A look at William Shakespeare’s best plays

By: Kasy Long

Spoiler: There are other plays besides ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Quick Notes:

  • William Shakespeare wrote some of the best plays of all time.

  • His plays have influenced audiences with eloquent language and narrative stories.

  • Many of Shakespeare’s plays are tragedies, including three of his best works.

William Shakespeare is regarded as the greatest playwright of all time. His Renaissance dramas, tragedies, and comedies are still widely read in high school English classes, as well as performed in theaters across the globe.

Known as the Bard, Shakespeare composed the famous plays for an audience. He most likely had no idea audiences would still be entertained by his poetic language and stories centuries after the Renaissance era.

Take a look at three of Shakespeare’s best plays. It’s difficult for many individuals to decide on their favorite of the Bard’s work, but there are many plays that critics debate were the playwright’s best compositions. Romeo and Juliet doesn’t make the list.

Othello

Shakespeare’s 1604 tragedy, Othello, is regarded as the most powerful play about racism ever written. However, it’s also a study of how jealousy can destroy one’s mental health when you least expect. In the play, Othello (a black Moor) falls victim to Iago’s schemes, believing his wife, Desdemona, is having an affair. He ultimately suffocates her with a pillow, even though she was innocent.

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Elisa Oh, Assistant Professor of English at Howard University, reviews that Othello demonstrates how easy it is for someone to fall in love, believe rumors, and become a victim to obsessive jealousy. This is depicted all by Shakespeare’s narrative language, in which the false stories in the play create tension and a racial divide.

Oh commented, “The play serves as a magnifying glass that focuses conflicts about belief and disbelief; language and silence; loyalty and revenge; love and lust; blackness and whiteness with a growing intensity that becomes excruciatingly brilliant, unbearably burning, and finally, cathartically destructive and revelatory.”

Macbeth

Macbeth is basically a tragedy about how a decent man becomes a murderous tyrant. Doesn’t that sound like a fun tale? The 1605 play focuses on Macbeth, a Scottish lord who is persuaded to commit brutal murder by his wife, the iconic Lady Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth is skillful. She makes sure that every choice Macbeth makes seems like his own. He commits murder because he ultimately makes the decision, even if he was subconsciously convinced to commit the act. This plot device is what makes Macbeth so intriguing to fans.

Macbeth is a tragic tale of ruinous and consuming power, the psychology of which overwhelms with blind ambition and destructiveness more than just the title character,” said critic David Walters.

Macbeth is a short, thrilling, and dark tragedy about the consequences of someone’s lust for power. It may be Shakespeare’s most accessible play, and audiences still love it centuries after its first performance.

Hamlet

High school English classes may be required to read Romeo and Juliet, but they should study Hamlet. The iconic 1600 tragedy is the epitome of Shakespeare’s tragedies. The play is about Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, whose father was murdered by his uncle in order to obtain the throne. Of course, Hamlet doesn’t handle the news very well, and he ponders the meaning of life.

Ros Barber, author of The Marlowe Papers, says Hamlet is Shakespeare’s best play. For one thing, it’s iconic and beautifully well-written.

“Everything Shakespeare does well in other plays he does brilliantly here,” Barber said. “His characters are at their most human, his language is at its wittiest and most inventive. The heights he has been reaching for in every play before 1599, he achieves fully in Hamlet.

Critics argue that Hamlet is the greatest tragedy in literary history. It’s difficult to disagree. The play is the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s writing. It had a form of radical energy and audiences have been fascinated with the play ever since.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:

Learn about the common phrases or idioms Shakespeare introduced to the English language.

When Shakespeare first began producing plays, actors were strictly men. Learn about how that changed with the first female actress in Shakespeare’s iconic play, ‘Othello.’