1. Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1600). The most famous play ever written, Hamlet tells the story of a melancholic prince charged with avenging the murder of his father at the hands of his uncle, who then married his mother and, becoming King of Denmark, robbed Hamlet of the throne. Told the circumstances of this murder and usurpation by his father’s ghost, Hamlet is plunged deep into brilliant and profound reflection on the problems of existence, which meditations delay his revenge at the cost of innocent lives. When he finally acts decisively, Hamlet takes with him every remaining major character in a crescendo of violence unmatched in Shakespearean theater.
2. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605, 1615). Considered literature’s first great novel, Don Quixote is the comic tale of a dream- driven nobleman whose devotion to medieval romances inspires him to go in quest of chivalric glory and the love of a lady who doesn’t know him. Famed for its hilarious antics with windmills and nags, Don Quixote offers timeless meditations on heroism, imagination, and the art of writing itself. Still, the heart of the book is the relationship between the deluded knight and his proverb- spewing squire, Sancho Panza. If their misadventures illuminate human folly, it is a folly redeemed by simple love, which makes Sancho stick by his mad master “no matter how many foolish things he does.”
3. King Lear by William Shakespeare (1605). Considered one of Shakespeare’s four “core tragedies”—with Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth—King Lear commences with Lear, having achieved great age but little wisdom, dividing his kingdom among his three daughters in return for their proclamations of love for him. Two of his daughters, evil to the core, falsely profess their love, while Cordelia, his good and true daughter, refuses his request. Enraged, Lear gives his kingdom to his evil daughters and banishes Cordelia. Lear pays a dear price for this rash act. The play systematically strips him of his kingdom, title, retainers, clothes, and sanity in a process so cruel and unrelenting as to be nearly unendurable.
4. Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1606). The shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth runs along at breakneck speed, elevating Macbeth from Thane of Glamis to Thane of Cawdor to King of Scotland in two brief acts. It explores the psychology of ambition, abetted by supernatural forces, as Macbeth and his wife — one of the few successful marriages in the Shakespearean canon — engineer the murder of King Duncan and Macbeth’s usurpation of the Scottish throne. The pleasures of kingship are rare and brief, however, as the past comes to haunt the future, in ways obscurely prophesied by three witches, and Macbeth is brought down with a terrible swiftness matched only by the speed of his ascent.
5. Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667). Recasting the biblical story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, this epic poem details Satan’s origins, his desire for revenge, his transformation into the serpent, and his seduction of Eve. The poem extends our understanding of Christian myth in lush and challenging language. Though Milton seeks to explain “the ways of God to man,” he gives Satan — “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” — the best lines.
6. The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1610). The happy peace that Prospero, a powerful magician and former Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda share on an enchanted island is broken when a group of Prospero’s former enemies and friends is shipwrecked there. Through the services of his two servants, the base Caliban, to whom the island had originally belonged, and the sprite Ariel, Prospero exacts revenge upon his stranded enemies while engineering the marriage of his daughter to a young nobleman. Anticipating themes that would inform colonial and postcolonial literature — usurpation, bondage, rebellion — this was Shakespeare’s last play without a collaborator.
7. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (1595). The story of star-crossed Veronese lovers, this early romantic tragedy painfully depicts the fatal course of young lovers ruined by circumstances beyond their control, belonging as they do to two families who hate each other for long forgotten reasons. The intense violence at the heart of the play is matched only by the intense passion of Romeo and Juliet, who pay the ultimate price for the brief, intense, and pure love they shared.
8. Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (1606). One of Shakespeare’s late Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra has a sense of fading grandeur about it, as the great warrior Antony succumbs to the exotic luxuries of Egypt and the heady sexual powers of her queen Cleopatra, thus neglecting his duties to Rome. The play has a kind of baroque richness to both plot and language as Antony and Cleopatra delight in seclusion while the Roman forces opposing them, led by the sober and ambitious Octavius Caesar, close in on the lovers. Cornered, the emperor and queen bring the play to a suicidal climax that exquisitely fuses sexual pleasure and death.
9. The Plays of Molière (1622–73). Even those who generally find French literature inscrutable enjoy Molière. Tartuffe, for example, the Christian hypocrite who attempts to seduce a young virgin, inhabits the same plane of immortality as Falstaff or Don Quixote. Molière’s comedy ranges from slapstick (The Doctor in Spite of Himself is as silly, and funny, as a Punch and Judy show) to the social satire of his greatest play, The Misanthrope, in which a man’s vow never to lie collides with society’s need for “white lies.” Molière impartially mocks both sides.
10. Henry V by William Shakespeare (1599). The final play in the Second Henriad (with Henry IV, Parts I and II), Henry V is, ostensibly, a celebration of Henry’s victory over his archenemy, the French, at Agincourt in 1415. Henry thus construed is a great national hero. But the play actually subverts, or at least compromises, such a reading. We see Henry collude with the church to prosecute a vicious campaign for nationalistic, rather than necessary, reasons. The brave king broods on the burdens of kingship and the righteousness of his cause, but then casually orders the slaughter of French prisoners. The epilogue looks forward to the reign of Henry VI, who lost all that Henry V gained and more, as if to question the worth of all this killing.
10 (tie). Othello, The Moor of Venice by William Shakespeare (1604). Othello centers on the black general of the Venetian army and his white wife, Desdemona, daughter of a Venetian senator. A brave and successful warrior essential to the security of Venice, Othello is extremely susceptible to jealousy, a weakness exploited by the villain Iago, whom Othello passes over for a lieutenancy in favor of another. Iago’s swift and lethal revenge is as brilliant to behold as it is terrible to watch, as good and innocent people die at the hands of a demonic genius in a play that refuses to satisfy the expectation that tragedy must reward virtue and punish vice.