Best Shakespeare Plays | Top 10 Shakespeare Plays + 37 Plays Ranks!

Best Shakespeare Plays

Written by on | Playwrights Shakespeare

This is our list of the best Shakespeare plays (Updated Oct 4, 2022). We have included his complete works of 37 plays, ranked from best to worst. Coming up with a definitive ranking of top Shakespeare plays was tough. Very tough! There were fights within the StageMilk ranks, but at the end of the day we are really proud of this list. We all put forward our favourites, and why we loved them, then we looked at some other great resources: books, interviews and the opinions of experts in the field. We asked teachers, scholars, actors, and directors and this was what we came up with. Even after all this investigation and research, it always comes back to personal taste. Yes, this is a very subjective list. So to put it simply: these are the plays we loved the most!

We wanted to make this list to help inspire actors to read more of Shakespeare’s plays. While we think it’s worthwhile to read all of Shakespeare’s work, there are clearly some standouts that we would encourage actors to prioritise. (It was also just really fun to put together a list like this).

Everyone has their own connection with Shakespeare and it’s safe to say it changes over time. The plays we love as teenagers sometimes become the ones we come to detest later in life. And, in the same way, plays we often fail to connect with when we are younger can bring us a greater joy with experience and age. Hopefully, this list inspires you to think deeply about which plays you love and why.

Shakespeare offers actors some of the most muscular and detailed text that you can work with: it is fantastic stuff with which you can hone your craft. If you want to learn more about acting Shakespeare we have tonnes of great content elsewhere on this site; that said, at the end of the day, reading his plays is a sure-fire way to improve your Shakespearean skills.

Shakespeare’s plays are performed year after year, all the world. For this reason, being familiar with them, and understanding the language, is an essential skill for an actor. This list should serve as a great starting point if you haven’t read much Shakespeare—a place to begin your journey into learning about and loving one of history’s greatest playwrights. And if you can get through them all, you will be well on the way to having a deep understanding of Shakespeare’s work.

Shakespeare Plays (From Best to Worst)

Note: we have not included Two Noble Kinsman or Edward 3.

#1 Why Hamlet is the greatest Shakespeare play?

Over the course of countless careers, actors have been consumed by Hamlet—the character himself, and the tragedy that bears his name. Artists of all disciplines return to the play again and again, year after year, contributing to the almost cult-like fascination it carries for theatre-makers and audiences alike. Hamlet is so profound, so grand, so all-encompassing and yet so finely focused, one can imagine even Shakespeare feeling that this play was out of his reach; critic Harold Bloom once posited that Hamlet is so palpable on the page it’s hard to imagine that someone ever actually creating him.

As a story of vengeance, Hamlet leaps off the page; under the surface, the play is so layered you can easily feel no amount of reading would ever allow you to fully grasp its complexities. Famous actors who have played Hamlet talk about this issue, and many come back to the role again and again throughout their careers—never feeling they could truly capture the character. This elusive quality is what separates the play from Shakespeare’s other notable works. There is a mysticism and magic to Hamlet that makes it truly one of a kind.

Hamlet may not be the most entertaining or accessible read. It also has its fair share of detractors: those who think the young Prince’s actions, are at best, irritatingly passive and at worst, cruel to those around him as he pursues his revenge (we see you, Ophelia.) But there is so much magic to be found in this compelling, complex piece of theatre. Hamlet has fascinated actors and theatre lovers throughout the ages; we heartily encourage you to become ensnared in its haunting brilliance.

#2 King Lear

King Lear is invariably featured in the top 3 of any list of best Shakespeare plays. Like Hamlet, the sheer scope and grandeur of the play separate it from other works. It is a colossal piece and showcases Shakespeare at the height of his powers. And yet, again, like Hamlet, it filters epic drama through the lens of a very focused, human story of a man dealing with his own hubris and foolishness. The storytelling, poetry and characterisation all make it our pick for Number 2. It deals with some of the biggest questions in life—especially those posed to somebody reaching their final years—and exhibits the full gamut of human experience.

#3 Macbeth

Macbeth will probably be the most familiar of the top three Shakespeare plays featured here. Often studied in school (and arguably more entertaining than other plays in Shakespeare’s catalog), it is a terrific play full of bloodthirsty murder plots, ambition and revenge! It was said to be written for King James—who didn’t have the longest attention span—and so it is rather short. Although we remember Macbeth as an epic and grand story, it is one of the more compelling Shakespearean tragedies as it deals with human, personal themes such as ambition and guilt that drive its two lead characters to their treacheries (and eventual downfall). The mixture of striking imagery, strong thematic ideas, famous scenes and speeches and just sheer entertainment value secures Macbeth in its rightful place at the top end of this list.

#4 Othello

Othello is a brilliant, troubling work that tackles themes as diverse as race, class and toxic masculinity. It’s a play that is often overshadowed by its gruesome climax, in which Othello murders his wife Desdemona thinking she’s been unfaithful to him. However, this despicable act is not an impulsive one; rather, it’s the culmination of gaslighting by his offsider Iago, mixed with the manifestation of Othello’s own insecurities. Othello rivals the likes of Hamlet and Lear for its portrayal of the rich inner life of its characters; every one of them is compelling, nuanced and driven by their own sense of morality and wants. For actors, it’s a juicy piece of text to tear into, marked by some of Shakespeare’s most memorable speeches and turns of phrase. And, given the prevailing nature of its themes, it is unlikely Othello will be robbed of its cultural relevance any time soon.

#5 Richard The Third

“Now is the winter of our discontent…” one of Shakespeare’s finest character introductions, and to one of his most enjoyable villains. Richard is an unabashed bad guy who delights in his villainy and power grabbery in a way that makes Game of Thrones seem tame by comparison. And yet, we can’t help but to find him compelling and sympathetic, Richard is the perfect antihero, rebelling against the status quo and indulging in enough direct address to the audience to keep us firmly on his side. While counted amongst Shakespeare’s ‘history plays’, it is interesting to note that inaccuracies are rife within the work—most notably Richard’s deformities that were greatly exaggerated by the author. Shakespeare had every reason to please the new Tudor regime in England by disparaging their defeated enemies, and so Richard’s evil nature is greatly exaggerated in a work that hearkens more to propaganda than factual recount. Of course, Shakespeare doesn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. And, as a result, Richard The Third is a hellishly good time.

What next…

We are sure that many of you will disagree with this list, but that’s half the fun of it! Shakespeare means something different to all of us. However, we do hope you have enjoyed reading out list of best Shakespeare plays and it has given you some guidance on what to read next. We also have a full listing of all Shakespeare plays if you want to see an unranked (and unbiased) list of the Bard’s work.

At the end of the day, the more you read Shakespeare’s work the better you get at performing it. Here is a snippet from an interview with one of the leading authorities on Shakespeare, Damien Ryan. Damien is the artistic director of Sport for Jove Theatre Company. We hope we have encouraged you to continue to read Shakespeare’s work!

Why Reading Shakespeare is Important


About the Author

StageMilk Team

StageMilk Team is made up of professional actors and writers from around the world. This team includes Andrew, Alex, Luke, Jake, Indiana, Patrick and more. We all work together to contribute useful articles and resources for actors at all stages in their careers.

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