10 Lesser-Known Shakespeare Plays
Shakespeare’s cultural position is pretty secure. He doesn’t need to be rescued from obscurity. Yet certain plays tend to dominate bookshelves, stages, and classrooms, leaving many others largely unread and unperformed. It’s an undeniable pleasure to read—and re-read—major works, and King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth are called Shakespeare’s “major tragedies” just to remind us of their major-ness. But there is much to be gained by turning our attention to plays that might not be quite so major. This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and he would probably like us all to set aside Henry V and read something like Titus Andronicus, which was incredibly popular in its day. So here are some suggestions for great “minor Shakespeare.”
1. TITUS ANDRONICUS
Shakespeare wrote this Roman play early in his career, and it was almost universally critically loathed until the last few decades. It’s so absurdly, gruesomely over-the-top that some critics simply couldn’t believe that he had written it. But of course Shakespeare loves gore. There are severed heads aplenty, a woman who is raped and has her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, a cannibalistic revenge banquet, and a man who is buried “breast-deep in earth” (5.3.178) and left to starve. It’s also an incredibly smart, allusive play—Shakespeare positively cannibalizes the classical tradition, breaking it into fragments and claiming it for his own purposes, just as the play’s human bodies are broken apart.
2. TIMON OF ATHENS
Thanks to Nicholas Hytner’s 2012 production at the National Theatre in London with Simon Russell Beale, more than 10 people on the planet have now heard of Timon of Athens. The production was lauded for its topicality: The play’s treatment of a generous, wasteful, and ultimately ruined Athenian resonated with capitalism’s current excesses, and Timon struck audiences as a familiar figure. Abandoned by his false friends and disgusted by society, he embraces misanthropy in a manner that makes Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing look like Paul Newman. On a side note: Like Titus Andronicus, this play involves another dinner party gone wrong. (The most famous Shakespearean dinner party gone wrong is, of course, in Macbeth: Lady Macbeth is awfully embarrassed by her husband’s horrified reaction to Banquo’s ghost.)
Ralph Fiennes’s 2011 film increased this play’s visibility, but it remains a minor tragedy in comparison to Shakespeare’s other Roman plays that are also based on Plutarch: Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar (which everyone seems to read in high school). But this is also quite a current play, for it examines the failure to integrate a returned soldier into society. Othello is a returned war hero, and Henry V anticipates the heroic return of his soldiers in his famous St. Crispin’s Day speech. But Coriolanus presents a more fraught vision of this figure: As the ultimate warrior, conditioned to violence and unsuited to civic life, he’s unable to make this transition and turns on his people.
4. HENRY VI, PARTS 1, 2, AND 3
I came to love these plays through Edward Hall’s 2001 all-male production Rose Rage, which conflated the plays into a single violent saga set in an abattoir. I still remember the sound of the actors sharpening their knives for the carnage that ensued. The epilogue of Henry V informs the audience that his son “lost France and made his England bleed, / Which oft our stage hath shown,” gesturing forward in historical time and backward in theatrical time: As Shakespeare wrote the Henry VI plays before Henry V, he’s reminding his audience that they may have seen them. These violent plays drop you right into the horrors of civil war, not unlike Richard III, but here there’s no charismatically entertaining monster of a king—just the chaos of a nation struggling with itself.
5. HENRY VIII
In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), the charmingly loutish Henry Crawford reads Henry VIII out loud. His reading is so dramatic that it utterly floors the novel’s heroine Fanny Price and leads Henry and Edmund Bertram to discuss the importance of reading and “talking” Shakespeare for any good Englishman. In fact, the play was performed by some of England’s most famous actors in the 18th and 19th centuries, which may partly account for its appeal to Austen’s characters. But Henry VIII has always had an interesting history on stage: During one of the play’s first performances in 1613, a cannon was fired into the thatched roof of the Globe Theatre and burned it to the ground. Ammunition aside, it’s also a co-authored play—Shakespeare wrote it with John Fletcher—so it offers a window into the collaborative writing practices of the London stage in the 16th and early 17th centuries. (Working together like this was not at all rare, and Timon of Athens is possibly a collaboration, as well.)
6. TROILUS AND CRESSIDA
“Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Although there is some debate as to who actually said this, there’s no question as to its truth. Comedy is hard. It’s hard because it’s so connected to its own cultural moment, and it’s hard because jokes don’t always translate well over time. It’s also hard because comedy focuses not only on communities, but also on their conflicts, so things often seem, well, tense. Troilus and Cressida is hard, but it’s worth the effort. Considered a dark comedy or satire, it reimagines the Trojan War not as a heroic undertaking, but as a debased and ridiculous brawl between petty players. The play shatters not only the values of classical war culture, but also the medieval chivalric ethos that endured in nostalgic form in the Renaissance. And the insults are incredible: At one point, Thersites refers to Achilles as “thou picture of what thou seemest, and idol of idiot-worshippers” and “thou full dish of fool” (5.1.6-9). So there.
7. THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
In Twelfth Night, we get one set of twins—Viola and Sebastian—who are separated by a shipwreck at the beginning of the play and eventually reunited. But the hijinx of one set of twins is nothing compared to two. The Comedy of Errors, an adaptation of Plautus’ classical comedy Menaechmi, was itself adapted into the 1988 film Big Business with Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin (and partly set at the Plaza Hotel). Plautus and Shakespeare understood that there’s an undeniable pleasure in watching people get all mixed up and then sorted out again, but The Comedy of Errors also raises more serious questions about the nature of identity and the cultural anxieties that surround twins. As the Duke puts it, “One of these men is genius to the other; / And so of these, which is the natural man, / And which the spirit?” (5.1.332-334).
8. THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA
Often dismissed as an immature play penned by an inexperienced dramatist, The Two Gentlemen of Verona is actually quite smart. It’s a great play for thinking about what Northrop Frye referred to as the “green world” of comedy: a wilderness where characters escape the strictures of society and courtly life to live freely and pursue their romantic desires. The green world eventually allows for the restoration of harmony out of discord, which means that all the young people need to get married. The forests in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It are more familiar green worlds. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the hero Valentine is asked to be the captain of a band of outlaws in the wilderness. He nobly accepts, saying, “I take your offer, and will live with you, / Provided that you do no outrages / On silly women or poor passengers” (4.1.70-73). So that was thoughtful of him.
The Tempest is the best-known of Shakespeare’s “late romances,” which tend to feature lost and found characters, journeys and adventures, the supernatural, and terrifying and threatening landscapes. (With regards to terrifying and threatening landscapes, The Winter’s Tale, another late romance, is known for the macabre stage direction “Exit pursued by a bear.” The pursued character does not fare well.) The late romances are notable for their young heroines—like Miranda in The Tempest—and in this play, Imogen endures trials and tribulations, defends her chastity, and proves that she can deal with just about anything. At one point, she has the distinct misfortune of waking up next to a headless corpse dressed as her husband Posthumus, but luckily it turns out to be the villain Cloten.
10. PERICLES, PRINCE OF TYRE
This collaborative play really enjoys losing characters and then finding them. A romance is nothing without a shipwreck, and when poor Pericles washes up on the shore of Pentapolis after such a disaster, he’s rescued by a group of fishermen and then promptly goes on to win a tournament at court—and the hand of the king’s daughter Thaisa. She also ends up lost, as does their daughter Marina, but in time these things are sorted out. This is the great thing about romance: What is broken can be fixed, and what is lost can be found—even if it takes a long time. (There is a notable exception in The Winter’s Tale, in which a child dies, and he’s really dead; he does not come back.) Romances are moving in their dedication to reunions and wish fulfillment, but they’re also highly artificial, so they remind you, rather melancholically, that such things are rarely possible in life.