Reviews of Shakespeare's Best Plays

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A Midsummer Night's Dream | The Merchant of Venice | The Tragedy of Richard II | Hamlet, Prince of Denmark | Othello | King Lear | The First Part of King Henry IV | The Tragedy of Julius Caesar | The Tragedy of Macbeth | Romeo and Juliet

A Midsummer Night's Dream, probably about 1595

Overall grade: C
Plot: D+, Characters: B-, Quotations: B-
Best Character: Robin Goodfellow
When in doubt, go with the one who delivers the best lines. Shakespeare had fun with this character, obviously.
Best Part: Helena finding out she is now chased by both Lysander and Demetrius, when only a short time ago both wanted nothing to do with her.
In General: This play has some great lines, probably none more memorable than Puck's final passage at the end. But nevertheless, the plot fails to invoke the reader the way other plays can, and the subtle humor does not quite make up for it. Whil e the ironies are obvious and somewhat amusing, they are too thin and not saddled with enough vivacity in speech to create enjoyment from reading each line after the next. This play is certainly worth reading, but not interesting enough to sustain contin uous thought.
Topics to Debate: What is the significance of the supernatural element in this play?
Best Quotations: "I swear to thee, by Cupid's strongest bow..." - I.i | "The Spring, the summer, The childing autumn, angry winter, change Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world, By their increase, now knows not which is which." - II.i | "I'l l put a girdle round about the earth In forty minutes." - II.i |
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The Merchant of Venice, 1596 or 1597

Overall grade: A+
Plot: A-, Characters: A+, Quotations: A
Best Character: (tie)Bassanio & Antonio:
The Merchant has his lines and his character is such a charm to envision, but Bassanio deserves notice as well. Both such great, loyal friends, they each bring out the play's strong themes and subtle humors ex traordinarily. Like Michaelangelo in painting, what makes this play so special is that Shakespeare shows no signs of trying to make something great by taking on too much. He seems to be writing for the love of writing, and by avoiding the urge to simply g o for complexity, he turns out a true work of art.
Best Part: When Bassanio declares that he would give up his lovely wife and all that he has, would it only be enough to spare Antonio's life.
In General: Without a doubt, the best play I have ever read. Full of fascinating lines and charismatic language, this play has just enough plot intertwinement and humor to balance out into a perfect pleasure for any reader. The friendship between Bassanio and Antonio really touches the reader, and while it may seem ridiculous at times, the thought of such a friendship existing is sublime.
Topics to Debate: What is the cause of Antonio's sadness?; What is the impact of Salerio and Solanio?; Is Bassanio's friendship to Antonio or his love of Portia more important to him, and which one should be more important?; Given his greed, is the animosity towards Shylock justified, or is he justified in his resentment of this animosity?
Best Quotations: "In sooth I know not why I am so sad. It wearies me, you say it wearies you;" - I.i | " assured My purse, my person, my extremest means Lie all unlocked to your occasions." - I.i | "If Hercules and Lichas play at dice Which i s the better man, the greater throw May turn by fortune from the weaker hand. So is Alcides beaten by his page." - II.i | "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves." - II.ix | "The quality of mercy..." - IV.i | "There is no vice so simple, but as sumes Some mark of virtue on his outward parts." - III.ii | "I'll have my bond: and therefore speak no more." - III.iii |
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The Tragedy of Richard II, 1595

Overall grade: B
Plot: C, Characters: B+, Quotations: B-
Best Character: Richard
As dramatic as they come. It is quite entertaining to watch the character of this character develop. From a selfish and careless individual blind to the importance of his position, Richard becomes a wise, pragmatic figure who eventually understands the responsibility he once held.
Best Part: Richard's clock analogy near the play's end - perhaps the best comparison ever crafted, and so convincingly clear in its meaning.
In General: This play is interesting in plot and has some very memorable lines to go along with it, but does not leave the reader in that sense of joy after reading it that makes plays so great. Among the histories, it ranks near the top, however. Richard's failure at the start to get Mowbray and Bolingbroke to end their argument is a strong sign that he has much to learn, and shows a jab at the office. The anti-Richard feeling that Shakespeare builds up in the audience nicely matches the same fee ling being built up in the nation. Guant's death seems to come too early - as if it could have been better to have a lingering voice in the background always taunting Richard, rather than one for the audience to simply remember. Shakespeare's genius goes to work when he has Richard openly surrender the crown, but continues to take center stage with his increasingly satirical and richly insightful commentary. Shakespeare has Richard die, but he must be careful in how this affects Bolingbroke's character. T his could easily lead to a propaganda weapon for his enemies, just like Richard gave out when he killed Thomas of Gloucester. The play is a beautiful way of saying that the purpose of learning history is to prevent making the same mistake over and over.
Topics to Debate: Did Richard deserve to die?
Best Quotations: "For night owls shriek, where mounting larks should sing." - III.iii | "How high a pitch his resolution soars!" - I.i | "O, who can hold a fire in his hand By thinking of the frosty Caucasus?" - I.iii | "He does me double wrong, Th at wounds me with the flatteries of his tongue." - III.ii | "Not all the water in the rough, rude sea Can wash the balm from an anointed king!" - III.ii |
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Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, 1600 or 1601

Overall grade: A
Plot: A, Characters: A-, Quotations: A+
Best Character: Horatio
A friend if there ever was one, Horatio stands by with honorable allegiance. Yet, he still manages to be one of the few who stays alive. His role in the play is limited, but his input is timely and charming.
Best Part: The ghost's second visit, for, just when the reader might feel that Hamlet has actually gone mad and has lost control, we realize that he is now back on the right track.
In General: Certainly one of the most famous of his plays, Shakespeare packs in a lot. Hamlet is long and keeps the reader guessing, wondering, and quite amused. Complex in the intricate involvement of characters and their personalites, this play manages to still drive specific thoughts deep into the reader's mind. The use of the ghost is well done, and it must be remembered that the Ghost is a spirit that can take on any shape for any purpose. While we can say that it looks like Hamlet's father and takes his shape, we do not know what it really is because an Elizabethan audience may have expected different things than today's reader assumes. The use of Fortinbras, the King of Norway whom the old King of Denmark had defeated, is nicely done. He does not ever take away the attention from the main characters, but is referred to and sits in the mind of the reader by affecting the play's course of events. Gertrude bothers me greatly, not because she is simply shallow and slow, but primarily because she lacks sensitivity that could have heightened the play's intensity. Shakespeare is brilliant in his handling of Hamlet's crusading character, from showing the difficulty he has in controlling himself to his pretense of madness. Claudius clearly needed the marriage to Gertrude to help him get the throne and all, but he also seems to really love his new wife. This is the reason that he does not want to alienate, imprison, or execute her son. Claudius is certainly wise enough to know that he could have s aved his fate by killing Hamlet, but is blinded by love. A nice twist to help the play's plot.
Topics to Debate: Was Hamlet ever less than sane?; Who is, or perhaps who is not, ultimately responsible for Hamlet's death?; What were the ghosts feelings towards Gertrude, particularly at his second visit?; The significance of Rosencrantz and Gui ldenstern.
Best Quotations: "Indeed, indeed, Sirs, but this troubles me." - I.ii | "So have I heard and do in part blieve it." - I.i | "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." - III.ii | "O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldes t curse upon't, A brother's murder." - III.iii | "And where the offence is, let the great axe fall." - IV.v | "Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move: Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love." - II.ii |
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Othello, 1603

Overall grade: B-
Plot: B-, Characters: B, Quotations: B+
Best Character: Iago
People are entranced by such unmitigated evil as Shakespeare made great use of, and Iago is an excellent example of why. He manages to so devishly plan an intricate revenge while taking full advantage of a naive Roderigo so that the reader cannot help but be all the more impressed as his mind thinks of each next thing.
Best Part: When Roderigo swears he has every intent of killing Iago for his lies. Not only does Iago deceitfully convince Roderigo to keep listening to him, but he subtly gets him to give him his money as well!
In General: While this play manages to intrigue the reader to the end, it does not quite live up to the standards Shakespeare set for himself. It has most of the elements necessary for a great play, but the overall structure is not secure, and it f ails to leave the reader with a lasting impression to ponder. Othello is interesting, but not enchanting.
Topics to Debate: Should the reader sympathize with Othello or criticize the naive fool?; Is revenge a natural instinct that can overwhelm someone, or is it controllable?
Best Quotations: "Cassio, I love thee; But never more be officer of mine." - II.iii | "Divinity of hell! When devils will thier blackest sins put on, They do suggest at first with heavenly shows." - II.iii | "O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock The meat it feeds on." - III.iii | "O devil, devil! If that the earth could teem with woman's tears, Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile." - IV.i | "But, O vain boast! Who can controul his fate?" - V.ii | "O f one,that lov'd not wisely, but too well;" - V.ii |
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King Lear, 1594

Overall grade: B+
Plot: C+, Characters: B+, Quotations: B
Best Character: Earl of Kent
This is a tough choice with so many good options, but Kent wins the nod because he brings so many elements together. He manages to be the character every reader pulls for by showing such noble allegiance that he fears no punishment and never loses hope.
Best Part: When, upon having his eyes just poked out, Gloucester is now finally able to 'see' which son is truly the good one. By some scholars, the irony is considered so obvious as to be corny, but it is really quite intuitive, I think.
In General: Despite seeming to deviate from the classic elements that bring greatness, this play manages to still be great. The interweaving of the main and subplot is masterfully done and they complement each other nicely. Shakespeare takes on a d ifficult task in approaching the debate of what effect society has on people. While he makes an admirable effort to show a strong view, the subject is too difficult to envelope and ends up hurting the play. The best example is probably Edmund's accpetanc e of Nature as his 'goddess' and subsequent throwing off of all the artificial shackles imposed by society. Barbaric as the times may have been, society's impact on its fellows is far too vast a concept to subtly cover in a play containing other themes. T he play does, however, give a nice example of the institution of the court fool (or jester) which arises out of the early Christian attitude toward madness. Shakespeare manages to provide a little history lesson in the process of spicing up his play with someone who is allowed to speak his mind about the king.
Topics to Debate: Is Albany justified in joining Goneril and Regan to defend England, or should he have sided with Cordelia and France against the evil sisters?; Is Edmund at all justified in his eternal resentment at being 'base' or is that just a misfortune he must accept?
Best Quotations: "Away! By Jupiter, This shall not be revok'd." - I.i | "Whose nature is so far from doing harms, That he suspects none; on whose foolish honesty My practices ride easy." - I.ii | "Peace, Kent! Come not between the Dragon and his wr ath." - I.i | "My lord, I am guiltless, as I am ignorant Of what hath moved you." - I.iv | "I have no way and therefore want no eyes; I stumbled when I saw." - IV.i | "As flies to wanton boys, are we to th'gods, They kill us for their sport." - IV.i | "Je sters do oft prove prophets." - V.iii | "We are not ourselves, when nature, being oppress'ed, Commands the mind to suffer with the body." - II.iv |
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The First Part of King Henry IV, 1597

Overall grade: C+
Plot: C, Characters: B, Quotations: C+
Best Character: Hotspur
Who else?
Best Part: Prince Henry making amends with his father.
In General: This play seems to be one of those that is lost in the heap of Shakespeare's 'other plays.' While it is certainly worth reading, it does not have that intellectual exuberance that marks other works, and certainly should not be read abo ve them. The reasoning behind the schism between Hotspur and the King is not well devised - the King feels that a victory by any Englishman was a victory for England and that any prisoners taken were therefore the King's - and so the play does not begin w ith a strong central conflict. The argument between Hotspur and Worcester is well done, and shows that internal strife can kill an operation. Shakespeare shows how Hotspur's enthusiasm cannot be controlled and funneled into a mere ability to fight, and that its confliction with Worcester's desire to lead him will damage both of their intentions. Falstaff, while he has been mocked, mistreated, and pushed around cruelly, is not just a figure for fun. He knows Hal well and knows how to pick his fights. Whi le he comes off rather slow, Shakespeare did not intend to create the idiot some people make him out to be. One of the most intelligent choices Shakespeare made was a jab at human nature when he shows that the way the King could find the proper key to Pri nce Hal's soul was by comparing him with Hotspur and declaring that Hotspur's deeds gave him a better claim to the throne. This gets to Prince Hal like nothing prior to did.
Topics to Debate: Should King Henry continue to give his son so many chances after the way he carries himself?; Should Hotspur have given up the prisoners, or should King Henry have ransomed Mortimer?
Best Quotations: "What a slave art thou to hack they sword as thou hast done; and then say, it was in fight!" - I.iv |
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The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, probably 1599

Overall grade: A-
Plot: B, Characters: A, Quotations: A+
Best Character: Brutus
Brutus' character is perhaps the most complex and the most interesting to watch. The reader doesn't know whether to feel awe at the reputation he brings with him or to curse him for his involvement in the play's outcome. Brutus brings good lines and his nobility is intricate to the play's development, but he may be Shakespeares most intriguing character in how he almost single-handedly allows the possiblity for and then kills the chance of a real revolution.
Best Part: Mark Antony's speech at Caesar's funeral. I can read it again and again and it still amazes me how he so nicely changed the public's opinion with one rousing delivery.
In General: Filled with stirring speaches and whirling themes, this play is fantastic in hindsight and dazzling in creation, but only loses some points for being less intriguing than possible.
Topics to Debate: How could the senators have finished the job better, or was Mark Antony too good? Was Caesar more powerful than most people tend to realize?
Best Quotations: "Knew you not Pompey?..." - I.i | "Beware the ides of March." - I.ii | "Yond cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous." - I.ii | "I rather tell thee what is to be feared Than what I fear; for a lways I am Caesar" - I.ii | "Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once." - II.ii | "Not that I loved Ceasar less, but that I loved Rome more." - III.ii | "O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!..." - V.iii| "The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones." - III.ii |
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Macbeth, 1606

Overall grage: B-
Plot: C+, Characters: B+, Quotations: C+
Best Character(s): The Witches
As the characters who really make this play great, the witches add that supernatural element. Their prophecies are invigorating and their presence is an ironic delight.
Best Part: When, after telling him that he was a coward for not having the moral strength to go and kill the king, Lady Macbeth finds herself in shock after learning that her husband has indeed committed the horrendous offense.
In General: 'Thou shalt not kill' is a nice moral to live by and certainly shines through in this play, one with dominant themes and clear intentions. Nevertheless, the plot only goes so far and the great lines can only carry subpar speeches for s o long. Macbeth requires a lot of background knowledge in order to fully understand all of the references, particularly with the witches. Consequently, extensive knowledge can make this play a delight while lack of it can make this play a bore. Shakespear e forces the reader to think that for Macbeth to be king, Duncan must, so to speak, cease being king. And, one way for that to happen is for Macbeth to kill him. The reader is not presented with other alternatives, which seem to be a possibility, but on f urther reflection would probably be mistake. Shakespeare has vastly condensed the time span of this play. This is probably for the sake of drama and is quite clever. Banquo's part in the play is carefully crafted, and he may be the best to discuss.
Topics to Debate: Lady Macbeth.
Best Quotations: "What! will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?" - IV.i | "Prithee, peach! I dare do all that may become a man; Who dares do more is none." - I.vii | "Stand not upon the order of your going, But go at once." - III.iv | "Macb eth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wod to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him." - IV.i | "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!" - V,i | "What, will these hands ne'er be clean?" - V.i | "His flight was madness: When our actions do not, Our fe ars do, make us traitors." - IV.ii | "Life's but a walking shadow..." - V.v | "Yet I do fear thy nature; It is too full o' the milk of human kindness..." - I.v |
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Romeo and Juliet, between 1591 and 1596

Overall Grade: C-
Plot: D, Characters: C+, Quotations: F
Best Character: None
There really is not a single character that the reader can truly enjoy reading about. This may stem from an attempt to give too many characters too much attention and therefore spoil them all, but there is also a lack of developme nt in any of them. No character shows the author's wit, but rather, they all seem as if written in classical, text-book style trying to be perfect matches to the storyline.
Best Part: Juliet calling from her window and finding Romeo outside. It certainly is not great, but perhaps because it is so commonly known in society, this scene almost seems funny and forces the reader to chuckle as he plows through the scene. Ma ybe is it just too unbelievable, maybe it just lacks Shakespeare's loquacity, maybe it needs a better buildup - whatever is the matter, this scene just does not have greatness about it, so perhaps it can help us understand why the play in "A Midsummer Nig ht's Dream" was so funny to its audience.
In General: Far too many references that make reading tedious, and far too few quotations that make reading enjoyable. It makes you wonder if you are really reading Shakespeare or just Brooke's "Romeus." The plays overall idea of two warring househ olds not being able to put aside their differences until it costs them their son and daughter is somewhat intriguing, and worth putting this play into the top tier. Nevertheless, if ever a play lived on reputation, it is this one. A must-read simply becau se of its place in literary history, this play should by no means be compared with the rest of Shakespeare's best plays. It is plenty long, and there is ample conversation between the title characters, but yet thier relationship does not travel. The play needs more of a dynamic element and less static flow. The backbone of great plays is wit, and the backbone of this play is not wit but merely the look of an attempt to follow a pattern of greatness - something which never works.
Topics to Debate: Were this play not such a popular part of literary history with mentions everywhere in society, would it really be worth reading?
Best Quotations: "'Tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers" - IV.ii | "He jests at scars that never felt a wound." - II.i | "I will be deaf to pleading and excuses. / Nor tears nor prayers shall purchase out abuses." - III.i | "We waste ou r lights in vain, like lamps by day" - I.iv |
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