The Best Shakespeare Plays for High School

Themes of Love, Revenge, Assisination and Betrayal

Antique books
Shakespearian plays have not lost their relevance. Tetra Images / Getty Images

Even today, more than 400 years after he died in 1616, William Shakespeare is widely considered to be the best English-language playwright. Many of his plays are still performed, and a large number have been made into movies. Shakespeare invented many of the phrases and sayings we use today -- "All that glitters is not gold," "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," "laughing stock" and "Love is blind" are just a few. Below are the bard's best plays for high school classes.

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Romeo and Juliet

This is the classic story of two star-crossed lovers set against the backdrop of their feuding families, the Capulets, and Montagues in Verona, Italy. Romeo and Juliet can only meet in secret. Though it's a classic, most students know the story. So, enliven it with lessons that include interesting projects related to the play's well-known themes, such as creating a diorama of the famous balcony scene or having students imagine they are Romeo or Juliet and writing a letter to their love expressing their feelings.

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Brooding, depressed, self-absorbed -- these terms could describe Hamlet or a modern teenager. The themes of this play touch on some important topics for adolescents and adults. Other themes of this play, which covers the angst of a son whose uncle has killed his father, the king of Denmark, involve the mystery of death, a nation falling apart, incest and the cost of revenge. The play can be difficult for students to read, so get them to buy in by telling them that the movie, "The Lion King," is based on the story of "Hamlet."

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Julius Caesar

"Julius Caesar" is much more than dry historical drama. Students will enjoy the political maneuvering and never forget the "Ides of March" -- the 15th of March, the date Caesar was assassinated. The tragic assassination of a popular political figure is still discussed today. It is one of the best plays for studying the art of rhetoric through the speeches of Marc Antony and Marcus Brutus. It's also great for studying the idea of "the fates" and how that plays into what happens in the real world.

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Can Lady Macbeth wash the blood off of her hands? Mixing the supernatural with treachery, death, and deceit, this play is sure to please high school students of all ages. It is a great format for studying greed and corruption and how absolute power corrupts absolutely. It's also a wonderful story for studying gender relations -- comparing norms of that time to today.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream

Students may enjoy the buffoonery of the peasant characters and the interplay of lovers in this lighter Shakespeare play. It's a fun story to read and discuss, and its whimsical tone can be enjoyable, but the play may be hard for some students to buy into. As you teach, ensure that you show how the fluffy, romantic episodes have deeper meanings, including what love truly is, the interpretation of dreams and how magic (or metaphor) can make or break a situation.

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Shakespeare's play about a Moor who -- while he loves his wife Desdemona -- is easily swayed into jealousy by his friend Lago is a great format for discussing jealousy and greed. It's also a great metaphor for the incompatibility of love and the military, how jealously leads to corruption, and how that corruption leads to the end (or death) of everything you love. There's a modern movie, "O: Othello," that you can pair with the reading of the play.

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Taming of the Shrew

Students will enjoy the humor and the intrigue; the play is great for exploring gender issues, which -- though particular to the time period of the play -- are still relevant today. Themes include the expectations of marriage for young women and using marriage as a business proposition. Pair the 1999 movie, "10 Things I Hate About You," with your class reading of this play.

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The Merchant of Venice

So many quotes famous quotes come from this play including the proverbial "pound of flesh," which one of the main characters seeks to extract from the protagonist -- to tragic results. Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" allows students to discuss many topics including the relationship between Christians and Jews and the social structure of the times. The story tells the tale of the searing cost of revenge and covers the relations between two religions -- issues that are remarkably relevant today.

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Kelly, Melissa. "The Best Shakespeare Plays for High School." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Melissa. (2023, April 5). The Best Shakespeare Plays for High School. Retrieved from Kelly, Melissa. "The Best Shakespeare Plays for High School." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).