Rose’s Essential Shakespeare

Rose’s Essential Shakespeare

Want to cozy up with Shakespeare’s plays, but don’t know where to begin?

Start here.

Even if you haven’t already read my novel, Iago’s Penumbra–which is full of Shakespearean references and devices–you can probably guess that I’m a Shakespeare geek. If there was a Church of the Bard, I’d be sitting in the front pew every morning. Even when I was young and exploring the sacred texts of various religions, I made sure to include daily readings of that Upstart Crow’s cannon intermixed. My first solo trips as a high school student were to the Old Globe Theatre, my college vacations were to the Oregon Shakespearean Festival, and on my first trip overseas I visited Stratford-upon-Avon. And then, of course, I taught Shakespeare for over a decade in my high school English and Theatre Arts classrooms.

Shakespeare’s plays have been arranged into three major groups, the Tragedies (12 plays), the Comedies (15 plays), and the Histories (10 plays), for a grand total of 37 plays. I recommend you try to tackle them in that order, too. You might be surprised that I put the Tragedies before the Comedies, but much of Shakespeare’s humor is lost on modern readers and audiences without careful acclimatization to his language first. The Histories are by far the most challenging plays for today’s audiences, not only because they actually alter historical events, but also because they have a huge cast of historical personages that are virtually unknown to many readers.

Read the Tragedies in this order (and I recommend you stick with this even if you remember studying a few in high school). Trust me, beginning with a play you’re vaguely familiar with, like Romeo and Juliet, will make it easier to continue on to the plays you probably didn’t even know existed, like Cymbeline.  You’ll notice the “Big Three” are first on this list–Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth–and for good reason. These three are probably the most studied and most reproduced because they are the most accessible to the modern consciousness.

Do not get a huge volume of all his plays and attempt to read it. This is a demoralizing experience, as the book is so huge, the print is so small, and it is anything but user-friendly. Instead, purchase one play at a time. I recommend the “No Fear Shakespeare” series to start, which are paperbacks that are easy to hold and read, featuring the original text on the right pages with a study guide on the left pages, including the definition of his more archaic words with a modern translation. Although I do not always agree with the modern translation, it is a great place to begin and helps enormously. However, not all the plays are in the No Fear series (at this time I believe only 21), so you will have to look elsewhere for the rest. For the remaining plays, I recommend the “Folger Shakespeare Library” editions if you can find them, which contain a wonderful introduction to each play and lots of help for reading and understanding. Although these versions are not quite as easy to read as the No Fear series, they are excellent. Some readers love the “All Clear! Shakespeare” versions by Eugene Kusterer as well–there are 10 plays in this series currently and they are quite well done. If money is your concern, you can always purchase the complete works on the Kindle (not in hardback, please) for only 99 cents, but this will be much harder to wade through on your own, so I really do recommend one of the aforementioned suggestions instead.

Do not be afraid to watch the movie versions or go see the plays. In fact, please do! Shakespeare was originally meant to be seen, not read. BUT (and this is a large but) I recommend you read a good plot summary of the play you are going to view beforehand, if not the play itself. One of the things that confuse many readers when they first read Shakespeare is how many times he uses the same remade (and apparently regurgitated) plot devices over and over in his plays (like star-crossed lovers, a woman dressing as a man, or a masquerade ball). This is because the Elizabethan audience did not see a play for suspense as so many of we movie-goers do now: they went to the theatre for the language, the bawdy humor, the spectacle, and the pageantry. They still wanted diversion as we do today, but they actually preferred stories with which they were familiar–this is one reason why the History plays made so much sense for the audiences of Shakespeare’s day, as this “history” was actually based on recent events that they all knew to some degree. By reading a good summary of the play before watching it, the plot of the play itself will serve as a foundation for you to enjoy the language, the characters, and the themes for which Shakespeare is famous. Summaries of all the plays can be found online.

For a very simple summary of each, try:

For a more complete synopsis, try:

The Tragedies 

(in recommended reading order):

  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Hamlet
  • Macbeth
  • King Lear
  • Othello
  • Troilus and Cressida
  • Timon of Athens
  • Coriolanus
  • Julius Caesar
  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • Cymbeline
  • Titus Andronicus

The Comedies 

(read in the original order as published in the first folio, with the exception of The Tempest, which I recommend you save to read last of all):

  • The Two Gentlemen of Verona 
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor
  • Measure for Measure
  • The Comedy of Errors
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • The Merchant of Venice
  • As You Like It
  • The Taming of the Shrew
  • All’s Well That Ends Well 
  • Twelfth Night
  • The Winter’s Tale
  • Pericles, Prince of Tyre (not in the first folio)
  • The Tempest (save the best for last)

The Histories

(placed in chronological order of events):

  • King John
  • Richard II
  • Henry IV, Part 1
  • Henry IV, Part 2
  • Henry V
  • Henry VI, Part 1
  • Henry VI, Part 2
  • Henry VI, Part 3
  • Richard III
  • Henry VIII

**Sidenote: Some scholars have called a small group of Shakespeare’s plays the “Late Romances”–Cymbeline, Pericles, The Tempest, The Two Noble Kinsman (a tragicomedy coauthored by Shakespeare and John Fletcher derived from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) and The Winter’s Tale–because they are considered to be his last plays and displaying his best work. I have organized them differently, but when you read these plays (and if you’d like to add Two Noble Kinsman to your own reading, I recommend this play heartily, although it is not solely Shakespeare’s work) it is perfectly acceptable to put off these to read alone at the end, or re-read them together, as it is a satisfying experience–especially as an ending to reading all his other plays.

And thus ends my introduction to the Plays of William Shakespeare. I’ll address his Sonnets in a later blog post.

Muchier Scale: 10 out of 10.

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