such a magnificent play, and yet it’s only number 12 on my list! Grade A

11. Twelfth Night

“If music be the food of love, play on!” Most of the plays I love include a truly remarkable character. In Twelfth Night, that character is Viola, who disguises herself as Cesario, who happens to be a dead ringer for her supposedly-drowned twin brother Sebastian. Viola/Cesario is charming, clever, and provocative as she/he goes between Orsino, whom Viola loves but who thinks himself in love with the cold Olivia, and Olivia herself, who thinks she loves Cesario. The whole thing would devolve into a silly soap opera but for Viola, who helps us all explore and experience this love-filled landscape.

But what puts Twelfth Night into the category of a truly great play is the supporting character of Malvolio, whose silly puritanism is challenged by his fellow supporting cast as they trick him into believing his mistress Olivia is in love with him. We think he’s gotten a good comeuppance, but then Shakespeare turns it all around and we find ourselves with an unsettling feeling that Malvolio has been badly misused. Suddenly and unexpectedly we feel sympathy for a character we all thought was just a malevolent (though harmless) clown. Grade A

10. The Merchant of Venice

And so we come to probably Shakespeare’s most controversial play, and one that could have easily gone in a very different direction in my list.

The main story is ok. There are three pairs of lovers, one of whom is blocked by a dead father’s demand that the man solve a riddle involving a gold, silver, and lead casket. There’s also an obviously gay “merchant” (he of the title) who borrows money to give to his best friend (and unspoken love) to help him win said woman. There are some truly funny scenes and plenty more evidence of female superiority as the female leads, Portia and Nerissa, easily get the best of their prospective husbands. It would probably rise up to the level of The Comedy of Errors or maybe even Love’s Labour’s Lost. Except.

Except for another character, the villain of the play, a character whose very name (Shylock) has become essentially a racial epithet. Shylock is a Jewish moneylender who has had many battles with the merchant (Antonio) and has suffered many degradations at his and others’ hands. Antonio has apparently spat on Shylock and called him a dog, all for the “crime” of charging interest for his loans. Antonio, by contrast, has loaned out money interest-free, essentially undercutting Shylock in one of the only endeavors the law allows him.

The play has a checkered history. The Nazis loved it, playing up to the hilt the anti-Semitic elements of the play. The play is not really about a Jewish person, of course, as Shakespeare knew little about the Jews. They had been expelled from England over two hundred years before Shakespeare’s birth. Instead, this is a play about the Other, with Shylock as representative. Still, there is no doubt that Elizabethan audiences howled and shrieked at the portrayal of Shylock as a monster with a misshapen nose and a weird, otherworldly accent. They likely cheered at Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity, seeing it not as a punishment, but rather as a better fate than he deserved.

But still. But still but still but still. The text is ambiguous. No doubt Shylock can be played as a pure villain, as bad in his way as Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus (though Aaron is also, at least a little, ambiguous in this role). But that pesky text. Just one example. In the play, the brain dead men Bassanio and Gratiano cannot help but give away the rings given to them by Portia and Nerissa respectively – rings that Portia and Nerissa insisted they never part with. And yet when Shylock discovers that his own daughter Jessica has run away to marry a Christian he finds that she has taken a ring left to him by his dear wife (and Jessica’s mother) Leah. Jessica, it is reported, has traded the ring for a monkey. “I would not have given it,” Shylock says in agony, “for a wilderness of monkeys.”

Again, this could be played for great laughs, particularly for an audience that enjoyed such treats as dogs ripping up bears, cats being burned alive, and humans being disemboweled while still alive (all still public spectacles in Elizabethan England). We are better now, and we cannot watch The Merchant of Venice without a deep, painful, guilty sympathy for Shylock, no matter how unpleasantly he behaves. We are better now. And I can’t help thinking that Shakespeare put these tidbits, these pieces of Shylock’s character into the play not for his Elizabethan brethren but for us, for a time when we could appreciate that the Other is, in fact, us. It is for this suspicion, this belief that Shakespeare gave us a play that we can reinterpret to fit our own, better time, that I place The Merchant of Venice in my Shakespeare Top Ten. Grade A

9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Many of Shakespeare’s best plays require some preparation. Don’t show me Measure for Measure, or Macbeth, or certainly King Lear, without allowing me to brace for impact. They are too powerful.

Not so with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that’s not a disparagement. This is just a different sort of play. I could watch it, read it, listen to it morning, noon, and night. The rude mechanicals themselves are worth the price of admission, so full are they of silly humor enclosing profound wisdom and worldly knowledge disguised as ignorance. But the leads, who so often take a back seat in Shakespeare’s humor to the minor characters, here are equally laugh-out-loud funny. Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander wrestling in the woods is one of Shakespeare’s greatest scenes anywhere both for rich language and for the opportunity it gives for actors and directors to make comic magic.

Every moment of this play is a joy; every character brings a new bit of fun to the intricate, spiderweb-like four-part plot. Silly? Maybe, but so much fun.

As a post-script, I have to mention that the final speech, delivered by Puck through the fourth wall as an apology for the magical, dream-like quality of the show, always puts me in mind of this scene from Dead Poet’s Society, where Robert Sean Leonard (later to play Claudio in my favorite Much Ado About Nothing movie) apologizes to his father for deceiving him. The apology is rejected, and the boy kills himself that very night – a reminder that art is not ever frivolous, not ever just nice to have, but an absolute necessity for human existence. Art is, and must be, a part of who we are. Grade A

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above: Robert Sean Leonard performing as Puck in Dead Poet’s Society

8. The Tempest

I recently saw Christopher Plummer as Prospero and the performance brought tears to my eyes. Even though the old legend of The Tempest as Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater has been pretty well debunked by now, you still can’t read Prospero’s most famous speech without recognizing that Shakespeare was giving us some of his own wisdom from a life spent in the magical world of the theater.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

I think this is a warning. This life is all we have. Don’t expect another. From sleep we came, to sleep we shall return. Make much of this life we have today, for it will all melt into air, into thin air.

Prospero is the center of this play, but it is how he deals with three characters in particular: his daughter Miranda; his spirit Ariel; and his part-human slave Caliban that define him in this play.

I love the way Plummer interacts with Miranda (played by a lovely Trish Lindstrom). His relationships with Ariel and Caliban are more problematic. Ariel has been promised freedom, as he (she?) must remind Prospero again and again. When Prospero finally lives up to his promise, Ariel vanishes without a word. I love how this ambiguity gives directors the freedom to choose how Ariel leaves. In the Plummer version, there’s great affection there, even though Ariel longs for freedom.

Caliban is more problematic. Once again we have a villain that Shakespeare can’t leave villainous. He invites us to sympathize with Prospero’s slave, even though Caliban became so only after trying to rape Miranda. Caliban’s words are poignant, often poetic, always get under your skin, and I have to wonder if once again Shakespeare hasn’t left us something to grapple with now that we are better. Grade A

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above: Christopher Plummer and Trish Lindstrom in The Tempest

7. Henry IV part 1

There are now only seven plays left on my list. Quite frankly, I could have put them in any order, as every one of these remaining seven is in its own way the best thing I’ve ever read. They are to me Shakespeare’s supreme achievements, and as far as I know the best things ever written in English.

Henry IV part 1 is of course Falstaff’s play. The play within a play, in which Falstaff speaks as Prince Hal to Hal as his father the king is at once deeply funny and painfully real. When Hal admits that he will, he must, eventually reject his foster father Falstaff we realize just how close joy and pain can be.

But there’s so much here than Falstaff, as great as he is. Henry IV himself is a character of deep thought, and his powerful words to Hal almost make us wish him to abandon Falstaff then and there. Quite a trick to breathe life into such a vibrant character and then make the audience see him through the eyes of one for which he is nothing but a dire threat.

Henry Percy, called Hotspur, is another unforgettable character, and his relationship with his wife Kate is one of the most passionate and sexually fun in all Shakespeare. They rival the Macbeths for hotness. Apparently Hotspur’s real-life wife was named Elizabeth, but Shakespeare called her Kate just because he loved that name so much.

Hotspur and Kate

above: Joe Armstrong and Michelle Dockery as Hotspur and Kate in The Hollow Crown

When Prince Hal kills Hotspur in battle, we are genuinely devastated that Kate has lost her husband, even though we don’t see her again until the next play. Naturally we want and expect Hal to win, but nonetheless the death of Hotspur (who doesn’t remotely fit the role of “villain”) we see as tragic at the same time.

But what we remember first, last, and always is Falstaff. His destruction of the concept of “honor” is one of Shakespeare’s great gifts to the future. If Falstaff, the lover of life, can see just how ridiculous this concept of honor is some six hundred years ago, surely we have no excuse today. But, of course, Shakespeare is never simple, Falstaff’s words are not the last on the subject, and the world cycles on. For me, older and fatter by the day but still in love with life and love, food and drink, words and ideas, Sir John becomes more and more my model of how best to get old with grace and humor. Grade A+

6. As You Like It

Give me just one Shakespeare character that I will listen to forever and it’s not Falstaff. Instead it is Shakespeare’s greatest female in his greatest comedy, Rosalind in As You Like It. Like Faulconbridge, like Joan la Pucelle, like Viola, and like Falstaff himself, Rosalind leaps off the page to take on a life of her own. My words can’t do justice to her, so read hers instead:

      men
are April when they woo, December when they wed:
maids are May when they are maids, but the sky
changes when they are wives.

Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

My affection hath an unknown
bottom, like the bay of Portugal.

your brother and my sister no
sooner met but they looked, no sooner looked but
they loved, no sooner loved but they sighed,
no sooner sighed but they asked one another the
reason, no sooner knew the reason but they sought
the remedy.

And so many more. And finally, in an epilogue, which I think is just Shakespeare giving us one last taste of his most witty and teasing character.

I charge you, O men, for the love
you bear to women- as I perceive by your simp’ring none of you
hates them- that between you and the women the play may please.
If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that
pleas’d me, complexions that lik’d me, and breaths that I defied
not; and, I am sure, as many as have good beards, or good faces,
or sweet breaths, will, for my kind offer, when I make curtsy,
bid me farewell.

If there’s a criticism of Rosalind, it is that she, like Maria in All’s Well that Ends Well, has chosen a man who isn’t remotely her equal. Yet who would be? At least Orlando has the sense to fall in love with Rosalind, unlike the clod Bertram in Maria’s play.

This play also contains the Ages of Man speech by Jacques, one of the many windows Shakespeare gives us on his view on the “meaning”* of life. More on that to come.

*Actually I follow Joseph Campbell’s example, who said we’re not looking for the meaning of life, but rather the experience of being alive. I think Shakespeare would agree.

Most of As You Like It takes place in the Forest of Arden, a wilderness that, like Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale, invites us to forget the troubles of civilization and live unfettered and in love with love. Maybe unrealistic, but listening to Rosalind for a while you just might believe it possible. Grade A+

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above: Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind

5. Othello

Again, I can’t believe this one is only number 5. Reading and watching Othello is in many ways one of the most moving, evocative, emotional experiences of my life. Both Kenneth Branagh and Sir Ian McKellan have played the villain Iago brilliantly; watching how each subtly manipulated their Othello into a murderous rage is frightening and utterly mesmerizing.

It’s said that Iago was Milton’s model for Satan in Paradise Lost. While I’m a big fan of Milton’s Satan, I think Iago is better, more evil, more guilty of “motiveless malignity” as Coleridge said. Othello is s Iago’s play, and his brilliant portrayal is one of Shakespeare’s crowning glories. I can almost say that Iago is Shakespeare’s greatest villain, except that I think I like Edmund from King Lear even a little bit better.

Looking at this list of Shakespeare’s (I believe) true glories and (perhaps) missed masterpieces, I notice something interesting about “the Other”. In particular, three plays address this very subject, each showing a gradual evolution of the artist and, perversely, with each evolutionary advance the outcome getting worse for the protagonist.

First consider Taming of the Shrew. I didn’t like this play, because “the Other” here (Kate, the woman when Shakespeare was just beginning to explore the power and potential of his female characters) is utterly subjugated. She survives, and we are meant to believe in her happy ending. From a modern perspective, though, I think we see a being whose spirit has been crushed.

Next, The Merchant of Venice. The Other is now of course the moneylender Shylock. Shylock is, to put it bluntly, not a nice person. His otherness has separated him from society, and society and he have agreed on a pact of mutual hatred. In the end, Shylock loses nearly everything, though he is allowed to live. The ending is deeply ambiguous for a modern audience, as, somehow, I think Shakespeare meant it to be.

Finally is Othello. The Other is the black Moor, our gallant tale-teller who won the love of Desdemona with his stories from afar. He is supremely confident in his abilities: “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust ’em”. He loves Desdemona with a passion that invites madness: “Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul. But I do love thee! And when I love thee not. Chaos is come again.” He refuses to back down in fear of what his hasty marriage might bring: “Not I, I must be found. My parts, my title, and my perfect soul Shall manifest me rightly.” He is the best of the Other that Shakespeare has ever presented. And he is destroyed utterly.

“I HATE THE MOOR!” Iago shouts to us (and us alone) in the one moment in which the character loses control. Why? Though we can’t say that it was Othello’s Otherness that brought on this loathing, it would be naive to claim that Shakespeare created a shining, near-perfect Other only to have him irrationally hated, and not have that hate linked to Othello’s very other-ness.

My thesis is this: in each of these plays, Shakespeare presents us with The Other. In the earliest (Shrew), The Other is subjugated, and we’re supposed to believe that is good. In the middle play (Merchant), The Other is very nearly destroyed, and how we feel about this destruction is a gauge of how far we’ve come as a society. In the final play (Othello), the other is utterly destroyed and dies at his own hands in deepest shame and damnation, and we the audience love him for what he was and mourn him what has been lost.

This is not to say that Othello was purely the victim. His sterling qualities as a general and as a man ill-prepared him for the malignancy that was Iago. Another character, Hamlet, say, or Rosalind, would have turned aside Iago’s deadly poison. But Othello, the Other whose good qualities we most admire, fell to an evil we know all too well. Grade A+

4. Measure for Measure

This play, of which I had no knowledge before my first reading, is my dark horse candidate for Shakespeare’s best. The play, quite simply, is about sex. It is the raunchiest, most rancid, most openly sexual of all Shakespeare’s plays, and I love it. And it stars a nun.

OK, not quite a nun. Isabella is a nun in training. She wants the strictures of a simple convent life, away from the temptations of the world. The stricter the better, as Isabella wants nothing to do with the filth and sin all around her. A smart move, perhaps, in the world Shakespeare has created, for in his Vienna to commit any sex act outside of marriage is punishable by death.

Isabella’s brother Claudio has been caught violating just this law, impregnating his fiancee Juliet before their marriage is official. Isabella learns of his brother’s fate and, despite her own revulsion at his act, goes to beg the acting Duke Angelo for forgiveness. Angelo, supposedly a straight-shooter put in charge due to his zeal to clean up filthy, fornicating Vienna, tells Isabella that Claudio can go free if only Isabella will “make the beast with two backs” (OK, that’s a quote from Othello, but I love it too much not to work it in here) with him.

A clear case of sexual harassment, right? Open and shut case, right? Not so easy. As Angelo points out, no one will believe Isabella if she makes such a claim. Angelo has spent a lifetime building a spotless reputation just so he can cash in his chips, as it were, with Isabella.

What to do? Isabella goes to her brother Claudio to discuss the situation. At first incensed, after a while Claudio starts to think, well, better than me getting my head lopped off, right? His musings on death are chilling:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

But Isabella won’t give in. She’s rather see her brother die, her niece or nephew grow up fatherless, than to give up her virginity to Angelo.

Well, there’s complications galore from there, as the real Duke (the one who supposedly put Angelo in charge to clean things up) has been lurking on the edges all this time, and comes forward with the most harebrained plan ever devised. It involves a character named Barnadine, who in only a few lines very nearly steals the entire show, and a long-lost fiancee of our very Angelo.

Describing the richness of this play feels a little like Stefon’s description of the latest night club in New York City. There are brothels and pimps (quite a risky endeavor in a city where fornication equals death), bed tricks and head tricks, a forced marriage to a pregnant prostitute, and perhaps the most ambiguous ending in all Shakespeare. This play is outrageous; the injustices should make you scream out loud. It is raunchy, rancid, and wonderful. If there was one Shakespeare play I could get everyone to read, it would be Measure for Measure. Grade A+

3. Macbeth

OK, now we’re getting down to it. Give me one play, just one, that I could see at any time, with any cast, on any stage. Measure for Measure would come close (maybe with a young Jennifer Connelly as Isabella). A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be right there, too. But if I really could choose anything, I’d choose Patrick Stewart as Macbeth.

Fortunately, I don’t have to wish for it. I’ve got it right here, on DVD. Patrick Stewart as Macbeth, Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth, Rupert Goold directing. And it remains the favorite Shakespeare title I own.

macbeth-2010.8345

above: Kate Fleetwood and Patrick Stewart in Macbeth

Even though it’s only 3 on my list, if you push me I have to say that Macbeth is my favorite Shakespeare play. It was the first Shakespeare play I ever really understood. It is short, spare, not a word wasted or out of place, manic in its intensity from beginning to end. Far simpler than the two plays I have ahead of it, Macbeth revolves around the title character, his wife, and the three witches (the weird sisters) that appear like bubbles from the earth on a blasted heath.

Macbeth is bleak. It is frightening. It is bloody and makes no apologies. The porter imagining he is staffing the doors of Hell is as close as the play comes to humor (though in the Goold/Stewart/Fleetwood version the porter is as funny as a disemboweling – and wow does it work). We are essentially squeezed into the mind of a man who, step by bloody step, transforms into a mass murderer. By the end, when Macbeth gives his “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, we’re ready to accept his bleak and blasted view of life. Macbeth is a descent straight into the bowels of Hell.

And then. And then and then and then. At the end of the play, when Macbeth has lost it all – his wife, his kingdom, and soon his freedom and his life – he has one final opportunity to kill. Macduff has hunted Macbeth down and revealed to him that the witches’ final prophesy, “No man born of woman shall harm Macbeth” is, like the others, just another equivocation. Macduff was ripped from his (presumably dying) mother’s womb before he could be born. Macduff goads Macbeth into fighting, and . . .

in the text, Macduff kills Macbeth off stage. We don’t know what happens after Macbeth’s final words, except that Macduff wins. But Stewart and Goold, in their brilliant version, have something else in mind. Macbeth says,

“Lay on, Macduff, and damn’d be he that first cries hold”

and then Stewart pauses. The two men draw knives and fight, viciously, at close quarters. Macbeth gets the upper hand. He’s about to kill Macduff. He’s about to keep the cycle of violence going. He’s about to claim another victim. And then he looks up. And he sees the witches moving toward him. And he says,

“enough”

and drops his knife.

The next time we see Macbeth, his head has been cut roughly from his body and is held in Macduff’s victorious hands.

It is an ending that leaves me breathless, speechless, in awe of how, all these years, that ending was just sitting there, waiting in the text to be found. I’ve since learned that Goold and Stewart weren’t the first to use that ending, but I don’t care. To me, it was a revelation. In that moment, Stewart stopped being bloodthirsty Macbeth and became, instead, Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise. Enough with the violence. Enough with the killing. Enough with the ancient sacrifice to the bloodthirsty gods of earth and sky. Enough.

How can this not be number one? Grade A+

2. Hamlet

Here’s how. Hamlet (the person) is, as far as I can tell, the supreme achievement in the history of fiction. It really is as if Shakespeare has somehow taken a real person and placed him on paper, a living, breathing human, composed, as Hamlet would say, of “words, words, words”, now living inside a play. How did Shakespeare do this? Hamlet is the closest I’ve ever seen to true artificial intelligence. You feel that Hamlet is there with you, creating the play as you read it. It’s the most extraordinary feeling.

However, as amazing as Hamlet (the person) is, I believe Hamlet (the play) to be “only” Shakespeare’s 2nd best work. Why? There are couple of things that bother me about Hamlet. I’ll list them, and then come back to the list when I get to the real number one on my hit parade.

a) I don’t like what Hamlet becomes in Act V. His whole “special providence in the fall of a sparrow” nonsense. Before this moment he was a free agent, a questioner, curious about everyone and everything, and then, after being abducted by pirates, narrowly escaping execution, and finding his way back to Denmark, he suddenly decides to “let be.”

b) In a similar vein, I don’t like that Hamlet just trots off down the stairs to duel with Laertes under the watchful eye of Claudius. He knows Laertes and Claudius have every reason to want him dead, yet he just walks willingly into their trap with no plan. Let be.

Now, if you buy my initial argument, that Hamlet is a real person trapped in a play, then what choice do we have? This is how Hamlet, this real person, reacted to these events all around him. This is how he changed. What is there to be done? Let be.

No! Rage, rage against the dying of the light! There is no providence! We make our own future, we create our own world by the choices we make and the questions we ask. I hate this sort of fatalist thinking. Stand up, Hamlet! Remember what you said in the graveyard? It is I, Hamlet the Dane! Where’d that guy go?

Now you shouldn’t take from this that I don’t like this play. I LOVE this play. It is deep and mysterious and I discover new truths every time I go back to it. I’m perfectly willing to accept the idea that I’m completely wrong about Act V, and I’m willing to listen to arguments.

There are lots of other things that I love about this play. The famous “To be or not to be” speech, didya know that it’s NOT about suicide? It’s about Hamlet deciding whether to live a long, happy life with Ophelia or live the (probably short) life of murder and revenge the ghost wants him to live. By the way, didya notice that Ophelia was pregnant? There’s no textual support for it, but it makes things like her flower talk and sexualized singing make so much more sense.

I have lots of questions, too. Why did Hamlet turn on Ophelia? Why was he so sad, even before encountering the ghost? What exactly was going on between those two? Was Claudius actually Hamlet’s father? Who knows when Claudius and Gertrude started their relationship – maybe it had been going on for decades. Did Gertrude drink the poison to protect Hamlet, to show him what was going on? If so, she failed, just like he did, to recognize how treacherous Laertes and Claudius were. Why didn’t anyone suspect them? Why didn’t Horatio do something about it? Of course, if we knew all these answers, it would just “take the piss right out of the whole thing.”

There are some brilliant versions of Hamlet on DVD, but my two favorite both involve (surprise) Patrick Stewart as Claudius. In the Derek Jacobi version, Stewart plays Claudius so honestly that you really want Claudius to win. Maybe old Hamlet was a crappy king. Maybe Gertrude hated him, and wanted Claudius, instead. Maybe the young Hamlet really is a nutter, and we’d be better off with him out of the way. This Claudius can make you believe it. In the second version, with David Tennant as Hamlet, Stewart’s Claudius is just as good, but a lot smarmier. Stewart also gets to play the ghost and, guess what, I like the ghost a lot better in this version.

OK, on to number one. But first, Grade A+ (of course)

1. King Lear

And then there was one. I know Hamlet is supposed to be number one. I know everyone says Hamlet is the greatest play ever written. I prefer King Lear. Because I’m an optimist.

What? The bleakest, darkest, saddest, most disturbing of all Shakespeare’s plays is your number one because you’re an optimist? What have you been injecting?

Nothing. (Get it?) Here’s why King Lear is the greatest of all Shakespeare plays. It is the anti-Hamlet. I believe that any time one reads Hamlet, one should instantly read King Lear, as well, as an antidote against Hamlet’s fatalistic failings at the end.

Listen to my very favorite character in the play, the bastard Edmund, talk about fate.

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s Tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardising.

Of course, Edmund is the villain, but isn’t it remarkable how often Shakespeare puts great wisdom in the mouths of villains?

Later on in the play, Edmund’s father Gloucester makes the same mistake Hamlet makes when he says, “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; They kill us for their sport.”

No, Gloucester, no! This is why you are blind (literally this time instead of just metaphorically). We don’t need the gods to rip off our wings and slowly pull us apart. We are perfectly capable of doing that to ourselves. There is evil in the world, and we are its source. As we learn in William Golding’s book “Lord of the Flies”, the beast is not an outside entity to be hunted and killed. The beast is us.

But we are not only capable of great evil. We humans, we fallible, mortal, debased and debauched human beings, are capable of the greatest beauty this universe has ever seen. Here’s one example, Lear’s reunion with Cordelia, one of the most beautiful scenes ever written.

LEAR
Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray, weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me, for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause; they have not.
CORDELIA
No cause, no
cause.

It is we who create the beauty. It is we who create the forgiveness. It is we who create the ugliness and the evil. No one else. No gods. No God. No special providence. Just us. Deal with that.

That is Shakespeare’s message in King Lear, and that is what makes King Lear the anti-Hamlet and the greatest work (as far as I can tell) ever created.

King Lear is painful. Cordelia’s death is possibly the saddest thing I’ve ever encountered in art. King Lear is ugly. Gloucester’s blinding on stage is perhaps the most horrible moment. (After coming close in King John, Shakespeare went all the way this time. Out, vile jelly!) King Lear is the stuff of nightmares. Lear’s comment about life (one more in the long line of Shakespeare’s powerful pronouncements):

When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.

But what we do on that stage, once we stop crying and get hold of ourselves, well, that’s up to us. As that other poet, Dr. Carl Sagan once said, “We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.”

By the way, if you’ve read carefully, you’ve likely noted a particular fondness on my part for a certain bald English Shakespearean actor. I do think Patrick Stewart is the greatest, and I’d love to see him as Lear before he (or I) shuffles off this mortal coil. In a sense, I already have, as Sir Patrick starred as John Lear in a movie called King of Texas. While they didn’t use Shakespeare’s words, they did hew fairly closely to the story (with cowboy hats and Smith and Wessons instead of shields and swords). I thought it was great, but it only whetted my appetite for the real thing. Sir Patrick, if you’re out there somewhere, please!

King_of_Texas

above: Patrick Stewart in his first (hopefully not last) Lear

Post-Script

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. I hope you enjoyed my list, but more importantly I hope it inspires you to begin your own exploration, whether of Shakespeare or of some artist you feel passionate about.

I’m just a science teacher (who happens to be teaching math!), but I’ve learned in this process that art isn’t optional. It isn’t a nice to have. Art is part of what makes us human (OK, so are science and math – there, I said it!). We need to find beauty in the world, and when it isn’t there, we need to create it ourselves. It’s the most human thing we do.

As for me, this isn’t the end of my exploration of Shakespeare, but merely the beginning. True, I’ll never again have the pleasure of discovering a hidden jewel like Measure for Measure. But maybe I’ll be gobsmacked by another actor/director team, the way I was when Stewart and Goold showed me a new way to see Macbeth’s final line. Maybe I’ll discover some hidden truths in Hamlet, and finally understand him a little better. Maybe I’ll find enough in Love’s Labour’s Lost to put it over the top for me, or catch another nuance of how Iago poisons Othello’s mind. Or maybe I’ll just fall in love with Rosalind in the Forest of Arden one more time.

Shakespeare is a part of me now, as indelible as my sea turtle tattoo or my scar from when I sat in a pool of sulfuric acid (bet that sentence has never been written in the history of the world before!) I’m starting with Measure for Measure again this week; I wonder if it will move up or down in my list?

Jacques in As You Like It says, “All the world’s a stage.” To me it’s more like a canvas, vast and boundless. In some places you see what fellow travelers have created there, but in others the sheet is blank, like a great untrodden field of new snow. As Calvin once said to Hobbes, “Let’s go exploring!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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