I only write these notes because I love you.
The Hawaii Shakespeare Festival season (as well as this year’s Mission Houses Museum Shakespeare production) are over, so now seems to be a perfect time to drop some truth about William Shakespeare’s scripts. This is not an opinion about any productions I’ve seen – this is a statement of clear, scientific fact about script quality based on rigorous (sic), objective (sic) standards (sic – i.e. – how much do I like each script).
I’m including “Cardenio/Double Falsehood,” “The Two Noble Kinsmen” and “Edward III” on this list because they are sort of accepted to maybe be somewhat Shakespeare. I’ve left off “Love’s Labor’s Won,” “Arden of Faversham,” “Edmund Ironsides,” “Sir Thomas More,” “Thomas of Woodstock/Richard II Part 1,” “A Knack To Know A Knave,” “Locrine,” “Thomas, Lord Cormwell,” “Vortigern and Rowena,” “The Puritan,” ‘The Merry Devil of Edmonton,” ‘Fair Em, The Miller’s Daughter of Manchester,” “The Birth of Merlin,” “Sir John Oldcastle,” “A Yorkshire Tragedy,” “The London Prodigal,” “The Second Maiden’s Tragedy” and “Mucedorus” because they re generally accepted be not by Shakespeare and, in the case of “Vortigern,” acknowledged as forgeries.
An “*” means I’ve directed a script. A “+” means I’ve acted in it. A “ ❧” means I hope to direct it one day (and that I spent some time looking at ASCII dingbats today).
We’re going from the bottom up…
40. Cardenio/Double Falsehood
Its not so much that what we have is a bad play, just that is is almost certainly not Shakespeare’s play. We know he wrote a play called “Cardenio” and we know that certain publishers (including my favorite published, Arden) have taken seeming great delight in attempting to prove that Lewis Theobald’s “Double Falsehood” really was adapted from “three copies of a previously unseen Shakespeare script,” but I thing we need to apply Occam’s Razor here and assume that Theobald was talking out of his posterior. To whit, don’t believe the hype. There’s also a school of thought that ‘The Second Maiden’s Tragedy” might be the missing “Cardenio.” No. Just no. I’m not sold. And I embrace “Edward III” as a likely candidate so my standard are really very liberal. Convince me, world, and I’m willing to bump this up to the top 30.
39. The Taming of the Shrew
We hates it, precious. We hates it so much. I was in a gifted and talented program in 7th grade and we were tasked with performing this play. In 7th grade, I found it to be hilarious. Then I realized its about a dude psychologically torturing a woman who despises him so she will be “tamed” and respect him as her master/husband. Yeah, no. Petruchio is the least likable character in Shakespeare (and he has some stiff competition for this title) and the plot was considered kind of crazy-misogynist even for its time – John Fletcher wrote a response piece to it called ‘The Tamer Tamed” which (while hardly a shining beacon of feminist thought) takes Petruchio much to task for being an awful character.
38. The Merchant of Venice
What would be a perfectly reasonable tragedy if it ended with Shylock being banished at the end of act 4 continues into the realm of horrific anti-Semitic comedy by having a fifth act involving light post-awfulness comedy. Its a tragedy if you roll with my idea that Shylock is actually the hero and what happens to him is a travesty of justice. Yes, yes, asking for a literal pound of flesh is unreasonable, but the way he’s treated is still pretty horrific.
37. The Two Gentlemen of Verona
La la la Proteus tries to rape Sylvia, who happens to be the fiance of his best friend Valentine. Unfortunately, he does this in front of both Valentine and in front of his own fiance, Julia, who is disguised as his page. So obviously Julia and Valentine reject him and leave him to rot in the forest! No, no, of course not, this is Shakespeare! Valentine feels bad about how angry he gets about Proteus trying to rape Sylvia, so he forgives Proteus and offers Sylvia to him to prove his remorse. Julia forgives Valentine and then marries him. 400 Years of rape culture ensues. Saved from being lower on the list because it has some cute scenes involving a dog. If you cut the whole play except the dog scenes, it becomes a must-read.
(Edit: As a side note, I think director William Ha’o did an admirable job trying to play against this aspect of the play. If the show ends with Proteus unhappy, then I feel a little better about it.)
36. The Two Noble Kinsmen
Really, I should probably rank this lower, but its not performed as frequently as the previous three so it gets a little bit of a bump. The Jailer’s Daughter is meant to be a comic character. She rescues one of the two “noble” kinsmen out of love, is abandoned by him, goes insane and then is presented with another man who pretends to be the man she loves so she’ll marry him and eventually love him. Other stuff happens (more of the main plot), but that subplot is really pretty genuinely awful.
35-34-33. Henry VI Part I, Henry VI Part II, Henry VI Part III ❧
I’ve been pretty hard on the comedies so far, but Shakespeare’s early histories are nothing to brag about. The poetry in these first plays is sometimes excruciating. I mean, its not as bad as Vogan poetry, but lord its not good. Plus, Joan of Arc is one the bad guys in Part 1. History is written by the winners, I guess. With some aggressive editing (i.e. cutting almost everything) these plays become a rip-roaring adventure tale. Without that editing, they’re a slog through the fire swamp.
32. Timon of Athens
I almost left Timon of Athens off the list. It doesn’t fail the “Shakespeare” part of the “Shakespere play” test, but it might fail the “play” test. Yes, there are characters and dialogue and stuff happens, but the same can be said of a political debate with your crazy racist uncle. Like in that kind of debate, at end of “Timon of Athens,” nothing has changed and everyone just feels angry and bad. I’ve seen one very good production of this play, but the actors, director and everyone involved had to work against the text to make it interesting. It was like Shakespeare fought them every inch of the way screaming “no, this play is supposed to suck.”
31. Edward III
Maybe he wrote it, maybe he didn’t write it. Not much happens in the script. Ranks above the others because it has a plot and doesn’t piss me off too much.
30. All’s Well That Ends Well *
Lots of “Comedies” in the early part of the list. I directed this one once which means I have maybe a slightly better view of it than it deserves. Its another play where a rich white dude treats women terribly but ends up married to a very noble heroine who loves him in the end. There’s no evidence that he loves her, but, hey, she’s happy because she worked her ass off to end up married to him. Helena, the main character, is given some wonderful language – even though she’s basically forcing this guy to marry him. Its ok, though, because everyone agrees that even if he doesn’t like her, its for his own good. *boggles*
29. Romeo and Juliet
Am I really the kind of monster who would rate this play so low? Yes. Its a crappy play. Mercutio has some wonderful scenes and speeches and Juliet is genuinely a great character, but Romeo is a a total drag. If there could be a play called “Juliet” where she manages to find somebody decent to kill herself over, I would like that better. I could write a whole essay on everything I hate about this play and the lesson plans that surround it, but we have 28 more plays to go. I have an idea about how to approach this play as written that would make me like it, but I think the rest of the world would despise it, so let’s let that idea wither on the vine.
28. King John
To be fair, King John plays better than it reads. The scene where Hubert refuses to murder Arthur is a truly great scene – its moving, it presents an actor with a fantastic challenge and it could be presented alone apart from the rest of the play and you’d want to read the rest of the play. Still, King John is a play with very few characters to like or admire and a plot that gets bogged down in tepid poetry and plotting.
27. Anthony and Cleopatra
With the right cast, this could be a delightful camp comedy. Maybe that was how it was always intended to be. I think we’re supposed to find it tragic.
26. The Merry Wives of Windsor
The legend is Shakespeare wrote this because Queen Elizabeth wanted to see a play about Falstaff in love. In other words, its a perfect example of what happens when the head of the studio forces you to create a sequel for one of your hits when there’s really no need for a sequel. This is a lesson we have not learned after 400 years.
25. Measure for Measure *
Yet another in a seemingly endless series of Shakespearian comedies where a powerful dude tries to take sexual advantage of a powerless woman via threats and blackmail. In this case, there is no doubt that we’re supposed to despise Angelo, the main in question. In the end, he is punished (by being forced to marry the woman he abandoned and then impregnated because she and the woman he wanted to rape switched places at the last minute) and then Isabella is rewarded by being forced to marry the Duke who came in to save the day (despite the fact that she wants to become a nun). Hmm.
24. Henry VIII
Its the Seinfeld of Shakespeare’s plays. Nothing happens. I mean in terms of dramatic action. I suppose its impossible to write a compelling play about the father of the ruling monarch.
23. Troilus and Cressida * ❧
I love, love, love this hot, awful mess of a play. Is there a main character? Are any of the candidates for main character likable? How much do you have to play against the text to undermine Cressida’s gleeful disloyalty? Everyone is awful and almost everyone dies. Shakespeare’s best clown character ever – the bitter Thersites – spends the whole play pointing out how everyone is awful, including himself. Man, I’m not even convinced there’s a plot. Shakespeare at his bitterest – indeed, the play is a loving ode to bitterness. I waited 12 years to direct this and it was completely worth it and I would direct it again a thousand times. Still, not really “top ten best Shakespeare plays” material.
22. Love’s Labor’s Lost
Hmm. Uh. Well. Hmm.
21. Titus Andronicus
When I was growing up, this had the reputation of being Shakespeare’s worst play. Awful things happen to awful people. Julie Taymor’s movie largely rehabilitated its reputation. While I have little to no desire to ever direct it myself, what I love about this play right now is that its become a sort of gateway drug into Shakespeare for a lot of young people. Indeed, I propose that this script should replace “Romeo and Juliet” as the “go-to” Shakespeare script. If you really want to get young people loving Shakespeare, serve them up this one at the banquet. Extra points because the TV Show Gotham recently ripped off a scene from this one while following the life of the Penguin. I mean, its still not a great play, but it is pretty darn entertaining.
20. As You Like It ❧
What kind of monster puts this beloved Shakespeare comedy anywhere below the Top 10? The same kind of monster who ranks Romeo and Juliet at #29. I wish I could figure out how to put half of a “❧” up there because I only half want to direct it. I think I understand how its supposed to work dramatically, but I also think its a play with a plot so slight that directors feel compelled to take a “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to it. Also, while I love the “All the world’s a stage” speech, it has always felt shoe-horned into the script to me – as if Shakespeare knew he had something great but didn’t quite know what show to put it in.
This seems to be a good play to place right in the middle. It is an interesting romance and is tremendously entertaining on stage. It features a great comic beheading scene. Its meant to be comic, right? No? Just me?
18. Julius Caesar ❧
I used to love Julius Caesar and I have an idea of doing a Memento style production of it that I think would be amazing. You could really create a great commentary on imperialism and the effects of wars of conquest here. The thing is, the plot is sort of mediocre. Great characters, some great speeches and endlessly quotable, but he wrote better plays. 17 better plays, in fact.
An especially underrated tragedy that I am, perhaps, overrating a little bit.
16. Pericles, Prince of Tyre *
I directed this. Terry Knapp suggested I drop the first two acts completely since they likely weren’t written by Shakespeare. I dropped almost all of those two acts. The play benefited immensely. This is another “it plays better than it reads” script. Some of it is genuinely moving and some of it is hilarious and some of it is just bizarre. A romp.
15. Richard II ❧
Arguably, you could edit Richard II down to three or four scenes and have a really excellent play. Some of Shakespeare’s lovliest poetry, but the play is a bit of a bore. The “This England” speech is one of the finest things in all of Shakespeare. Even with my new liberal approach to editing for performance, I wouldn’t cut a word of that.
14. Henry IV, Part 2 ❧
I’m going to knock out three of the histories in a row here. Shakespeare almost slips into surrealism in this script. The Henry the Fifth story (which starts in Richard II and ends in Henry V) is a really compelling tale of redemption and this play has some lovely, lovely moments (the death bed reconciliation… the rejection of Falstaff…). Someday. Someday.
13. Richard III ❧
Richard III is a lousy play just in terms of storytelling. Its also an amazing play because Richard III is a tremendous character. In my Shakespeare Fantasy League, I like to imagine a version of Richard III written in the middle of his career instead of at the start. Maybe writing Richard III early in his career is what allowed him to create Iago from Othello later? Maybe? The play is great camp fun and I would love to play Rick 3 or direct the show someday.
12. Comedy of Errors ❧ *
I have directed this twice. There is almost nothing worthwhile in terms of poetry in the play. It is also the absolute funniest of Shakespeare’s comedies. You don’t need to cut a word.
11. The Winter’s Tale *
Directed it. The script is absolutely bonkers. Jealousy descends for no reason, the gods exact retribution, a bear mauling occurs, there is a massive country dance in the middle, and a statue comes to life. Somehow, its all emotionally grounded and there’s some lovely poetry.
10. Henry IV, Part 1 * ❧
I utterly failed this play when I directed it. I apologize to Shakespeare, to my cast and to the audience. The play itself is a fantastic piece of theatre. Compelling villains, anti-heroes, comedy, battle, and Falstaff at his comic best. I hope to redeem myself with this show someday.
9. Henry V ❧
The poetry wins the day here. This is probably the most beautifully written history play of all. The opening monologue alone (say it with me now, “O for a muse of fire”) would guarantee this play a place in the top twenty, but the rest of the play is just as good. If you plan on directing this, hire your best combat choreographer but also get a voice and diction coach so every single word is perfect.
8. The Tempest + *
I know, right? Why is this play with a wisp of a plot rated so high? Well, the poetry, for one. It took directing this play for me to realize how gorgeous the language is. Second, the opportunities for theatrical spectacle are fabulous. Third, Caliban is one of the greatest character ever. So is Ariel. So is Prospero. In the wrong hands, the play can be dull as all get out, but in the right hands (for the sake of this list, presumably mine), the play is a delight.
7. Twelfth Night
This is probably the best Shakespeare play that I have no desire to direct. I’ve seen some fine productions of it over the years and worked with Terry Knapp on his final production of “Twelfth Night or Whatevers” so I don’t really feel the need to tackle this show. Its funny, potentially moving and the most successful of his cross-dressing comedies.
6. Macbeth ❧ * +
Macbeth is a great mix of just-the-right-length (you barely have to cut it) and just-the-right-story (Macbeth’s rise and fall couldn’t be written with more appropriate efficiency). What an amazing world we live in where this play isn’t in the top 5. Every character is fantastic and if you ever audition for Macbeth and get cast in any role, accept it without hesitation. You’re going to have at least one great scene.
5. A Midsummer Night’s Dream * ❧
Shakespeare’s second funniest comedy doesn’t just have one wisp of a plot, it has three wisps of a plot. Maybe four. It gets extra points because of Bottom’s “Bottom’s Dream” speech, which is both funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Shakespeare balanced poetry, comedy and pathos perfectly in this play and if its not his best comedy, that’s because he also wrote…
4. Much Ado About Nothing *
Take notes, Petruchio. This is how a buffoon with a retrograde attitude courts a strong woman. Yes, their friends trick them into pursuing each other, but that’s only because Beatrice and Benedick so clearly love and admire each other. All I need to do to rank this at number 4 is to completely ignore the Hero/Claudio plot, because holy cats is Claudio awful. The whole town is awful. Gosh, what awful people. But let’s ignore them and dwell on Beatrice and Benedick, who are fantastic.
3. King Lear ❧
My top three are all tragedies. They are almost the cliche choice of top 3. King Lear isn’t just a hot mess of a play, its maybe two hot play messes. The folio and quarto versions are really different. I once had a low opinion of this play, but the older I get, the more the subjects of loss of sovereignty, mourning and end-of-the-world anxiety feel like real things. Lear hurts. It has the bleakest ending in all of Shakespeare. Everyone you know and love will die on you someday and the people left behind to lead us will be humans instead of giants.
2. Hamlet + * ❧
Every time I wrestle with Hamlet, I leave thinking “Oh, ok, next time I work on this show, I understand it enough to get it right.” Its never, ever enough though. There is so much going on in every single scene. Kenneth Branaugh, when tasked with making a movie of it, just said “never mind, we’re not cutting it, doing the whole thing, sorry folks.” When you’re young, you think the play is about youth and idolize Hamlet, perhaps, as a goth hero. When you get older, you realize the play is about uncertainty – how we never really know for sure if our choices are justified. Sometimes, we just have to have a little faith and act. But taking action is so hard if you, you know, are a thinking person.
1. Othello *
I had to direct this to understand how amazing the script is. Othello, Iago, Desdemona and Emilia are four of Shakespeare’s greatest plays and the horrible, unstoppable machine-like plot set into motion by Iago (that pays off in Act 5) is one of the great literary creations in the English language. Shakespeare wrestles with the nature of racism, jealousy, honor, evil, and love in a way that makes the audience/reader feel complicit in everything that happens. The ending is crushing – evil wins, even if evil is going to face some pretty grizzly punishment. The surviving characters have all been manipulated by Iago and have to move forward with the knowledge that maybe they can’t trust anyone close to them. To quote Adrian Belew, “the world hangs by a slender thread – trust.” Iago cuts that thread.