5 Shakespeare Plays to Read If You Don’t Like Shakespeare

Yes, I know, Shakespeare is the stuff of high school (and possibly college) reading assignments. When most people hear Shakespeare, they think of boring dialogue written in incomprehensible iambic pentameter and actors in stuffy costumes reciting lines in perfect BBC English accents. But I’m here to tell you that Shakespeare plays are actually awesome, as good if not better than any modern day drama/action/romantic comedy film you love, depending on the play. In fact, Shakespeare has a play for anything.

I have five suggestions of Shakespeare plays for you to read. You might have seen some of them on your class syllabus. You might have gone as far as to use Sparknotes or Wikipedia to decipher the important themes. I will admit, even as someone who admires Shakespeare on a possibly unhealthy level, that his way of writing is difficult to read for those used to talking in normal, modern-day, poetry-free English. But the stories are worth it! And it gets easier in time.

Of course, Shakespeare’s plays, as with all plays, are best seen rather than read, and I’ve included some film suggestions for each play as a result. But they still make for pretty good reads. It’s all dialogue and none of the long descriptions you might find in novels. The settings and action are left to your imagination. And there’s a lot to imagine in the following five plays.

Romeo and Juliet

5. Romeo & Juliet

For the romantic in you, Romeo & Juliet is definitely a must read. Everyone pretty much knows this story by now; two fighting families are, well, fighting. Romeo and Juliet, two of the youngest members of these families, meet and fall in love. But they have to keep their love a secret because otherwise they’ll be in trouble. Then Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin and everything goes to hell, and they come up with an elaborate plan to leave their town of Verona and live happily ever after. Except, because life doesn’t work that way, they don’t. Instead they both die. Romantic, right?

Some people dismiss this play as nonsense, because Romeo and Juliet are pretty stupid characters. They shouldn’t play around with poison, they shouldn’t fall in love so fast, Romeo shouldn’t kill Juliet’s cousin and should just let the law deal with it, ect.

Shakespeare isn’t exactly glorifying their actions. The play is a tragedy for a reason: all of this could have been prevented if Romeo and Juliet hadn’t been so hasty.

The fascinating part about this play, and a reflection of Shakespeare’s excellent ability to reflect the human condition back at the reader, is that Romeo and Juliet are stupid teenagers. Of course they decide to get married three days after meeting. Of course they try to elope and end up with a half-assed plan. Of course Romeo kills someone out of anger. All of their bad decisions could have been prevented, yes, but in real life people make stupid decisions, especially when prompted by strong emotions like love and anger, and especially when they’re young. Romeo and Juliet are your typical teenagers doing something forbidden, and this is the price that they pay: death. It’s a teenage tragedy, but a realistic one, as good as any of those stories about teenagers written by John Green. In fact, it’s better.

There are two very different film versions of this story if you want to see the play brought to life. The first, made in 1968, is a very traditional interpretation. The second, Romeo + Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann (of Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby fame) is a modern day interpretation that is as amusing as it is tragic.

Much Adoe About Nothing

4. Much Ado About Nothing

What if romantic tragedies aren’t your thing? Never fear, for Shakespeare practically invented the romantic comedy. That’s what Much Ado About Nothing is, a romantic comedy to start all romantic comedies.

The story goes a bit like this: Beatrice is a saucy young woman who don’t need no man. Benedick is a young man coming off a victory in the army. Benedick bickers with Beatrice a lot. All of their friends have to listen to their crap, so they come up with a plan to trick Benedick and Beatrice into believing that they’re in love with each other. They do this not-so-subtly, but Benedick and Beatrice fall for it anyway.

Then tragedy strikes. Their friends, Claudio and Hero, are actually in love and about to get married. But Claudio is made to think Hero has cheated on him, and the marriage is called off. Benedick and Beatrice come to heads over whether this is true. Beatrice is Hero’s friend and supports her, and Benedick is Claudio’s friend and supports him. They fight. Eventually Benedick decides to toy with the idea that Hero is innocent, and tries to find out what actually happened.

There’s a lot of humor in this play. Benedick and Beatrice engage in tons of wordplay. Anyone who loves witty dialogue will love this play for that very reason. You end up rooting for Benedick and Beatrice to get together in the end because, really, they’re the only two who can put up with each other. They’re equally matched. The sexual tension is painfully obvious. They need to get married as soon as possible.

Much Ado About Nothing has all the staples of a romantic comedy: boy meets girl, boy and girl don’t get along, boy and girl grudgingly fall in love and silly antics happen, drama attempts to tear them apart, and then someone gets married. Shakespeare does it better than any film.

If you want to see it, Kenneth Branagh made a film version of the play in 1993. Also, Joss Whedon (people who love Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the Avengers will recognize him) has made a modern-day film of the play to be released this summer in theaters.

Richard III

3. Richard III

What if you want a dark historical tale? Then Richard III is for you.

Richard III is both history and tragedy, so if you like historical tragedies, then you’ll probably enjoy this play. The play centers around the title character, who wants the throne to England. In order to get it, he’ll kill everyone who stands in his way. And I mean everyone. Even little boys who might be in line for the throne. Richard is ruthless.

Why would Shakespeare write a play with such a terrible person as the main character? Generally speaking, main characters are supposed to be likable, right? Yes! But the danger in Richard is that he’s a charming character. He takes everyone in, including his family members, and then slits their throats (literally and figuratively.) The events of the play create a morbid curiosity to see how far Richard can go without consequence, and to what limits his charm extends.

Well, Richard does get the crown, but Shakespeare then takes the play to a deeper psychological level. Richard has spent so much time killing people to get the crown that he’s paranoid someone might do the same to him. He can’t trust anyone, and it starts to drive him mad. He starts seeing ghosts. This is his downfall. One doesn’t become a good king through suspicion.

Richard III is Shakespeare’s longest play—I went to a performance that lasted over three hours—but it’s also full of food for thought. Not only do you get a bit of colorful history, but you also get tragedy and a psychological drama and a lot of deaths. It’s also a bit of a horror story. Richard is a fascinating character to watch (or read) in the same way that Hannibal is a fascinating character to watch in Silence of the Lambs. He draws you in like he draws everyone else in, with his charm, and by the time you see the horrid man underneath you’re well into the story and the only way to get out is to see it to its end.

If you want to see Richard III on the screen, Laurence Olivier adapted the play to film in 1955.

Henry V

2. Henry V

“Once more onto the breach, dear friends, once more!” is a quote you’ve probably heard from Henry V. Another well-known excerpt is the St. Crispin’s Day speech. People quote from Henry V to be inspiring, and that’s exactly what this play is. Inspiring.

If you like feel-good thoughtful historical plays, then this tale about King Henry V is for you. The play is part of a triad that starts with Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, though you don’t have to read either of those plays to understand what’s happening in Henry V (and many people don’t.)

In a nutshell, Henry V tells the story of the young King Henry V’s reign and how he put France in their place.

As a bit of background, Henry spends both parts of Henry IV as the young, irresponsible Prince Hal, who hangs around people who are Bad Influences and shirks his princely responsibilities. He has a reputation. His father is not amused. But when King Henry IV dies, Prince Hal realizes that he has to step up to take his father’s place. And thus, he becomes Henry V.

Henry is a good king who truly cares about his people, but there are some doubts as to whether he is seen as a serious authority by other countries. Henry decides to ask France for land that his family owns. France replies by sending an ambassador who denies Henry’s request and gives him a gift of tennis balls, implying that Henry is only playing at being a king. Henry decides to show France that he means business by sending an army over there to fight for the land. The only way to stop the fighting will be for France to comply to Henry’s original demand for his family’s land. But France won’t do that. They do, however, offer the King of France’s daughter to Henry to marry, but to him, that’s not good enough. And so the fighting begins.

At its heart, Henry V is about proving yourself. Everyone knows what it feels like to be doubted, and everyone loves proving people wrong. That’s part of the reason why Henry V is so inspiring; it really resonates with people. Henry isn’t taken seriously as a king because of his past mistakes, so he goes to France to prove them wrong. He wants his land, and he’ll get it. His troops face odds that seem impossible, but they prove themselves to be as good as France’s troops, with a King as good as France’s King at their head.

The best part about Henry V is that it gives Henry, a king, humanity. The English troops find themselves outnumbered, malnourished, with all odds against them before the final battle of the play, and Henry admits that he’s scared. But he’s also determined. In Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, which could be seen as much as an attempt to make himself more confident as to inspire confidence in his troops, he talks of the glory that everyone will feel if they win this battle with their small numbers and numerous disadvantages. If they win, everyone will remember them. In that moment, everyone is united. The King is right there with them, in battle, scared but wanting to win. He makes himself a part of the brotherhood that the army forms.

Henry V is a play that’ll put a smile on your face and confidence in your heart while teaching you a bit of fictionalized history. All of that sounds like the makings of an excellent story to read.

If you want to see Henry V in action, there are a few good options. Laurence Olivier adapted the play in 1944, Kenneth Branagh made the most famous film version in 1989 (with an amazing St. Crispin’s Day Speech), and the BBC aired a more intimate (but excellent) interpretation of the play last summer as part of their The Hollow Crown series (along with Henry IV).

Hamlet

1. Hamlet

Hamlet is arguably Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy. You’ve probably heard of it, or had to read it for school, or have seen one of the adaptations, or at least know about the part where Hamlet holds a skull in his hand and talks to it. You probably know about the “to be or not to be” soliloquy. You might have even dismissed Hamlet as an overly angsty play in which the protagonist can’t even make up his mind.

Hamlet is about revenge, and death, and sanity, and family. There are endless ways to interpret the play, and endless themes to choose from. Actors choose to portray Hamlet differently because there are numerous ways to read Hamlet’s character, and there are good reasons for all of them. So, if you like really complex characters and psychology, you really have to get your hands on this play (the tragedy and murders are a bonus.)

The play starts with Hamlet being upset, reasonably so, because his father died and his mother married his uncle Claudius soon after. He’s depressed but he can’t really do much about it. Then, his friend Horatio tells him that he’s seen his father’s ghost. Hamlet confronts this ghost, and the ghost tells him that Claudius murdered him.

Hamlet could just kill Claudius after hearing this news, but he doesn’t know if the ghost is really his father or some evil spirit, so he decides to try and find out for himself if Claudius is guilty. He puts on a play about a man murdering his King brother to get the crown just to see Claudius’ reaction. And then, when he’s sure that Claudius is guilty, he hesitates to kill him again. It isn’t so much that Hamlet can’t make up his mind as, well, how eager would you be to kill your uncle? Hamlet’s hesitation and his antics leave a lot of death in his wake, and destroy a lot of relationships (and lives.)

The most fascinating part of all of this is how you interpret Hamlet as a character, which changes the whole face of the play. Hamlet could be interpreted as being mad for the duration of the play. Hamlet could be sane at the start of the play but driven mad after he sees the ghost of his father. Or, Hamlet can be completely sane the entire play and is putting on an act the whole time to further his plan. His true state of mind and intentions are ambiguous, and there are three versions of Hamlet floating around that don’t make interpreting the play any easier. But reading the play and looking for evidence to support any theory is a lot of fun, and seeing the choices made in productions of Hamlet is even better.

So if you like psychological mysteries, family tragedies, philosophical conversations about death, and murder, Hamlet is the play for you. You’ll have plenty to chew on. Shakespeare really went all-out on this one, which is why it’s at the top of my list.

There are a few really good film adaptations of Hamlet to choose from, all of which take on different interpretations of Hamlet’s character: Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film, Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 epic adaptation, and the BBC’s 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company production filmed for television (starring David Tennant) are all worth watching.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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42 Comments

  1. Austin Bender

    I’ve read Hamlet three times in the past three years, I guess you could say that I’m a fan. Not a fan of the Branagh film, though.

    • Oh, Hamlet is one of my favorites. I do have some problems with the Branagh film as well, particularly the end, but it is the most ambitious and, I suppose, the only one that really attempted to get every bit of the play in the film.

      • Austin Bender

        Oh boy, that was a strange ending. Sadly it is the only one, at least well known one, that tries to fit everything in. Though, it does change a few things.

        I had the fortune of seeing a great production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010, that’s pretty much when I fell in love with it.

        • That’s awesome! I’ve seen Hamlet live twice and I really loved it the first time (the second production was not my favorite). I’ve also seen most of the film versions and each one has been different, which is great.

          • Taylor Ramsey

            What? No mention of the outstanding David Tennant version of Hamlet? THAT is the one you should see. Not super faithful, but Tennant and Patrick Stewart shine!

          • @Taylor, I do mention the David Tennant version as one of the three you should see in the article. Though I call is the BBC’s Royal Shakespeare Company version. It is really good.

    • Benita Kolovos

      Don’t even start me on the Branagh film! I LOVE the play but I cannot stand him… I feel he tries to hard to be like Laurence Olivier… and fails miserably.

  2. Klingel
    0

    No Othello! YOU DID NOT INCLUDE OTHELLO!

    No this was a very well-written piece! I was happy to find Much Ado About Nothing here.

    • Thank you! And Othello is wonderful. It was hard to choose among tragedies. There are SO MANY good Shakespeare plays. I also regret leaving out Macbeth.

  3. Gitana Duka

    I’ve got to admit I used to think that Shakespeare was overrated and boring – but then I picked up Hamlet at school and it pretty much changed my whole perspective (and is now my favourite literature piece) – so glad it reached number one! I agree with all the other choices too, great article Cristina!

    • Thank you! And yeah, after hearing older students complain about it I thought Shakespeare would be awful, but I got to read Hamlet in school and that really opened up my eyes.

    • Eddie Doriaan
      0

      Hamlet is in the list of favorites for many of us enthusiasts.

  4. I would’ve like to have seen Titus Andronichus on here, although it is a pretty standard revenge tragedy it is definitely a good one for people who hate reading Shakespeare from my experiences. Besides that good job on the article, it was very well written!

  5. Jason Krell

    Man, Much Ado About Nothing will always have a special place in my heart — Don John was my first lead role in high school drama! I had so much fun smoldering at the edge of the stage, stroking my fake mustache, haha.

    • That’s awesome! My high school never put on Shakespeare, or any plays (only musicals) but college made up for that.

    • Francesca Turauskis

      Haha I have the same memories about playing Horatio in Hamlet! I made myself a pipe and had great fun being an English Gentleman – despite the fact he’s Danish…

  6. Corrie Parks

    The great thing about this list is that all these plays have been made into easily available movies. So if you REALLY get bogged down in Shakespeare’s language, you can watch the movie first. Then some of the language and plot will be readily available for your imagination to latch onto when you start reading.

    Or if you can find a play, even better! I learned to love Shakespeare by going to an outdoor summer festival every year to watch the plays. I must have seen 2 dozen plays growing up and it made high school English class so much easier!

    • Agreed! I took a Shakespeare class in college that had us seeing each play we read, which isn’t always easy, so I feel extremely lucky I had the opportunity (in London, no less!) The films are good but there’s nothing like live theater.

  7. Taylor Ramsey

    That would be why I didn’t notice it as the Tennant version being mentioned. There are actually several versions that are referred to that way.

  8. Joseph Brennan

    This was a really great read because the plays you chose were completely different to the choices I would have made. I also enjoy watching different film adaptations of Shakespeare and you have made me ashamed at how little I have seen.

  9. I personally love Shakespeare’s less known play, Titus Andronicus.

  10. Dale Barham

    I was hoping to see the Tempest on here. But I can’t argue with a very well-considered list … and extremely well written as well. The Taming of the Shrew is another great one and really funny for a Shakespeare play.

  11. Sarah Finch

    Loathe Romeo and Juliet personally, but otherwise a great selection. And glad to see Macbeth didn’t make it to your Top 5. Good play, just not anyone’s cup of tea on any day of the year.

    Richard II is tough, but the BBC produced an exquisite filmic rendition of it last year as part of their adaptation of four Shakespearean histories (The Hollow Crown). It is now on my shamefully long list of Shakespeare plays to read.

    • Oh, the Hollow Crown was amazing! I think it’s airing in the US this fall, which is good, because now I can bug people I know to see it.

  12. Benita Kolovos

    Loved reading this! Brought back fond memories of high school literature! I studied Merchant of Venice in year eight, Midsummer Night’s Dream in year nine (bit too wacky for my liking), Romeo and Juliet in year ten (so beautiful) and Hamlet last year. Without a doubt Hamlet was my favourite, holds a special place in my heart after analysing it for months on end with such an amazing group of students and a wonderful teacher. Ahhh take me back!

    • There’s nothing like having a good literature experience. Some people have really bad experiences with Shakespeare but I was lucky enough to have really good ones.

  13. Sam Walker

    Great choices,I’ve always found Shakespeare to be incredibly divisive. You’ve got great stories like Macbeth and Hamlet with some supernatural twists, and then some deathly boring ones like Comedy of Errors and Measure by Measure. I find Shakespeare to be at his best when death is the subject- the more misery and suffering, the better!

  14. Nathan Walters

    Only one comedy? For shame!

    Jokes aside, Much Ado is really great. Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice is good also. Though my favourite has to be Love’s Labour’s Lost – I just like the frustration it causes.

  15. Camille Brouard

    ‘Beatrice is a saucy young woman who don’t need no man’ – this made me laugh out loud! I like your style.

    I am a Shakespeare fan (recently took a course module where we read A Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and King Lear – admittedly didn’t enjoy reading Errors too much, probably because I’d just read Menaechmi by Plautus, but TN and KL were cracking reads!) but the historical plays make me want to shout “Ahhhh!” and run away because my historical knowledge is terrible and titles get so darn similar. However, your review has inspired me and I want to read them now! 🙂

  16. Kevin Wong

    Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet are his most accessible works, everyone has read them in high school, and a lot of what I hear is incredibly positive. Some really interesting cinematic versions exist, such as the Dicaprio and Patrick Steward versions of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet

  17. The first Shakespeare I really liked was Macbeth – before that we did the romantic sorts of ones, but seems I’m more into tragedy! However, I may also be biased by the fact that that was really the first time I could appreciate any of the beauty of the Shakespearean English. And it’d be another couple of years before I could read it unassisted by a study guide.

    I’d have to say Othello is my favourite, mostly because Iago and Emilia are so interesting! But to the people who don’t like Shakespeare, it’s not great to read it – Shakespeare is meant to be on stage! I was awestruck the first time I saw a production (of Macbeth).

    Great list though! I love how Shakespeare basically invented the rom-com genre.

  18. Robert Humphrey

    All good choices. Henry V is actually one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read it. That said, I’m a Shakespeare nerd, so I pretty much like them all. If someone asked me to recommend them a Shakespeare play, though, I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend Macbeth. All that said, I think my three favorite Shakespeare plays are Othello, The Tempest, and The Taming of the Shrew. I also feel like I need to mention Coriolanus because from from the encounters I’ve had, it seems not many people know about it, and it’s a really good play. Personally, though, Romeo and Juliet isn’t my favorite. Maybe I’ve just been “taught” it too much?

  19. Justin Wu

    Of the five in this list I’ve only read Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. I’ll be sure to check out the other three that you mentioned.

  20. Shannon

    People tend to automatically shut off themselves to Shakespeare because it tends to be shoved down their throats in high school and they therefore aren’t truly able to appreciate what Shakespeare was writing. I’m so glad you included Richard III. I finally read that one in college and it was one of Shakespeare’s best, in my opinion. I’ve also come to love The Merchant of Venice, especially Al Pacino’s portrayal of Shylock!

  21. MelanieC

    While I grew up with a picture book of Midsummer’s Night Dream, and read Romeo and Juliet in high school, the comedy Much Ado About Nothing, was the first play by Shakespeare that I could not put down. It didn’t matter that I had homework to finish, and a life to continue, I had to see how it would end. While Hamlet is my favorite play now, the words ingrained in my head from reading and seeing it so many times, Much Ado About Nothing and the banter between Benedick and Beatrice is still what I consider the best love story. This list is a perfect variation of plays for someone who does not like Shakespeare because by the end, they will love him.

  22. Mary Awad

    The Twelfth Night was hysterical, by far my favorite Shakespeare play. I never laughed so much reading a play, or anything at all for that matter. But still, nice list. You really need an acquired taste for Shakespeare but as long as you at least read some, you’re good~

  23. I was immediately attracted to this article because of your title. I took an entire course on Shakespeare last year, which involved reading 16 plays. Your article made me recall what I had learned about Shakespeare, and what I actually liked about him. I’m a fan of the histories and tragedies over the comedies–Richard III, Hamlet, and King Lear are definitely my top three favorites.

  24. Helen Parshall

    Interesting list, although I can’t say I would have chosen Romeo and Juliet… I want people to experience Shakespeare outside of that, and I find most of those characters infuriating. Perhaps that’s just personal preference speaking, as I’m quite a fan of Shakespeare. I would have included one of the cross-dressing plays. Excellent analysis though! I’m always out to make more Shakespeare fans in the world.

  25. My favorite has always been The Twelfth Night. It’s comedic and has a good plot line. Or maybe I just really like it because I was Viola in 5th grade when we put on a production of it.

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