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The ten best Shakespeare plays of all time

The Bard of Avon's legendary works, as ranked by the public

Andrzej Lukowski
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Back in 2016, we marked the four hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death by asking you to vote on what you thought the best Shakespeare plays were. Which is the Bard’s most famous plays win? The endlessly staged blockbusters like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ or ‘Hamlet’? Or maybe one of the cult, lesser-known ones – an unexpected upset from ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, anyone? Here's how the top ten actually turned out in our ultimate Shakespeare play-off.

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The best Shakespeare plays

10. The Merchant of Venice

When was it written?
1596

What's it about?

Things get a teeny bit anti-Semitic when a Venetian noble defaults on a loan to a Jewish merchant.

Why's it so good?
Troubling and complex, it’s proven endlessly malleable as a comment on Christian Europe’s troubled relationship with its Jewish population (and Portia is one of the Bard’s great female characters).

© Ellie Kurtz

9. Romeo and Juliet

When was it written?
1594

What's it about?

The children of mortal enemies fall for each other. It all gets a bit :’(.

Why's it so good?
It’s the uber-love story, the template for every tale of doomed romance ever written. Everything else is just a variation.

© Ellie Kurtz

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8. The Tempest

When was it written?
1611

What's it about?

Sorcerer and single dad Prospero takes revenge on his enemies – magic style. 

Why's it so good?
Full of magic and spectacle, Shakespeare’s deeply layered  final play also tends to look bloody spectacular when staged.

© Marc Brenner

7. Twelfth Night

When was it written?
1599

What's it about?

A Shakespeare trope overload: romantic cross-dressing with twins and a shipwreck.

Why's it so good?
A big, grown-up comedy about identity and lost love that rewrites, supercharges and outclasses all his previous comedies.

© John Tramper

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6. Othello

When was it written?
1604

What's it about?

What happens when race relations in sixteenth-century Venice don’t go terribly well.

Why's it so good?
The most powerful play about racism ever written, but moreover a terrifying study in the destructive power of jealousy.

© Igor Bulgarin

5. King Lear

When was it written?
1605

What's it about?

A father-of-three takes early retirement and goes a little bit nuts.

Why's it so good?
The last of Shakespere’s great tragedies, this wild, elemental play about a tyrant losing his mind in old age is a haunting vision of collapse.

© Ellie Kurtz

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4. Much Ado About Nothing

When was it written?
1598

What's it about?
Extreme sassiness in the Sicilian countryside.

Why's it so good?
Full of gags and one-liners, it's one of Shakespeare's biggest crowd pleasers about how bloody hilarious it is when people make a big hullabaloo about nothing. Lol.

© Manual Harlan

3. Midsummer Night's Dream

When was it written?
1595

What's it about?
A bunch of insane fairies attempt to solve the romantic problems of some mortals lost in a wood.

Why's it so good?
People love this exuberant magical comedy – it’s the ultimate crowd-pleaser and the perfect summer play.

Where can I see it in 2019?
There are three major productions scheduled for 2019.
Bridge Theatre Jun 3-Aug 31.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Jun 28-Jul 27.
Shakespeare’s Globe. Jun 28-Oct 13. 

© John Haynes

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2. Macbeth

When was it written?
1605

What's it about?

A Scottish lord is persuaded to commit brutal murder by his wife, who promptly gets all guilty about it.

Why's it so good?
Short, thrilling and charged with the supernatural, this dark tragedy about the consequences of a Scottish lord’s terrible lust for power is probably Shakespeare’s most ‘modern’ and accessible play.

© Ellie Kurtz

1. Hamlet

When was it written?
1600

What's it about?

A student ponders the meaning of life when he should be on a killing spree.

Why's it so good?
What is there left to say about ‘Hamlet’? It reputation is so towering it’s hard to be objective about it, but this epic about a young man contemplating his own mortality while attempting to avenge his father is certainly a pretty hot contender for the greatest thing ever written in English.

© Fiona Moorhead

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