Shakespeare, Ranked

I saw a lot more Shakespeare as a kid than is normal, since my sister was in a youth Shakespeare group every summer and we also went to a summerstock festival every year as well. I was in the youth group only once, and if you think Measure for Measure is hard to understand as an adult, try as a seven-year-old. (I had all of three lines and a song, so it’s not like I really needed to understand.) Then I went to Shakespeare in the Park every year I lived in New York, until my kids were born. Hopefully, next year in Jerusalem.

Heer Jeet gave his ranking, so I thought I’d give mine.

17. Merchant of Venice

16. Much Ado About Nothing

15. A Winter’s Tale

14. Measure for Measure

13. Twelfth Night: Presages our own sitcom-inflected sense of comedy quite well, and not just because Christopher Lloyd’s performance as Malvolio kept reminding me of his character in Taxi.

12. As You Like It: Can be great, can be dull as dishwater. The key is speed– to make all the crosses and reversals come fast and furious.

11. Tempest: A good picture of what it was like in Shakespeare’s time to suddenly realize that the world was much, much bigger than you thought it was.

10. Hamlet: Yeah, pretty low. I’ve seen this play half a dozen times, and it worked dramatically exactly once. The basic problem with this play is that it takes not just a “great” actor, but an unusually unnarcissistic one, to make Hamlet the character sympathetic and engaging. The key is to show Hamlet’s intellect not as something to show off (“look at me, saying all these famous lines!”) but as a barrier and burden to overcome, and that Hamlet is struggling against and under. If Hamlet is sympathetic and comprehensible, the rest of the play– particularly the central conflict with his father— all snaps into place and works. But it’s quite rare for this to happen. If you want to see how not to do this role, watch Kenneth Branagh’s movie. (As Branagh showed playing Gilderoy Lockheart in the second Harry Potter, and as any director who casts himself as the lead in almost all his movies would suggest,  it’s fair to say that his face would do well appearing under “narcissism” in the dictionary.)

9. Henry V: This is a great Branagh performance to balance the terrible one in Hamlet. The play is underrated because it’s nationalist propaganda and our intellectual leaders are anti-nationalists, but it’s almost perfectly constructed to create a sense of patriotic identification, leading up to “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” Liev Schreiber’s version didn’t really work because he was trying to make Henry unsympathetic and the war (as analogous to the then-ongoing Iraq War) an atrocity. Wrong, wrong, wrong:it’s propaganda, and you have to either savor it or leave it on the shelf.

8. Comedy of Errors: Our opinions about Shakespeare and other “serious” literature tend to suffer from the exact opposite problem from our opinions about contemporary culture: we underrate anything that is fun and easy to understand. Saw it over and over at summerstock as a kid, hilarious every time.

7. Richard III: Fun, fun, fun, and almost unruinable. One of our few contemporary sources for Shakespearean performances had this to say, in 1602 (I read this anecdote in the surprisingly excellent Sectrets of Acting Shakespeare, the Original Approach.)

Shakespeare’s friend and fellow actor, Richard Burbage, amazed and delighted audiences with his stirring interpretation of the outrageous villain Richard III. On March 13, 1602, a lawyer and diarist named John Manningham recorded a now-famous anecdote about Shakespeare and Richard Burbage:

“Upon a time when Burbage played Richard the Third there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard the Third. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained and at his game ere Burbage came. Then, message being brought that Richard the Third was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third.”

6. Romeo and Juliet: Too long, hard to stage, and frustrating to watch, this is also some of  the purest English poetry ever written, and Juliet is a great, great character. I thought the DiCaprio/Danes version really wasn’t bad, capturing youth versus age (and idealism versus cynicism, Eros versus hatred, etc.) as the play’s key duality.

5. King Lear: I’m probably bumping it up a bit higher than my true impression is, because I love Ran, and also because I feel like I understand the play a little more every year. By the time I’m Lear’s age I’ll finally get it.

4. Julius Caesar: Not one I feel like I understand as well as it deserves, but one I’ve always enjoyed and that I find myself thinking about a lot, as we teeter towards the end of our own Republic.

3. Macbeth: The only one of the tragedies that works dramatically every time it is staged; great, beautiful fun, but doesn’t cut as deeply for me as Othello. Throne of Blood is also great.

2. Midsummer’s Night’s Dream: Perfection, perfection, perfection.

  1. Othello. This is the tragedy that feels most “real” to me; every character- even Iago and Roderigo- is in their own way sympathetic, understandable, and tragic. The play’s take on race is one that, for all many would like to claim is dated, is rather more current than you might expect. Here, for example is Iago speaking to Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, early in the play, channeling much of the 2016 Internet:


Zounds, sir, you’re robbed! For shame, put on your gown.
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise,
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise, I say!

The central scene of the play– Act 3, scene 1, which begins with Othello in untarnished rapture with his bride and ends with him swearing he’ll “tear her all to messes,” is probably the single greatest two-character scene ever written. The end of the play is where Shakespeare tears your heart to messes, though. Desdemona, for all she barely appears in the play, is one of his most finely-drawn women, intelligent and observant as well as pure and misused. Her final colloquium with Emilia (another great character) is a great evocation of many feminist arguments. The denoument, where Iago chooses silence, is not like most tragic finishes a mere wrapping up, but a jab in the ribs with a rapier as sharp as a needle.

Othello is “problematic,” sure– he bears out all the worst suspicions of him that the racists around him would harbor. He’s also the most heart-wrenching and sympathetic of all of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. Life is complicated, as Shakespeare understood.

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