Tuesday, 29 September 2009


I recently finished the extraordinarily good Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill, which I'll write about soon, but it has inspired a few quick posts. A book full of short chapters about Hill's books, reading, books in general, it provides lots of fascinating ideas for blog posts...

Towards the end of the book, Susan Hill decides to compile a list of forty books she'd choose, should she only be able to read those for the rest of her life. Not taking the get-out of Desert Island Discs, the Bible and Shakespeare's Complete Works are not givens - not, in fact, is she allowed to count all of Shakespeare's plays as one book. And so she tries to choose one...

Which led me to thinking: if I could only choose one Shakespeare play to read for the rest of my life, which would it be? Like Hill, I made a shortlist. Unlike Hill, I haven't read them all (though I have read 24 of them, so quite a few to choose from... and that number includes no history plays). Here is my shortlist:

Much Ado About Nothing
The Taming of the Shrew


All's Well That Ends Well



Some I love (like Twelfth Night) I know I would get tired of. Some I admire (i.e. The Tempest) but cannot much like. Some (The Comedy of Errors; As You Like It; Titus Adronicus...) were never in with a chance.

Which to keep. Much Ado About Nothing is my favourite Shakespeare play, but... if I had to read Beatrice and Benedict's exchanges over and over again for the rest of my life, would I still find them funny, or simply infuriating? Would Hero's silence and Claudio's willingness to marry penitently someone who looks a bit like Hero not become more ridiculous each time? Cymbeline... I love the final scene, but that's not enough to keep it. Hamlet. Hamlet, Hamlet, Hamlet. So much there, but... I still just want to shake him, and tell him to stop being a silly little boy.

In the end, I was surprised. The one to keep is not my favourite, but I have chosen... The Taming of the Shrew. Because I am continually fascinated by the question: was Katharine complicit? How should it be interpreted? So much that can be done, so many different readings, and often quite funny, to boot. Who'd have thought? I expect my choice will change in years to come. It'll be interesting to keep track.

And now, of course, over to you. Shortlists, please, and the one play you'd keep...


  1. I would probably pick Hamlet, just because I'm so fond of it, and it's nice and long, and there's so much in it. Richard III is a contender, but Richard is so obnoxious I think I'd get sick of it. Taming of the Shrew is definitely an interesting choice, and it's tempting me, but I generally prefer the tragedies to the comedies so I think my final choice would have to be Hamlet. Of course, I'm not familiar with all that many of the plays, so eventually I may have to change my mind about that.

  2. My shortlist -

    - Much Ado About Nothing: hands down favourite
    - The Tempest: I actually really like this one. Yeah, Ferdinand (or was it Fernando?)and Miranda are a bit dweeby, but it's a good play.
    - Hamlet: so evocative, so rich in themes, but not as bloody as Macbeth.
    - Taming of the Shrew: potentially dangerous if it was the only one I could read for the rest of my life.
    - Midsummer Night's Dream: I like this one in theory (fairies and all that), but it tends to annoy me.

    Don't know how this reflects on me as a person, but I think I'd choose Hamlet. Is it significant that Hamlet was the first Shakespeare I ever read?

  3. Probably Hamlet even if there a re times when I want to get hold of him and say Get a Grip.

    Romeo and Juliet might be the runner up and I also love Taming of the Shrew - so many different ways of looking at it.

  4. The Tempest, Midsummer nights dreame (spelling from the first quarto - I do understand apostrophes!), Macbeth and Julius Ceasar.

    Probably Macbeth if pushed.

  5. What an interesting choice! I have a great fondness for The Taming of the Shrew, but I wouldn't pick it. I also love Midsummer Night's Dream. But I think I would have to choose King Lear though I have never been able to read (or even, embarrassingly, teach) the final scene without bursting into tears.

  6. Oh, now, this is a toughie. My shortlist would be:

    -The Tempest, have loved it since I saw an RSC production when I was about 17.
    -Hamlet, because it's just *brilliant*
    -Love's Labour's Lost, because I think it's my favourite of the comedies.
    -The Merchant of Venice, because it's the play I *know* best, having done it at school and twice during my undergrad

    Overall: It's close, but I think it has to be Hamlet. There's just so much in it, and I pick up on different points every time.

  7. Oooh the choice! I love Macbeth but maybe it would be a dark one to read forever more. I also love Measure for Measure so that could be a contender. Also Richard II for some political intrigue, or Henry V for rousing speeches. Hmmm, difficult one... Maybe Measure for Measure.

  8. I don't like Shakespeare and I'm not ashamed to say it! He really does not interest me at all. His plays are all the same! Twins? Check. Gender swapping? Check. Random magic person/ghost? Check. Rachel yawning? Check. I know this is practically sacrilege and Shakespeare invented modern English etc etc etc but still...I would rather watch paint dry than read a play of his!

    I much prefer Christopher Marlowe and would choose Doctor Faustus over any of Shakespeare's plays!

    Though I will say that I do love Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in Much Ado About Nothing. I enjoyed studying that play at school solely because we got to watch snippets of the film every lesson!

  9. Sacrilege indeed, Rachel! Amusingly, I can't think of a single play which has all *three* of those... and in fact they are mostly in the early comedies. Try the later ones - Much Ado I see you can cope with... All's Well you might enjoy? Just ignore all the scholarly/school influences...

  10. It would have to be Romeo & Juliet, I think. Though it seems a shame not to bring one that I haven't read yet - at least that way I'd have something new to read. Maybe King Lear, in that case.

    Alternatively, She's the Man & a DVD player.

  11. Hehehe Simon! No I can't either...Maybe The Tempest?! My knowledge is not great these days!

    One day I will try again, once the memories of my compulsory Shakespeare in a year university class have faded...we had to read a play a week, sometimes more...it was painful. They all blended into one after a while...all that remains is the memory of the aforementioned twins, gender swapping and magic people!

  12. I am afraid I have to put myself in the Rachel camp, I have never really liked Shakespeare, I blame studying Romeo and Juliet at GCSE frankly!

    If I did have to pick one it would be Macbeth its one of the darkest and I think that Lady Macbeth is a fascinating character.

  13. Yeesh - tough! My favorite tragedy is Macbeth, but I'm already very familiar with it. Maybe King Lear? I haven't read it but I hear it is full of layers of meaning, and would maybe give me a lot to think over. My all-time favorite is definitely The Tempest, but I'm not sure I'd want to have all Tempest all the time. Though maybe I would enjoy the bitter irony of reading about a bunch of people trapped on an island...

  14. I think I'd pick Hamlet, because I find something new every time I read it that I didn't notice before, or something that I suddenly respond to in a different way.


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