Shakespeare 400 – My Favourite Plays

On April 23, William Shakespeare would have been dead 400 years (he would have been 452 years old this year as well, having the (mis)fortune to die on his birthday). Not that I need an excuse or anything, but I thought it was a pretty good opportunity for me to think about which of his plays I like and why. It you know me at all, some of these will be pretty obvious; but hopefully some will be a bit more surprising. I really don’t get on with the idea that I’m predictable!

As I have posted on here previously, Macbeth has always been a favourite play, featuring as it does witches, betrayal, ghosts and a fair bit of quotable text. Strangely, though, I’ve never seen it performed and in retrospect I think that’s just as well. It would never live up to my imaginary version in its full Gothic glory.

I also like King Lear, which I really must re-read again. It’s a surprisingly human play, despite its darkness, insanity and outrageously cruel behaviour – but families are strange things and when looked at in that context, it can often appear terribly believable.

Othello is another startlingly human play dealing with difficult subjects, the most obvious of which is blatant racism. It’s reading works like this where you can see Shakespeare pushing at boundaries which must have existed even then. Othello may be black, but he is never portrayed as anything other than a human, who has succeeded through merit and is brought down by another’s jealousy and hatred. Incredibly ahead of its time and remains worth reading in this day and age.

Of the history plays, I love Henry V; I always have and it was the first Shakespeare I ever saw staged. It really brought home to me the responsibilities of leadership, although it does gloss over a few of Henry V’s less glamorous moments. Besides which, Agincourt was a bloodbath by any description. But the speeches are wonderful and this is the one play I almost always read on April 23, being St George’s Day and all.

I also like Richard II. In the National Gallery is a small hinged wooden cabinet called the Wilton Diptych, which was made for Richard II as he travelled round the country to enable him to continue his devotions in private (bear in mind that at that time, society was much more religious than it is now). I’m fairly convinced that Shakespeare must have seen the Wilton Diptych a number of times, because the imagery is reflected in the text – from “this sceptr’d isle” right through to the White Hart. I just feel that this play resonates with early English history to a degree that the others don’t.

Mind you, looking at the history plays, Shakespeare clearly believed that the Plantagenet monarchs were, as today’s tabloids might put it, a right royal soap opera.

I freely admit I like the comedies least of all, having been made to read The Tempest for A level and coming away with no idea of what was going on. Even watching Forbidden Planet years later, based as it was on that play, didn’t help. I’m assuming the robot was meant to be Ariel… My favourite of these is easily A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it took Neil Gaiman to convert me to that one.

It’s the Roman plays that I find most interesting; Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra all have soft spots in my Bardic heart. But my favourite of all is Coriolanus. Why? Because I noticed how Shakespeare lifted entire chunks of the story from Plutarch; how Volumnia is another of his strong female characters but much less popular than Lady Macbeth or Queen Gertrude; and how the lessons of the Roman empire can still apply to more recent history. The filmed version, starring Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler transferred the story to the Balkans in the 1990s, and it worked brilliantly. I never got round to seeing the Tom Hiddleston version at the Donmar; perhaps he can be persuaded to do it again on film. I’m told it was very good.

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