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In What Order Ought to I Learn Shakespeare?

In case you instantly discovered your self stranded on a abandoned island with solely a single e book to maintain you entertained between peeling open coconuts and rock fishing to maintain your self alive, you might do worse than having a duplicate of The Full Works of Shakespeare by your facet in your shelter. Shakespeare’s canon contains 39 dramatic works by the English poet and playwright. The precise variety of performs which could be utterly attributed to William Shakespeare is a matter of scholarly debate, however, no matter this, the works of Shakespeare we now have entry to are a plethora of unbelievable tales, characters and explorations of humanity. 

As actors, we all know and have been instructed time and time once more the significance of studying Shakespeare; it’s deep coaching for us. Studying and performing Shakespeare will push us and problem us and develop all of the sides of our craft as actors. Nevertheless, with 39 performs and dozens of poems and sonnets in his canon, deciding the place to start out with studying Shakespeare and, subsequently, how it’s best to proceed studying Shakespeare could be a daunting process. 

Studying the canon of Shakespeare in an in depth and conscientious means is a lifetime’s work – it isn’t one thing which must be rushed. Nevertheless, we should begin someplace, and on this article I hope I can give you some perspective on the paths you may prefer to take while venturing by way of the works of William Shakespeare.

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The place Do I Begin with Shakespeare?

A lot of the actors I do know, significantly those that have labored with Shakespeare’s performs, have a transparent and fond reminiscence of their first encounter with the author. Whether or not it was a faculty play they noticed or acted in, Shakespeare within the park, or an intensely melodramatic black and white movie, everybody has needed to begin someplace with Shakespeare. Even the likes of Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judy Dench (who I’d think about to be the most effective of the most effective on the subject of Shakespearean efficiency) skilled Shakespeare for the first time at one level of their lives. What adopted subsequent from that time onwards was ardour, dedication and curiosity in the direction of Shakespeare which has resulted in a number of the most exceptional performances the world has ever seen. 

That is an encouraging reality for us: even the most effective Shakespearean actors on the planet needed to begin someplace. From their beginning place they discovered their means by way of the works of Shakespeare, participating deeply with a few of his works, skimming excessive of others, and even perhaps bypassing a few of Shakespeare’s performs utterly. All there’s for us to do is to take our first step. 

How Do I Learn Shakespeare?

Only a fast word on this subject, as we have already got a number of articles with regards to The best way to learn Shakespeare. Right here’s one in all mine you may like to take a look at: The best way to Learn Shakespeare: 6 Methods.

One factor I’d add to that is that combining studying a play with watching a play could be extremely helpful in deciphering the tougher works of Shakespeare. Both studying and watching a filmed model of a play scene by scene or studying a whole play within the lead as much as a visit to the theater can actually solidify the plot and characters in your thoughts. 

The greatest option to learn Shakespeare is to learn it aloud with a gaggle of actors. In case you can manage a studying group to fulfill semi-regularly and skim Shakespeare aloud collectively, you’ll drastically improve your probabilities of sustaining your dedication to studying Shakespeare and the quantity of every play you perceive and retain. 

Use these methods, or no matter method you’d like, to make sure you really perceive and course of the texts you might be studying. I’d actually warning in opposition to the problem of studying the whole works of Shakespeare for the sake of it, (a colleague of mine at drama faculty set themselves the duty of studying one of many Bard’s performs each week to get by way of the whole works in a 12 months. After one and a half performs they had been burnt out and dropped the duty fully.) Take the time you might want to learn and expertise the play absolutely. Extra profit can come to your craft as an actor by studying one of Shakespeare’s performs deeply and thoughtfully than speeding your means by way of 5 performs since you really feel you ‘ought to’ learn all of them. 

Which Shakespearean Play Ought to I Learn First?

There are 39 performs we all know Shakespeare both wrote or was a part of a collaboration of writers. The place the heck can we begin? Will we learn chronologically and start in 1589 with The Two Gents of Verona? Or can we head to historical Rome as a result of we just like the movie Gladiator and try and sort out Titus Andronicus? I’ve heard loads about Hamlet and King Lear, maybe I ought to start there? The Tempest was the final play Shakespeare wrote alone, possibly that would be the most ‘fashionable’ and simple for me to entry?

To get some readability across the canon of Shakespeare’s works, right here’s an inventory of his performs of their classes to get a way of what we’re working by way of: Shakespeare Performs.  

In fact, as with every query like this, there isn’t a ‘proper’ reply. You may and may learn whichever one in all Shakespeare’s performs you need first. Nevertheless, it’s plain that a few of Shakespeare’s performs are extra simply accessible than others. Plot strains differ of their complexity. Characters develop of their sophistication and complexity as Shakespeare’s profession progresses. The textual content itself modifications too. We generally overlook that there was a time earlier than Shakespeare was ‘Shakespeare’ – the prolific artist we all know him as immediately. His talent as a author developed over his profession, together with his use of language and sentence model rising and altering over the course of his lifetime. 

If I’m to be horribly reductive and simplistic, I’d say that there are three performs which you must think about as your start line for studying Shakespeare. They’re:

Itemizing these three performs as a place to begin for novices doesn’t in any means recommend that they’re much less refined than Shakespeare’s different works. Fairly the opposite, these are three of Shakespeare’s most carried out and most over performs. They’re removed from simplistic – they had been all written inside essentially the most affluent ten years of Shakespeare’s profession and they’re all revolutionary in their very own option to the world of drama and comedy.

These performs are a great start line for a brand new Shakespearean reader due to their readability. The plots and characters of those performs, although splendidly written and thrilling to expertise, are all clear. There’s a lot much less ambiguity or historic placement in these performs. We’d expertise these performs as a contemporary viewers immediately in a really related option to the Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences whom these performs had been written for. This isn’t at all times the case with Shakespeare’s works.

Select one in all these three performs to start out with. Don’t fear, this isn’t a “be all or finish all” determination, (That was a reference from Macbeth which you’ll quickly see) you’ll be studying all three of those performs in some unspecified time in the future. 

The Completely different Forms of Shakespearean Performs

We’ve taken step one into Shakespeare’s canon. Properly accomplished! Studying a Shakespearean play is not any small process. Most of us actors overlook that studying Shakespeare really isn’t accomplished all that always by folks exterior of the humanities. Studying even a single one in all his performs exterior of the classroom and as an grownup is a powerful factor to perform. However, we will’t cease there. The extra Shakespeare we learn, the extra we’re capable of expertise Shakespeare’s works – we come to know how he writes, which themes he chooses to discover and the way he builds his characters. As I progress by way of my profession as an actor and as a reader of Shakespeare, I discover I’m constructing upon my understanding of the primary performs I learn (which was A Midsummer Night time’s Dream, should you care to know) by delving deeper into his canon and studying one in all his extra obscure works, like a Cymbeline and Coriolanus

After you have tackled a number of of the three performs I recommended within the final part, you’re now capable of embark in whichever of the numerous instructions of Shakespeare’s canon you want. So, what are these instructions?

Shakespeare’s performs are sometimes grouped into three or 4 classes. The first three classes are: Histories, Comedies and Tragedies. The outliers from this listing, (performs which don’t fully match the classical mould of those genres) plus a couple of different of Shakespeare’s extra obscure performs and collaborations match into the class of his ‘drawback performs’ and/or his ‘Late Romances’. These performs are ‘problematic’ for his or her problem to classify, not essentially their material. You may learn extra about Shakespeare’s Drawback Performs right here.

Breaking the canon down into these teams could be actually helpful for us when making an attempt to select our means by way of studying his works. Studying Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy, may go away us feeling a bit blue and craving for a comedy. Diving right into a historical past play can tickle a number of sides of our neediness: we’re studying Shakespeare and studying a factor or two about fascinating historic figures. The outliers class, together with performs like A Winter’s Story, All’s Properly that Finish’s Properly, Troilus and Cressida and Pericles. Once more, on the danger of being over-simplistic (but in addition embracing my position as your information by way of the canon of Shakespeare) I’d advise you to delay studying performs from this drawback class in the intervening time. Familiarise your self with a number of of Shakespeare’s different performs first to provide your self time to know the best way he writes and his language. Diving too rapidly into an issue play like Measure for Measure, which may be very experimental and ambiguous in model and tone, may go away you bewildered and disheartened. We need to comply with the trail of our personal enthusiasm on this quest, not comply with the trail of obligation which different actors or students have laid out earlier than us. Learn what you’re feeling you wish to learn subsequent, fairly than what somebody tells you you must learn subsequent, (he writes, absolutely realising the irony of this assertion while creating an article entitled “in what order ought to I learn Shakespeare”). 

Slightly than making an attempt to interrupt down the complete canon into an order you must learn, let’s create a plan of assault for every of those genres, so that you can soar between as you would like.


Now, I’m about to make a daring and doubtlessly controversial assertion. I consider the true richness of Shakespeare’s canon exists in his tragedies extra so than his comedies. I hear the cries of 1 thousand British students who disagree with me vehemently – sorry people. However I do consider that if we had been on our desert island with just one style of Shakespeare’s canon to select from, his tragedies could be essentially the most fulfilling and enriching for us. 

Lists of the works of Shakespeare range from scholar to scholar, however a reasonably complete listing of his tragedies is as follows:

Shakespeare’s Tragedies:

  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

Let’s break this listing down into a possible order for you. 

Tragedies, First Reads:

#1 Romeo and Juliet 

You could have already tackled one, however should you haven’t Romeo and Juliet is the most effective place to start out with Shakespearean tragedy. It has all of it: romance, comedy, sword preventing and tragic endings. On this play Shakespeare reveals his experience as a author, starting the play with all of the hallmarks of a comedy earlier than turning the occasions of the play on their head and gorgeous the viewers with its tragic ending.

#2 Macbeth

Once more, one other one in all our performs from the newbie’s listing, ‘The Scottish Play’ is a implausible early learn. The play options implausible characters and soliloquies, and explores themes of witchcraft, guilt and ambition. There’s a couple of ghosts in there too – it’s to not be missed. 

#3 Hamlet 

Arguably the best of Shakespeare’s performs on the subject of vital acclaim and evaluation, Hamlet is a exceptional murals to behold. I’d advise you to make sure you’ve learn not less than a couple of different performs in Shakespeare’s canon earlier than visiting the Dane, as Hamlet is in some ways a extra advanced and complex piece of writing than a few of Shakespeare’s early works.

#4 Othello 

Othello and Iago, protagonist and antagonist on this Venetian play, are two of Shakespeare’s biggest characters, and the scenes that includes these two alone on stage are a number of the greatest scenes for actors to organize and carry out. This can be a play about jealousy, vengeance, popularity and prejudice. It’s to not be missed.

#5 Julius Caesar 

Take a step into Historical Rome on the time of Julius Caesar – a metropolis and an empire in fixed turmoil as democracy finds its toes. The worry of tyrannical rule is rife on this society, and from this worry a conspiracy to assassinate an emperor is hatched. On this play Shakespeare asks a query of his viewers: “What occurs within the vacuum of an assassinated chief?” An incredible play stuffed with nice characters that is one to learn a bit of additional into your profession as a reader of Shakespeare, because the plot and the context of Shakespeare’s Rome could be a little tougher to entry with out studying up on the given circumstances of the story first.

From there, go whichever means you want with the Tragedies. In case you’d like to remain in Rome, head on over to Shakespeare’s first revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus (and examine it with the sophistication of Hamlet!) then transfer on to the Colossal tales of Antony and Cleopatra or Coriolanus. Otherwise you may prefer to sort out King Lear – an exceptionally lovely, mystical story that includes a few of Shakespeare’s most advanced circumstances and characters. 


Take a break from all of the tragedy and have amusing. Head on over to this listing of comedies from Shakespeare’s canon. Now, ‘Comedy’ because it pertains to Shakespeare doesn’t essentially imply ‘humorous’, not less than not in the best way the phrase comedy correlates with humour for us immediately. Shakespearean comedies are tales of forbidden love and marriage, foppish characters and great wit. These tales typically function magic or extraordinary circumstances of shipwrecks, final minute glad endings and unions between sworn enemies. 

Shakespeare’s Comedies

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

The place can we begin with this listing?

Comedies, First Reads:

#1 A Midsummer Night time’s Dream 

A function of our newbie’s listing, AMSND (forgive my abbreviation, it’s a protracted title to kind) is Shakespeare’s hottest and incessantly carried out play. I don’t assume there has ever been a time since its creation {that a} manufacturing of AMSND hasn’t been on in a theater or backyard through the summer time months someplace on the planet. With three interweaving plot strains, AMSND is Shakespeare at his best, while nonetheless being accessible and comprehensible.

#2 Twelfth Night time 

Twelfth Night time is pretty distinctive in Shakespeare’s canon in that it’s a play which is pushed by relationships fairly than occasions. Shakespeare focuses on the characters of this play, fairly than a inflexible plot or thematics. This was the second play of Shakespeare’s I used to be ever concerned with, and it holds a really expensive place in my coronary heart. It’s an amazing play to learn and expertise early on in your investigation of The Bard’s works. 

#3 The Service provider of Venice 

To reiterate, ‘comedy’ in Shakespearean and early dramatic phrases doesn’t imply the identical factor it means to us as a contemporary viewers. Comedy was involved with sure plot guidelines or constructions, like star crossed lovers and oppressive villains and glad endings. The Service provider of Venice isn’t a play we might name a comedy by immediately’s requirements. Significantly given the occasions of the 20th century, The Service provider of Venice now can not and shouldn’t be checked out with out severe consideration of the themes of antisemitism and prejudice current inside the play. That being mentioned, this play accommodates one of the vital extraordinary and complicated characters in Shylock, and the ‘courtroom scene’ in the direction of the tip of the play nonetheless stands as one of many biggest scenes in drama.

#4 A lot Ado About Nothing 

Delving deeper into Shakespeare’s comedies we now come to A lot Ado About Nothing – a play extra advanced for its wordplay and its themes than its characters and occasions. On this play you’ll discover Beatrice and Benedick, who’re important characters so as to add to your comedic repertoire. 

#5 The Taming of the Shrew 

Like The Service provider of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew has develop into increasingly more closely scrutinised as time has handed. An extremely problematic play by way of immediately’s eyes, this can be a play to learn not essentially for its sophistication as a star alone piece, however as a sophisticated train in studying Shakespeare. This train would require you not solely to learn and perceive the textual content itself, however to develop opinions in regards to the textual content – what Shakespeare’s authentic intentions had been and why it has the popularity it now has. Does this play have a spot in public efficiency immediately? Or is it a play greatest left on the shelf to assemble mud? You resolve.


Shakespeare, like all good writers, was an avid reader. He was a lover of historical past, and wrote performs about British historical past for the leisure of his audiences, but in addition doubtlessly to defame or glorify a present or earlier monarch. As a author Shakespeare was a businessman, in fact, and we must always not separate intention – whether or not for popularity or monetary acquire – from his works.

Shakespeare’s Histories

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

Eleven performs, which of them ought to we prioritise?

For this style I consider there’s a less complicated strategy. Each Henry IV and Henry VI are performs damaged up into a number of sections, however for the sake of this text let’s name them the one play. To realize a classy understanding of Shakespeare’s canon of historical past performs, I feel you must learn his chronicle of The Wars of the Roses. This sequence of performs spans from Richard the Second, by way of all three Henry performs, and finishes with Richard the Third:

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

On this chronicle we’ve got well-known strains like “For God’s sake, allow us to sit upon the bottom. And inform unhappy tales of the loss of life of kings;” from Richard II, “As soon as extra unto the breach” and “We few, we glad few, we band of brothers” from Henry V and “Now’s the winter of our Discontent” from Richard III. There’s a wealth of great scenes, characters and occasions in these performs.

These performs, extra so than the comedies and tragedies, are fairly dense. They’re traditionally based mostly, so they could require you to search for the context and setting of the performs and particular person scenes. I’d extremely advise studying these performs with a information, with a carried out model or with different actors. Most significantly, take your time. Learn one scene at a time and provides your self time to digest. These performs aren’t going anyplace, they’ll stick round so that you can take the time you might want to learn them. 

In case you end these 5 performs and are craving extra, head on over to King John – a splendidly obscure play set in medieval England, this play could be your flag publish of your experience as a reader of Shakespeare.

Conclusion: Over to you!

I’ve, in fact, missed lots of the distinctive performs in these three lists of 5 performs from Shakespeare’s tragedies, comedies and histories. This isn’t a sign of the shortage of sophistication within the unlisted performs, they’re just a bit additional down the listing of what I’d recommend you to prioritise when working your means by way of his canon. Listed here are these lists as soon as once more:


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


  1. A Midsummer Night time’s Dream
  2. Twelfth Night time
  3. The Service provider of Venice
  4. A lot Ado About Nothing
  5. The Taming of the Shrew

Historical past:

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

Bear in mind, this can be a marathon, not a dash. Take your time and prioritise the standard of your studying over the amount. Soar from style to style as you see match, and comply with your curiosity and enthusiasm as you learn.

And please, when you’re properly entrenched on the planet of Shakespeare, go off the overwhelmed observe and check out one thing totally different. Learn Cymbeline – the fairytale-like story from early Britain that includes a implausible feminine main position. Learn The Tempest: Shakespeare’s final play, and see how he chooses to complete his profession as a author. The extra you learn, the extra it is possible for you to to learn. You’ll come to see the patterns and progress of Shakespeare as a author, and improve your talent as a reader and a dramatist.




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