This is the second of my #Shakespeare400 posts and this time I’m celebrating Shakespeare’s plays.
I have many, many favourites but I’ve narrowed it down to just four. Honestly, I could have written about at least 20 of them but that would have been incredibly boring to read.
I love Shakespeare’s Comedies and Tragedies but I’ve only ever read one History play. I’ve never seen a History play either so I should probably remedy that in the future.
Okay, enough explanation. These are my Top 4 Shakespeare Plays…
This is my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays. I even wrote my BA dissertation on it (along with As You Like It and All’s Well that Ends Well). It’s a wonderfully confusing plot full of magic, doubling, and love.
Like all of Shakespeare’s comedies it ends in a wedding (or three) but the events leading up to the celebrations are hilarious. A man is given the head of a donkey by a jealous fairy King, love potions go awry, and a play-within-a-play provides many dirty jokes about holes in walls.
It’s also very interesting from a scholar’s point of view as Shakespeare experiments with doubling and mirroring. There’s also ideas of subservience and masochistic love running through the play, as shown by Helena’s line ‘I am your Spaniel’ in act
Also, some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines stem from this play. These include:
- The course of true love never did run smooth – Act 1, scene 1
- Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,/And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind. – Act 1, scene 1
- Though she be but little, she is fierce! – Act 3, scene 2
- One sees more devils than vast hell can hold – Act 5, scene 1
I genuinely cannot wait to see this at The Globe in August. It’s been my dream for a number of years to see this play performed live and it’ll finally come true this year.
I love the superstitions surrounding the Scottish play (I know someone who broke her leg after saying ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre. Don’t underestimate things like that.) and I love the atmosphere that Macbeth produces in a theatre.
Lady Macbeth is my favourite character created by Shakespeare. She’s a vice figure as she tempts Macbeth into sin but she’s a very unusual one because she’s also a villain. She is able to control Macbeth with her sexuality and she is ruthless in her pursuit of power. What a wonderful female character.
The Witches are also wonderful characters. They provide the magic for the play, providing prophecies for Macbeth and generally being mysterious. They’re modeled from the Fates of Greek and Roman mythology as they control life and death.
Famous quotes from Macbeth include:
- When shall we three meet again/In thunder, lightning, or in rain? – Act 1, scene 1
- Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires – Act 1, scene 4
- Come, you spirits/That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here. – Act 1, scene 5
- Double, double toil and trouble;/Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. – Act 4, scene 1
- One fell swoop – Act 4, scene 3
I’m seeing Macbeth on the same day that I see A Midsummer Night’s Dream in August. I cannot wait!
Titus is the most gruesome of Shakespeare’s plays and there’s still some confusion about whether he wrote it alone or with a co-author. Either way, it has been confirmed that Shakespeare at least contributed to this play and therefore I feel happy including it in this list.
Whenever Titus is staged people walk out. It’s inevitable and it’s wonderful. This play literally makes people feel sick and I love it. It involves dismemberment, cannibalism, and rape which understandably offends the sensibilities of some people. But if you can get past the gruesome nature then you’re left with a re-telling of Ovid’s myth of Philomela in Book 6 of Metamorphoses.
Titus Andronicus also has the best exchange of any Shakespeare play…
Demetrius: Villain, what hast thou done?
Aaron: That which thou canst not undo.
Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother.
Aaron: Villain, I have done thy mother.
This is such a witty section which lifts the play away from it’s violent background. It’s also the first ‘your mum’ joke (probably) which still amuse people today.
If you’re not squeamish then I’d recommend Titus Androncius. Don’t eat anything before you go to see it though, especially pies.
As You Like It is a lighthearted, witty tale full of cross-dressing and sexual humour. It’s the perfect example of how a Shakespearean comedy should function. It includes four marriages, the most of any Shakespearean Comedy, but there’s also a fifth (sort of) between Orlando and Rosalind-as-Ganymede when they perform a ‘practice’ hand-fasting ceremony. This play is genuinely funny and you leave the theatre feeling hopeful and refreshed after witnessing the lovers finally find happiness.
As You Like It also features an extremely poignant, famous speech (from which I borrowed for the title of this post) given by the melancholy character of Jaques:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
This is such a clever speech as it draws attention to the stage that Jaques is on. It’s especially clever when it’s performed at the Globe as that doubles as the ‘world’ that Jaques is referring to. It’s also interesting because Jaques refers to women as ‘players’ on the stage at a time when women were not allowed to perform on stage. Perhaps that’s a stretch too far but I like the idea that Shakespeare wanted women on his stage as well as men.
The speech provides a model for the cycle of life as men are once again reduced to the helpless state that they began life in. The sombre, bleak tone suits Jaques’ character but seems almost out of place in this play. It’s a real contrast to the happiness of Rosalind and Orlando.
It’s a beautiful section of solemn poetry in an otherwise joyful play.
Okay, I’m going to wrap up this post here. Let me know what your favourite Shakespeare play is! I love hearing about people’s favourite plays.