In What Order Should I Read Shakespeare?

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If you suddenly found yourself stranded on a deserted island, with only a single book to keep you entertained between peeling open coconuts and rock fishing to keep yourself alive, you could do worse than having a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare by your side in your shelter. Shakespeare’s canon includes 39 dramatic works by the English poet and playwright. The exact number of plays which can be completely attributed to William Shakespeare is a matter of scholarly debate, but, regardless of this, the works of Shakespeare we now have access to are a plethora of incredible stories, characters and varied explorations of humanity. 

Updated 6th December, 2022.

Reading the canon of Shakespeare in a detailed and conscientious way is a lifetime’s work—it is not something which should be rushed. However, we must start somewhere, and in this article I hope I can offer you some perspective on the paths you might like to take whilst venturing through the works of William Shakespeare.

As actors, we know and have been told, time and time again, the importance of reading Shakespeare; it is deep training for us. Reading and performing Shakespeare will push us and challenge us and develop all the facets of our craft as actors. However, with 39 plays and dozens of poems and sonnets in his canon, deciding where to start with reading Shakespeare (and, subsequently, how it is best to continue reading Shakespeare) can be a daunting task. 

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Where Do I Start with Shakespeare?

Most of the actors I know, particularly those who have performed Shakespeare’s plays, have a clear and fond memory of their first encounter with the writer. Whether it was a school play they saw or acted in, Shakespeare in the park, or an intensely melodramatic black and white film, everyone has had to start somewhere with Shakespeare. Even the likes of Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench (who I would consider to be the best of the best when it comes to Shakespearean performance) experienced the Bard for the first time at one point in their lives. What followed next was passion, dedication and curiosity towards Shakespeare, which has resulted in some of the most remarkable performances the world has ever seen. 

This is an encouraging fact for us: even the best Shakespearean actors in the world had to start somewhere. From their starting place they found their way through the works of Shakespeare, engaging deeply with some of his works, skimming over the top of others, and perhaps even bypassing some of the works completely! All there is for us to do is to take our first step. 

How Do I Read Shakespeare?

Just a quick note on this topic, as we already have several articles on the subject of How to read Shakespeare. Take a look at how to read Shakespeare: 6 techniques and our article on decoding Shakespeare: understanding and performing his words.

One thing I would add to this is that combining reading a play with watching a play can be incredibly useful in deciphering the more challenging aspects of the work. Either reading and watching a filmed version of a play scene by scene, or reading an entire play in the lead up to a trip to the theatre can really solidify the plot and characters in your mind. 

The best way to read Shakespeare is to read it aloud with a group of fellow actors. If you can organize a reading group to meet semi-regularly and read Shakespeare aloud together, you will drastically increase your chances of sustaining your commitment to reading Shakespeare and the amount of each play you understand and retain. 

Use this process to ensure you actually comprehend the texts you are reading. I’d really caution against the challenge of reading the complete works of Shakespeare for the sake of it. A colleague of mine at drama school set themselves the task of reading one of the Bard’s plays every week to get through the complete works in a year; after one-and-a-half plays, they were burnt out and dropped the task entirely. Take the time you need to read and experience each play fully. More benefit can come to your craft as an actor by reading one of Shakespeare’s plays deeply and thoughtfully than rushing your way through five because you feel you ‘should’ read them all. 

Which Shakespearean Play Should I Read First?

There are 39 plays we know Shakespeare either wrote or was part of a collaboration of writers. Where the heck do we start? Do we read chronologically and begin in 1589 with The Two Gentlemen of Verona? Or do we head to ancient Rome because we like the film Gladiator and attempt to tackle Titus Andronicus? I’ve heard a lot about Hamlet and King Lear, perhaps I should begin there? The Tempest was the last play Shakespeare wrote alone, maybe that will be the most ‘modern’ and easy for me to access?

To get some clarity around the canon of Shakespeare’s works, here’s a list of his plays in their categories to get a sense of what we’re working through: Shakespeare Plays.  

Of course, as with any question like this, there is no ‘right’ answer. You can and should read whichever one of Shakespeare’s plays you want first. However, it is undeniable that some of Shakespeare’s plays are more easily accessible than others. Plot lines differ in their complexity. Characters develop in their sophistication and complexity as Shakespeare’s career progresses. The text itself changes too. We sometimes forget that there was a time before Shakespeare was ‘Shakespeare’ – the prolific artist we know him as today. His skill as a writer developed over his career, with his use of language and sentence style growing and changing over the course of his lifetime. 

If I am to be horribly reductive and simplistic, I’d say that there are three plays which you should consider as your starting point for reading Shakespeare. They are:

Listing these three plays as a starting point for beginners does not in any way suggest that they are less sophisticated than Shakespeare’s other works. Quite the contrary: these are three of Shakespeare’s most performed and beloved plays. They are far from simplistic—each challenge art and form in their execution, they were all written within the most prosperous ten years of Shakespeare’s career and they are all revolutionary in their own way to the world of drama and comedy.

These plays are a good starting point for a new Shakespearean reader because of their clarity. The plots and characters of these plays, all wonderfully written and exciting to experience, are extremely clear. There is much less ambiguity or historical placement in these plays. We would experience them as a modern audience today in a very similar way to the Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences whom these plays were written for. This is not always the case with Shakespeare’s works.

Choose one of these three to start with. Don’t worry, this isn’t a “be all or end all” decision (to drop a little Macbeth reference for you), as you’ll be reading all three of these plays at some point. 

The Different Types of Shakespearean Plays

We’ve taken the first step into Shakespeare’s canon. Well done! Reading a Shakespearean play is no small task. Most of us actors forget that reading Shakespeare actually isn’t done all that often by people outside of the arts. Reading even a single one of his plays outside of the classroom and as an adult is an impressive thing to accomplish. But, we can’t stop there.

The more Shakespeare we read, the more we are able to experience Shakespeare’s works—we come to understand how he writes, which themes he chooses to explore and how he builds his characters. As I progress through my career as an actor and as a reader of Shakespeare, I find I am building upon my understanding of the first plays I read (starting with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, if you care to know) by delving deeper into his canon and reading some of his more obscure works, like a Cymbeline and Coriolanus

Shakespeare’s plays are typically grouped into three or four categories. The primary three categories are: Histories, Comedies and Tragedies. The outliers from this list—plays which don’t entirely fit the classical mould of these genres, plus a few other of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays and collaborations—fit into the category of his ‘Problem Plays’ and/or his ‘Late Romances’. These plays are ‘problematic’ for their difficulty to categorise—not necessarily their subject matter. You can read more about Shakespeare’s Problem Plays here.

Breaking the canon down into these groups can be really useful when attempting to navigate the entirety of Shakespeare’s canon. Reading Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy, might leave us feeling a bit blue and yearning for a comedy. Diving into a history play can tickle multiple facets of our interests: we are reading Shakespeare and learning a thing or two about interesting historical figures.

At the start of your journey, I would advise you to delay reading from the Problem Plays category. Familiarise yourself with some of his greatest hits first to give yourself time to understand the way he writes and his language. Diving too quickly into a problem play like Measure for Measure, which is very experimental and ambiguous in style and tone, might leave you bewildered and disheartened.

We want to follow the path of our own enthusiasm in this quest, not follow the path of obligation which other actors or scholars have laid out before us. Read what you feel you would like to read next, rather than what someone tells you you should read next, (he writes, fully realising the irony of this statement whilst creating an article entitled “in what order should I read Shakespeare”.)

Rather than trying to break down the entire canon into an order you should read, let’s create a plan of attack for each of these genres, for you to jump between as you wish.

Tragedies

Now, I’m about to make a bold and potentially controversial statement. I believe the real richness of Shakespeare’s canon exists in his tragedies more so than his comedies. I hear the cries of one thousand British scholars who disagree with me vehemently—sorry folks. But I do believe that if we were on our desert island with only one genre of Shakespeare’s canon to choose from, his tragedies would be the most fulfilling and enriching for us. Lists of the works of Shakespeare vary from scholar to scholar, but a fairly comprehensive list of his tragedies is as follows:

  1. Troilus and Cressida
  2. Coriolanus
  3. Titus Andronicus
  4. Romeo and Juliet
  5. Timon of Athens
  6. Julius Caesar
  7. Macbeth
  8. Hamlet
  9. King Lear
  10. Othello
  11. Antony and Cleopatra
  12. Cymbeline

From this list, I’ve pulled out a few choice selections to get you started:

#1 Romeo and Juliet 

If you haven’t tackled this one already, Romeo and Juliet is the best place to start with Shakespearean tragedy. It has it all: romance, comedy, sword fighting, terrible puns and tragic endings. In this play, Shakespeare shows his expertise as a writer, beginning the play with all the hallmarks of a comedy before turning the events of the play on their head and stunning the audience with its tragic middle and end.

#2 Macbeth

Again, another one of our plays from the beginner’s list, ‘The Scottish Play’ is a fantastic early read. It features fantastic characters (including one of Shakespeare’s best villains)  and soliloquies, and explores themes of witchcraft, guilt and ambition. There’s a few ghosts in there too … not to be missed!

#3 Hamlet 

Arguably the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays when it comes to critical acclaim and analysis, Hamlet is a remarkable work of art to behold. I’d advise you to ensure you’ve read at least a few other plays in Shakespeare’s canon before confronting the Dane, as Hamlet is in many ways a more complex and sophisticated piece of writing than most of Shakespeare’s early works.

#4 Othello 

Othello and Iago, protagonist and antagonist in this Venetian play, are two of Shakespeare’s greatest characters. Indeed, Iago took out our top spot in a list of best Shakespeare characters! The scenes featuring these two alone on stage are some of the best scenes for actors to prepare and perform in the entire Shakespeare canon. And the play around them? Full of jealousy, vengeance, the perils of prejudice and the worth of reputation.

#5 Julius Caesar 

Take a step into Ancient Rome in the time of Julius Caesar—an empire in constant turmoil as democracy finds its feet. The fear of tyrannical rule is rife in this society, and from this fear a conspiracy to assassinate an emperor is hatched. In this play, Shakespeare asks a question of his audience: “What happens in the vacuum of an assassinated leader?” A great play full of great characters, this is one to read a little further into your journey as a reader of Shakespeare, as the plot and the context of Shakespeare’s Rome can be a little more difficult to access without reading up on the given circumstances of the story first.

From this point, go whichever way you like with the Tragedies. If you’d like to stay in Rome, head on over to Shakespeare’s first revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus (and compare its Tarantino-esque gruesomeness with the sophistication of Hamlet!) Then move on to the colossal stories of Antony and Cleopatra or Coriolanus. Or you might like to tackle King Learan exceptionally beautiful, mystical story featuring some of Shakespeare’s most complex circumstances and characters. 

Comedies

Take a break from all the tragedy and have a laugh! Now: ‘comedy’, as it pertains to Shakespeare, does not necessarily mean ‘funny’—at least not in the way the word comedy correlates with humour for us today. Shakespearean comedies are stories of forbidden love and marriage, foppish characters and wonderful wit. These stories often feature magic or extraordinary circumstances of shipwrecks, last minute happy endings and unions between sworn enemies. 

  1. The Tempest
  2. The Two Gentlemen of Verona
  3. The Merry Wives of Windsor
  4. Measure for Measure
  5. The Comedy of Errors
  6. Much Ado About Nothing
  7. Love’s Labour’s Lost
  8. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  9. The Merchant of Venice 
  10. As You Like It
  11. The Taming of the Shrew
  12. All’s Well That Ends Well
  13. Twelfth Night
  14. The Winter’s Tale
  15. Pericles, Prince of Tyre
  16. The Two Noble Kinsmen 

Where do we start with this list?

#1 A Midsummer Night’s Dream 

For many, we start right back in high school English! A feature of our beginner’s list, AMSND (forgive my abbreviation, it’s a long title to type) is Shakespeare’s most popular and frequently performed play. I don’t think there has ever been a time since its creation that a production of AMSND hasn’t been on in a theatre or garden during the summer months somewhere in the world. With three interweaving plot lines full of magic, farce and even workplace comedy (we’d not have The Office without The Mechanicals), AMSND is Shakespeare at his finest, whilst still being accessible and understandable.

#2 Twelfth Night 

Twelfth Night is fairly unique in Shakespeare’s canon in that it is a play which is driven by relationships rather than events. Shakespeare focuses on the characters of this play, rather than a rigid plot or thematics. This was the second play of Shakespeare’s I was ever involved with, and it holds a very dear place in my heart. It’s a great play to read and experience early on in your investigation of The Bard’s works. 

#3 The Merchant of Venice 

To reiterate, ‘comedy’ in Shakespearean and early dramatic terms does not mean the same thing it means to us as a modern audience. Comedy was concerned with certain plot rules or structures: like star-cross’d lovers, oppressive villains and happy endings. The Merchant of Venice is not a play we would call a comedy by today’s standards. Particularly given the events of the twentieth century, The Merchant of Venice now cannot and should not be looked at without serious consideration of the themes of antisemitism and prejudice present within the play. That being said, this play contains one of the most extraordinary and complex characters in Shylock, and the ‘courtroom scene’ towards the end of the play still stands as one of the greatest sequences in drama.

#4 Much Ado About Nothing 

Delving deeper into Shakespeare’s comedies, we now come to Much Ado About Nothing—a play known more for its wordplay and its themes than its characters and events. That being said, within this play you’ll find Beatrice and Benedick, who are essential characters to add to your comedic repertoire (as well as a strong, early example of the established “will they, won’t they” rom-com trope.)

#5 The Taming of the Shrew 

Like The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew has become more and more heavily scrutinised as time has passed. An incredibly problematic play through today’s eyes, this is a play to read not necessarily for its sophistication as a star alone piece, but as an advanced exercise in reading Shakespeare. This exercise will require you not only to read and understand the text itself, but to develop opinions about the text—what Shakespeare’s original intentions were and why it has the reputation it now has. Does this play have a place in public performance today? Or is it a play best left on the shelf to gather dust? You decide.

Histories

Shakespeare, like all good writers, was an avid reader and scholar. He was a lover of history, and wrote plays about British history for the entertainment of his audiences, but also potentially to defame or glorify a current or previous monarch. As a writer, Shakespeare was a businessman and shameless self-promoter; of course, we should not separate intention—whether for reputation or financial gain—from his works. It can actually be a fascinating lens that helps us further unpack each work.

  1. King John
  2. Richard II
  3. Henry IV, Part 1
  4. Henry IV, Part 2
  5. Henry V
  6. Henry VI, Part 1
  7. Henry VI, Part 2
  8. Henry VI, Part 3
  9. Richard III
  10. Henry VIII
  11. Edward III

Eleven plays, which ones should we prioritise?

For this genre I believe there is a simpler approach. Both Henry IV and Henry VI are plays broken up into multiple sections, but for the sake of this article let’s call them the one play. To gain a sophisticated understanding of Shakespeare’s canon of history plays, I think you should read his chronicle of The Wars of the Roses. This series of plays spans from Richard the Second, through all three Henry plays, and finishes with Richard the Third:

  1. Richard II
  2. Henry IV
  3. Henry V
  4. Henry Vi
  5. Richard III

In this chronicle we have famous lines like “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground. And tell sad stories of the death of kings;” from Richard II, “Once more unto the breach” and “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” from Henry V and “Now is the winter of our Discontent” from Richard III. There’s a wealth of wonderful scenes, characters and events in these plays.

These plays, more so than the comedies and tragedies, are quite dense. They may require some additional research in your part to glean the context and setting of the plays and individual scenes. I’d highly advise reading these plays with a guide, with a filmed version or with other actors. Most importantly, take your time: give yourself ample opportunities to digest the material.

Conclusion

I have, of course, missed many of the exceptional plays in these three lists of five plays from Shakespeare’s tragedies, comedies and histories. This is not an indication of the lack of sophistication in the unlisted plays, they are just a little further down the list of what I’d suggest you to prioritise when working your way through his canon. Here are those lists once again:

Tragedy:

  1. Romeo and Juliet
  2. Macbeth
  3. Hamlet
  4. Othello
  5. Julius Ceasar

Comedy:

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  2. Twelfth Night
  3. The Merchant of Venice
  4. Much Ado About Nothing
  5. The Taming of the Shrew

History:

  1. Richard II
  2. Henry IV
  3. Henry V
  4. Henry VI
  5. Richard III

Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Take your time and prioritise the quality of your reading over the quantity. Jump from genre to genre as you see fit, and follow your curiosity and enthusiasm as you read.

And please, once you’re well entrenched in the world of Shakespeare, go off the beaten track and try something different. Read Cymbeline – the fairytale-like play from early Britain featuring a fantastic female leading role. Read The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play, and see how he chooses to finish his career as a writer. The more you read, the more you will be able to read. You’ll come to see the patterns and growth of Shakespeare as a writer, increase your skill as a dramatist and, most importantly, love these plays for the brilliant stories they are.

Adieu! 

About the Author

Jack Crumlin

Jack Crumlin is an actor and educator based in Sydney, Australia. Jack trained at Actors Centre Australia, and has since worked primarily in Shakespeare- he loves a good sword fight on stage. In his spare time Jack geeks out over fantasy novels and Greek Mythology and loves to shoot photos on film.

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