Shakespeare: Where should I start?

I find myself wondering about Shakespeare these days. I mean, how dare I to ignore the literary giant whose name has become a synonym for poetry? To be honest, I haven’t opened a Shakespearean play since high school, and even then I only read his three famous tragedies: Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet. I remember liking Macbeth the best, because of the twisty plot, bloody intrigues and spooky witches. I think it’s about time for me to get a little more familiar with his other great works. But of course my initial reaction is to find a structured approach to reading such an enormous oeuvre. This is how the plays in the Shakespeare’s First Folio are organized:

Cobbe_portrait_of_ShakespeareComedies

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

Histories

15 King John
16 Richard II
17 Henry IV, Part 1
18 Henry IV, Part 2
19 Henry V
William_Shakespeare_Chandos_Portrait20 Henry VI, Part 1
21 Henry VI, Part 2
22 Henry VI, Part 3
23 Richard III
24 Henry VIII

Tragedies

25 Troilus and Cressida
26 Coriolanus
27 Titus Andronicus
28 Romeo and Juliet
29 Timon of Athens
30 Julius Caesar
31 Macbeth
32 Hamlet
33 King Lear
34 Othello
35 Antony and Cleopatra
36 Cymbeline

Some sources recommend to start with histories as an introduction, then comedies, and then finally tragedies. While not commenting on the rest, histories are advised to be read in historical order of their contents. Where do sonnets fit into all of these? Should I read them first, or save them for last? Some people prefer to follow the publication order and rely on that as a guide. I do realize that there is really no specific system to reading Shakespeare, but it would be tremendous help to me to actually have a plan I can stick to. Any suggestions?

6 comments

  1. If you liked Macbeth (as I did), maybe read Othello next? It’s excellent. The Taming of the Shrew is really good and really controversial. You’ll see why!! I very much want to read Richard III and The Merchant of Venice. I read the Sonnets right after Hamlet — it was only my second book by Shakespeare, and I found it very (very) good. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is much funnier than I expected.

    I can see a reason to read the histories in order, but honestly, I think you should pick the rest as you’re pulled to them. Maybe borrow a Shakespeare guide from the library? Something like this? It contains spoilers — but it also helps you realize where to begin by letting you see the whole Shakespeare collection and judge for yourself where to start.

  2. Here’s a really great blog about a (quite friendly) reader poring through Shakespeare.

  3. I’ve had a plan to read all of Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order for, like, years. I got stuck on Taming of the Shrew, which is an absolute catastrophe of a play and makes me want to shake Shakespeare until his teeth rattle. Maybe try reading plays in groups of three — like, a good comedy, a less-good play, and then a good history or tragedy (Twelfth Night, Coriolanus, Richard III, for instance)? That way you won’t have any long spates of reading the dull ones.

    Or another thing you could do maybe is get some recordings of the plays and listen to those! I have a big BBC radio thing of the Complete Works of Shakespeare that’s pretty great, and I can get a better sense of the flow of the play when I’m hearing it performed.

  4. Thank you Mabel, that is quite an array of ideas you offered there! I will definitely need some sort of companion borrowed to make my reading more thorough. I don’t mind spoilers in this case, since I know at least a general idea behind the majority of his works. I can’t wait to get to know Will better as soon as I’m caught up on everything else.

  5. I definitely agree that one absolutely has to listen to Shakespeare being performed at least once. I’m gonna research a bit more on that. And thank you for suggestions. I will keep them in mind when I sit down to draft out my reading plan.

  6. […] Do you have any advice for an aspiring Shakespeare reader? Which books to start with? Which to avoid? | Tasseled Book Blog […]

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