Best and Worst of William Shakespeare

As we restructure the company, prepping for an exciting 2015 spring production that will be announced on December 15th, I realized that I haven’t made any posts on the Copyright-Free Play Archive in a while.  Our focus in the coming years will be on building the community around the inherently interdisciplinary art form of theatre, and providing an archive of thoughts on free plays for our fellow artists to use will continue to grow as a part of that.  As the end of the year is always a time for reflections on what has passed, I thought that it would be a nice idea to go back and look at Shakespeare’s work and really assess these plays that I have spent so much time with as a theatre artist.  So now, without much further ado, here are my personal picks for Shakespeare’s best and worst plays, moving from the bottom up:

THE WORST:

1. Two Gentlemen of Verona

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This play is perhaps most famous for a monologue about a dog.  It’s actually a funny monologue by a side-character named Launce, but other than that monologue this play is awful.  As you may have guessed, the play is about two men of noble status who happen to be from Verona.  Named Proteus and Velentine, they are best friends traveling abroad to find their fortune.  They both fall in love with Silvia, but she only returns her affections to Valentine.  Valentine is cool because he falls on hard times and randomly becomes king of the bandits.  Sounds like it could be funny, right?  Yeah, but it concludes with Proteus attempting to rape Silvia in the woods and is only stopped by Valentine and his bandits by chance.  He awkwardly apologizes; end of fucking play.  Seriously, Bill?  Faced with the wrath of the king of the bandits, Proteus apologizes for the attempted rape.  Not to Silvia, mind you, who is noticeably silent for the rest of the play.  To Silvia’s boyfriend.  I don’t expect a 400 year old comedy to be politically correct, but damn.  Shakespeare has some troubling and arguably interesting issues in the way he sometimes presents human drama – Shylock in The Merchant of Venice comes to mind – which can benefit from creative remounting.  Blunt Objects Theatre did a really good rendition of Taming of the Shrew in 2013 which you can read about here, but I don’t think we would ever attempt to retrieve any value from this play.  This earns the bottom slot because there’s no way to come back from that ending, no way to pathetically edit the awkward bits out, and no profound thoughts or comedy to even arguably balance the unconscionable writing of its conclusion.  There’s a guy taking credit for his dog’s farts to spare the pet getting kicked outside.  That’s it.  If you really want to dramatize a story about two frat buddies who go spend a semester abroad and get into some crazy romantic hijinks, I think I’d rather adapt a stage version of Hostel in iambic pentameter.

2. Henry VIII

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If 2GV wasn’t so rapacious, then this droll history play would be my least favorite in Shakespeare’s works.  First off, it’s whitewashed history at its worst.  In case you were curious about the actual plot: Henry meets Anne Bullen (Bill’s spelling, not mine) at a party and really likes her but feels morally conflicted about already having a wife; an evil Catholic adviser manipulates Henry into making all the bad choices; Elizabeth I is born, everyone in England thinks it’s grand, especially her mom who still has a head; end of play.  It’s absolute rubbish.  Sure, Shakespeare’s history plays are slightly less accurate than FOX News as a rule, due to various censorship laws and the general politics of the day.  Macbeth is the best example of this, since the historical Scottish monarch defeated an incompetent Duncan on an open battlefield and proceeded to rule the country wisely and judiciously for over 20 years, while Shakespeare was more concerned with the fact that a corrupt guy named Banquo happened to be ancestor to a certain King James.  But at least those Shakespeare plays, erroneously termed “Histories,” are still classic and interesting STORIES.  Henry VIII is the king who tried to fill out a Bingo card with the severed heads of his wives, who defied the Catholic church and founded his own religion pretty much just because he could.  There is no reason that Shakespeare couldn’t write a captivating and violent drama about this guy except, oh, right, the first dead wife gave birth to Queen Elizabeth I, and we all know how important that lady was.  The inclination would be to blame Shakespeare’s collaborator on the script, John Fletcher – except scholars seem to agree that Fletcher wrote the good parts.  Despite all the great plays that Shakespeare created in his later career, this was one that he clearly wrote to pay the bills and no other reason.

3. Henry V

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In this sequel to the problematic but ultimately superior Henry IV parts I and II, Prince Hal is all grown up and done with Falstaff, and he decides he wants to invade France because he thinks he can.  He invades France, a bunch of children die, and he comes home not so much triumphant as alive, gets laid, end of play, nevermind the hundred years of unsuccessful war that follow.  Like a comedy that isn’t funny, this is a history that teaches no relevant lesson.  When I originally read this play for the Copyright-Free Play Project, back when I was simply blogging about Shakespeare’s plays as I read my way through the entire canon, I was pretty forgiving to this play.  I didn’t like it, but the iconic monologues and beautiful language really spoke to me about how theatre was still relevant as an art form.  Now, as I look at these plays as individual works, I can’t help but consider this play to be mere scrap material for audition monologues.  Sure, it is a significant moment in theatre history, but just because Birth of a Nation is a touchstone for modern cinema does not mean it is a good movie.  Stop pretending it’s any good, acknowledge the technical elements that are important and move on.  Unless you’re British and you’re fighting Nazis, there is literally no reason to do this show.   Unless, hypothetically, you are fighting the French, but they don’t really do that any more.  So there isn’t any reason I can think of for performing this play unless you are attempting a satirical cut of it.  Henry V versus Aliens, I’d see that, sure.  This is pretty much the Red Dawn of Shakespeare, Olympus Has Fallen in iambic pentameter, a shameless patriotic plug for the motherland that reminds us that war is awesome and killing is manly.  Plenty of Shakespeare plays have opportunities for exciting stage combat, but they at least have a compelling plot stringing those together.  If I ever wanted to go out and see a production of this play, I would stay home and play Call of Duty instead.

4. Much Ado About Nothing

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Some people like this play.  I am not one of them.  Sure, Benedick & Beatrice are pretty iconic lovers as far a Shakespearean canon goes, and their relationship is actually an interesting one, but basing your opinion of the play entirely on that subplot is like saying Attack of the Clones was good because it featured Boba Fett.  Don Pedro’s brother Don Jon, who was also the villain of the war that ended prior to the start of the play, is living alongside all the happy soldiers and their girlfriends… and decides that peace is boring so let’s slander a nice girl’s good name.  That nice girl, whose name happens to be Hero, is mocked and assaulted at the altar by her groom in front of all her friends and family.  The priest tricks everyone into believing Hero is dead, everyone feels really bad about it, but that’s okay because she’s not really dead and all the jerkbags are forgiven.  Happily ever after; end of play.  I understand that the definition of Shakespearean Comedy means a happy ending, not necessarily humor, but I find the ending to be badly forced and not really that happy. While Love’s Labor’s Lost has its flaws, it doesn’t live down here in the bottom five with Benedick and Beatrice who, again, are the most interesting part of an otherwise droll play.  One scene of witty repartee doth not a funny play make, and aside from the reprehensible subject matter of Gentlemen, it is the least funny of Shakespeare’s comedies.  I’ll be honest, I don’t even like Dogberry.  I do not like Mal Reynolds Dogberry, I do not like Beetlejuice Dogberry.  The whole play is just boring to me, and yet it’s done so often for some strange reason.  Unlike the overproduced tales in Midsummer Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet, – those scripts actually have merit when viewed on their own – you have to really dig to find this play’s value for a full production beyond the seemingly arbitrary “classic” status.  There’s some horrible war that just ended, and all the male characters have PTSD or else what follows makes little sense.  What’s left is a feeble opportunity to comment on soldiers in times of peace, but if that’s your focus then maybe you should find a different play.

5. Comedy of Errors

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Which one is Comedy of Errors?  EXACTLY.  Short answer: it’s the one with two sets of twins.  What happens to those twins?  I dunno, stuff.  They were separated at youth, and by chance wind up in the same city where everyone keeps confusing them for the other, and then eventually they figure it out and are happy.  The only reason I rank it higher than Much Ado is that it is actually funny.  I once said “It’s a great episode of a sitcom, but not worth a full theatrical production,” and I stand by it.  If you’ve ever bothered to read or see one of the old Roman comedies that were written before the invention of Netflix and functioned primarily as a penis-joke-driven alternative to bloodsports, it feels a lot like one of those.  In an era where theatre-goers have so many options for entertainment on their night off, this play simply has nothing to offer.  Of all the comedies that Shakespeare wrote, it has the least depth in characters as well as plot despite being actually funny some of the time.  Even All’s Well That Ends Well has stronger characters and an almost storybook whimsy to it.  However, if I fleshed out a bottom 10 list, you’d probably see a lot of Shakespeare’s comedies.  The biggest problem is that most of them haven’t aged well, and a penis joke that requires extensive study of Elizabethan verse to understand is simply not a good penis joke.  For modern audiences, you will find a lot of shows where actors wave their swords around hamfistedly as if to declare “THIS IS A PENIS JOKE!”  Jokes are not funny when you have to explain them, especially penis jokes.  So the more successful comedies in Shakespeare’s canon, like Twelfth Night for example, succeed because the basic situation of the comedy is inherently funny.

 

THE BEST:

5. Twelfth Night

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If I’m going to give this slot to a comedy, it really deserves a comedy with heart and challenge.  The gender-bending and romantic confusion in Twelfth Night are still daring on the modern stage, and the characters are compelling beyond the mere scenarios that make the play funny.  A twin brother and sister are separated in a shipwreck, and though they both survive they assume the other is dead.  Strangers in a strange land, they try to make new lives for themselves in the same part of the country for some time before reuniting by chance.  Also there are hijinks of various kinds.  While the subplots and misadventures are all genuinely funny and ridiculous, the joy of the play comes from the fact that it seems to be teetering on the edge of tragedy.  Grief and loss are constant themes throughout this play about people finding love in the most unexpected places.  Sure, Malvolio is the one character who falls off that tragic edge, but that also gives this comedy a realistic ending devoid of divine intervention.  For all of its whimsy, the story does not conclude with “Happily ever after.”  It concludes with something more like, “Life mostly works out; not always, but mostly.”  Which is how adults all know the fairy tales ought to end.  So I have to recognize this as Shakespeare’s best comedy!  I really, really wanted this slot to go to Merry Wives of Windsor, but I realized that it’s really just a personal favorite comedy and not among the top 5 best that Shakespeare wrote.  Sure, at the end of the day, this entire list is my artistic opinion and not objective fact.  But just because obscure gems like Cymbeline or King John are awesome plays that deserve productions more often, that doesn’t necessarily put them in the Top 5.  They’re very good, and part of the reason that Shakespeare is known as a playwright and not just for a small handful of works, but the name of the game now is to pick the best of the best.

4. Richard III

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I choose to overlook the questionable accuracy of Shakespeare’s portrait of the titular character, and recognize that the story itself is worth telling and retelling.  After many years of war, England is at peace, but the warrior troll Richard does not like peace.  In many ways, this is the play you should do instead of Much Ado.  Resolved to embrace villainy, like someone tired of playing the ambulance side missions in GTA, Richard crafts a brutal ascension to the throne of England.  However, once he has power, Richard has no skill at keeping it – presumably because he can’t kill that fast – and he in turn gets killed so peace returns to England.  This play stands out as a powerful portrait of evil that is purely human in its origin.  If you just ignore “History” as a category, and embrace Shakespeare’s tales of English Kings as stories independent of time or place, there is so much you can do.  I’m not advocating the concept of Richard III in Space just for its own sake, but the narrative is just so tight and straightforward that you can really play with the story in any context.  The Henry VI cycle, which concludes with Richard III, remains among my personal favorites in Shakespeare’s canon, even if he does have St. Joan of Arc summoning demons onstage in Part I.  But for me, that absurd interpretation of history is part of the charm.  If you hold a historical timeline against any Shakespeare history play, you will notice a TARDIS full of anachronism, in the sequence of battles that occur, in the age or existence of characters at those battles, and in general the omission and invention of various significant stuff.  If Shakespeare wrote about American history, JFK would have landed on the Moon in World War II.  That’s just how Shakespeare history works.  Questions about Richard’s moral alignment have literally surfaced in recent years, calling Shakespeare’s account into serious doubt.  Maybe extending democratic liberties, like the right of every person to have legal representation in criminal court regardless of income, were all just part of his devious plan.  A devious plan that involved not so much killing as pissing off the moneyed aristocracy with systematic reforms.  It’s debatable.  The rise of unfettered and unabashed evil through the ranks of power is incredibly relevant in the modern world, especially in understanding that evil is at its core a very human trait.  Richard is possibly the best villain ever created, and every fictional villain since has aspired to have this monster’s taunting rapport with an audience, partly because he is a dark mirror of what we are all capable of.  But that’s just it: he was created.  Just as Shakespeare’s blood mage version of Joan of Arc is recognizable as un-historic, Richard III is a fascinating character in a fascinating world. He is not manipulated by an Iago, he is not corrupted by witches or an ambitious wife, he is all cruel on his own.  He is a realization of pure ambition, a horrible force of nature that can’t help but come and go throughout history like a volcano or a flood.  The names on the characters can be forgiven for their historical inaccuracy, because their actions resonate throughout all of the ages dark and otherwise.  At least, that’s how I feel about it.

3. The Tempest

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The play famously opens with a shipwreck, and we learn that it was no natural storm that dashes the scattered survivors upon the shore.  Prospero, a wizard of considerable power, seizes upon the chance for vengeance upon his usurping brother who is among the ship’s survivors.  Also among the survivors are some drunks of little consequence other than comedic relief, and a boy of much consequence who falls in love with Prospero’s daughter Miranda.  Themes that are echoed in the similarly fantastical Winter’s Tale are played out here in a tighter and, in my opinion, better structure, turning the vengeance of a powerful deposed ruler into the forgiveness of an aging and loving father as the host of shipwrecked characters explore the madness of a fairy-soaked island.  Prospero, his goal complete, abandons his magic and leaves the island with his renewed family.  It is, in essence, why people love Shakespeare.  It has all the whimsy of his lighter works balanced with the dark inquiries of humanity that make his tragedies so iconic, culminating in a happy ending that simply lifts you up emotionally even as you reflect upon your own mortality.  In the complicated process of selecting my top 5 best plays of the most celebrated playwright in the English language, The Tempest stands out as a hallmark and complex work by a matured artist.  It is, in many ways, about the magic of storytelling, as well as the sometimes dark power that a storyteller holds over history.  Unlike the moral issues inherent in the History plays like Richard III, the questions in this play are about humanity itself.  Characters are not purely good or purely evil, but complex human beings (or entities, as the case sometimes is on the fantastical island) struggling to find their place in the world and enforcing ideas of good and evil upon a history they are trying to master.  From the basis of the script, there are so many untold worlds that can be explored from production to production which in turn makes this one of the most re-watchable plays in the canon.  I wish I had more to add, but really there is no more to say except, in Prospero’s parting words of mercy, “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.”

2. Hamlet

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Hamlet is frequently regarded to be the greatest piece of work in the English language, and though I only rank it second on this list, it’s really damn good.  As if the plot needs summary: The Prince of Denmark, in the midst of a pretty serious Goth phase, hears from a ghost that his father’s death was actually murder and sets about to learn the truth.  He learns the truth, and sets about to avenge his father.  Pretty much everyone except Horatio and Fortinbras dies as a result.  It is the tragic story of revenge that all revenge stories are compared to.  Overdone, perhaps, in some Sisyphean effort to dramatize those beautiful words, but that very struggle to create THE Hamlet onstage is part of the play’s very appeal for actors as much as audiences.  Don’t forget, this play itself is a reboot of an earlier lost play, which itself is based on a legend tangential to the Beowulf saga.  It appeals to the human condition regardless of whether or not you are an artist, whatever your gender or station in life, anything – and it’s worth the retelling.  There is so much depth to the melancholy Prince that there is always something new to discover about the play every time you see it translated through a new lens.  The questions that it raises about morality and mortality are still echoed by the greatest philosophers born since the words were written.  The struggle of Hamlet to learn the objective truths of his life are still haunting for any intelligent person who has stopped to ask about their life’s purpose.  The tragedy of the play’s violent end is amplified by how pure Hamlet’s motives were against the foolishness of his actions, epitomizing the struggle of Shakespeare’s greatest heroes.  He is not led astray, despite the best efforts of those deceivers around him, but rather falls because of his own human limitations.   Betrayed by his closest friends, rescued by pirates, and hated by his best possible ally, Hamlet still succeeds at learning the truth – at least some of it – and avenging his father, albeit at a terrible cost.  In the hands of the right artists, who understand that Hamlet is passionate in his despair, this is one of the greatest journeys through the human condition ever crafted.

1. King Lear

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While Hamlet is tragic because the hero is undone at such a young age by his own quest, Lear is a tragedy about the inevitability of horrid death.  Even if you do so much right, build a peaceful empire and maintain it, it will all be gone someday.  The ancient King Lear has built a solid reality for himself, and unlike Hamlet has ceased in his old age to question everything.  When he trusts the empire to his blood descendants, in hopes of enjoying his final years in peaceful observation free from the toil of work, he is undone by his own confidence and pride.  As the rules of civilization prove false, the hero loses trust of all reality and utterly falls apart as the world he build is torn apart around him.  In many ways, it is an illustration of the greatest fear a human can have: that it might all be pointless.  It is a portrait of humanity as true and honest as Hamlet‘s, although in a stage of life that few of us may live long enough to appreciate.  The tragedy of Lear is one that makes Hamlet’s seem almost merciful.  The themes of betrayal and human inconstancy here are echoed often in Shakespeare’s work, especially in his villains.  As in the overly cynical Timon of Athens, and deeply flawed Coriolanus, the play asks deep and disturbing questions about the nature of life while not pretending to have answers, ultimately inviting the audience to take on the hero’s quest for hope in our own lives.  But King Lear distills those themes into a stronger frame that showcases a playwright at his most mature, teetering between despair and cosmic defiance.  It is on that razor’s edge where the greatest art is often made, and with that spirit in mind I hope you enjoyed my musings here!

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  1. […] or at least a good British gin. Hint #7: It’s new blog post time!  Read the new list here. Hint #8: This is definitely a more cartoonish version of Shakespeare’s epic […]

  2. […] penned by the Bard himself.  And Shakespeare aficionados will love this hilarious new take on an underrated classic with mask and puppetry.  Stay posted for updates in the coming months as we document our […]



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