Pursuant to this idea, via Shakespeare Geek, pick my own top five plays. My top five favorite Shakespeare plays —
Top Five Plays
Much Ado About Nothing
Having seen this one a half-dozen times, and owning a version on DVD where Beatrice and Benedict became real-life lovers, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, with wonderful cameo bits, it’s a remarkable film, and sets a tone. I’ve seen this one on stage from amateurs in Austin to RSC’s version in London’s West End, and most performances never cease to deliver. Yes, for me, it’s a favorite. The opening strains of the movie version, I gladly wept the first time I saw that in a movie theatre.
“If music is the food of love…”
Something about a dying strain…
Twins separated, washed ashore, mistaken identity, cross-dressing, love gone awry, love lost, love found. A jester, “The Fool.” There’s a considerable volume of work that can endlessly nitpick this play for sexual overtones, undertones, and more modern themes, but for my ear — and tastes — it resolves the way a dramatic comedy should, with marriage, and the hint that, “They live happily ever after…” I currently have a DVD copy of the Trevor Nunn film. Based on a successful stage production; the movie was panned by critics; I like it.
Troilus and Cressida
My introduction to this play was as an assigned reading, then the professor covered it in class, but only in a lightweight manner, failing to capture what I perceived were intrinsic elements within the story. As I wrote before, “Hilarious, in a dark, unforgiving light.” Based on a few lines from Greek myth, the story inside a story, and the way I’ve seen it acted, just tickled my fancy. Irony, black comedy, or maybe it was a sweet love story tragically gone wrong. I list it as a favorite play, and it was — at one time — a point of further academic research and analysis, but alas, it’s play that’s not done often. Maybe why I like it, as a problem play.
Other favorite plays
Two Gentlemen of Verona, Comedy of Errors, Midsummer’s Night’s Eve, Hamlet, King Lear, The Scottish Play. Richard II, Richard 3. The Tempest.
Can’t pick just one or two more.
Richard II (2)
My current summary judgement of the play, “I don’t want to be a king, I just want write poetry, and pray,” with a more modern variation, I imagine a guy who just wants to spend his days in meditation. I’m good with that. Ugly infighting, and the first play in the history series, which paves the way for Falstaff, and then, Henry V. The poetry of the play is what sells it for me, why it would be on this list. Some critics suggest this play is overlooked. When I first saw it at the Globe in Southwark, I went in, intentionally, “unprepared,” compared with the cursory reading I did for the summer stock version years later. The emotional baggage of the play carried it, even that first time.
Two Gentlemen of Verona
This is a specific, Austin-area reference — the place’s name was “The Hideout,” and it had a back room that served as a sparse, minimal theatre space. Dozen seats, maybe? During the dot-bust, handful of UT Winedale’s summer program graduates staged a version of Two Gentlemen, and it was immensely fun and vastly amusing. There was a script prompter, and the setting was not unlike Elizabethan working conditions including a real dog.
Comedy of Errors
It’s an early play, and the preparation for seeing it at Winedale one year was so much fun. Listened to it read aloud, read books, listened to a couple of podcasts (lectures), and it was the esteemed Emma Smith who posed the question, something about, “because it’s an early play, it is considered juvenile, when in fact, there’s great depth.” I may not have that quite right, but it was my takeaway, and in it was that very situation where my limited scholarship really added to the show.
Always a crowd pleaser, but even so, done well? Saw several critically acclaimed versions on stage, but the two Hamlet’s I recall, three, to include — now — Sir Kenneth Branagh, the two Hamlet’s would include a staged version at the Old Vic with a young actor just out of the RADA, a perfectly emo Hamlet. The other was a woman playing Hamlet in an Austin version. She was pitch perfect.
Certainly, King Lear was one of the first plays I saw staged that moved me endlessly. Not like the conclusion creeps up on me, but I got floored that first time, and the most recent version, equally strong. Can’t say I’ve seen any of the movie versions, although Sir Anthony Hopkins would be tempting, indeed. Personally, dealing with “father issues,” though, makes the play almost too painful for me to bare. Respect the play. I think I liked its Hogarth version, Dunbar more than the play itself. At Winedale, when the thunder cracked its cheeks, and there was pouring water, I was sure it was real rain, so evocative were the actors.
A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream
Again, a fan favorite — perennial winner. Dumbed down, it can work for children, and with all its rich, real sexual overtones, very much a magical, mystical experience as it explores the humorous nature of foiled, fouled love. In the round, one time, with Puck a shirtless imp, a large snake (boa), coiling around him. The movie version? Love it, but it showcases the difference between “American” actors and classically-trained British actors. Seen it a number of times, just fun, and when done well, there’s a subtle doubling of the “real” world, and the fairy world.
“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumb’red here
While these visions did appear.”
Puck, Midsummer’s Night’s Eve (V.i.367-9)
Sir Ian’s version, my gold standard. While I’ve seen a few other variants on stage, I still judge by Sir Ian’s version, first saw it in London, while he was still in it at the National Theatre. A crowd pleaser — and a most treacherous, villainous character. Bonus points for mixings facts and fiction.
The Scottish Play
It wasn’t until the podcast Chop Bard covered this, and I didn’t listen until recently, despite the original publication date, but that series changed how I looked at this play. There’s also a memory from an upstart at the time, talking about a touring production he was involved with, and how the night they failed to perform theatre obsequies to the odd gods — an actor fell off the stage. The aforementioned Chop Bard covered this play better than I’ve ever felt otherwise, and the various productions I’ve seen are overshadowed by the scholarship. Still, a crowd pleaser. Plus? A note on the name? See The Leo, and previously, here, with a sidebar to a sidebar, here. Most recently?
I can’t recall seeing a version that I liked, but the text of the play itself, the story, as told through the actors, playing the roles, I’ve loved that. The inherent symbolism at the end of the playwright’s stage career? Sure, there is that. But the play is fun, rich, and one of the crowd pleasers. A fan favorite, for sure. My own memories of this play are jumbled, and I conflate various stage versions in my head.
Top Five Plays
My top five favorite Shakespeare plays — pick and choose. The list varies with what’s currently available.
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