William Shakespeare's Most Famous Plays

Plays of Shakespeare
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The idea of picking the top five plays by William Shakespeare is sure to spark a quarrel among literary critics and theatergoers. Though many consider "Hamlet" the Bard's best work, others prefer "King Lear" or "The Winter's Tale." Tastes vary, but there is some critical consensus about which plays have the most enduring literary value.

'Hamlet'

Considered by many literary critics to be Shakespeare’s greatest play, this deeply moving story follows Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, as he grieves for his father and avenges his death. Possibly based on Shakespeare’s personal experience of losing his own son, Hamnet, in 1596, this tragedy manages to explore the complex psychology of its young hero hundreds of years before the emergence of psychology as a concept. For this alone, "Hamlet" deserves the number one spot.

'Romeo and Juliet'

Shakespeare is perhaps most famous for "Romeo and Juliet," the classic story of two “star-crossed lovers.” This play has seeped into the consciousness of popular culture: if we describe someone as romantic, we might describe him as “a Romeo,” and the balcony scene is possibly the world’s most iconic (and quoted) dramatic text. The tragic love story unfolds against the backdrop of the Montague-Capulet feud—a subplot that provides several memorable action scenes. Shakespeare gets straight down to business at the start of the play and stages a fight between the Montagues' and the Capulets' serving men. The key reason for "Romeo and Juliet"’s popularity is its timeless themes; anyone of any age today can relate to a story about two people from very different backgrounds falling head-over-heels in love.

'Macbeth'

"Macbeth"—a short, punchy, intense piece of drama that charts the rise and fall of Macbeth from soldier to king to tyrant—features some of Shakespeare's finest writing. Although all of the characters are well-drawn and the plot is perfectly formulated, it is Lady Macbeth who steals the show. She is one of Shakespeare's most enduring villains, and it is her intense ambition that drives the play. This crime drama is so popular with audiences that it has inspired over 10 film adaptations.

'Julius Caesar'

Beloved by many, this play focuses on Roman senator Marcus Brutus and his involvement in the assassination of Roman emperor Julius Caesar. Those who have not read the play are often surprised to learn that Caesar only appears in a handful of scenes. Instead, the tragedy centers on Brutus' conflicting morals and his psychological turmoil as he weaves a conspiracy that will transform history. Critic Harold Bloom has said that the play could have been called "The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus."

'Much Ado About Nothing'

"Much Ado About Nothing" is Shakespeare’s best-loved comedy. The play mixes humor and tragedy and is one of the Bard’s most interesting texts from a stylistic point of view. The key to the play’s popularity rests on the turbulent love-hate relationship between Benedick and Beatrice. Throughout the play, the two are locked in a battle of wits—and although we know they really love each other, they just can’t admit it to themselves. Some critics consider "Much Ado About Nothing" a comedy of manners because it pokes fun at aristocratic behavior and language.