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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.