We move onto the tragedies which are among Shakespeare’s better known plays. Unlike comedies, the definition of “tragedy” hasn’t really changed much since Shakespeare’s time. You have a hero with a goal and a fatal flaw. But every time the hero overcomes an obstacle, they just make the situation worse. And eventually they do something stupid or make a bunch of dumb mistakes that makes their chances of happiness impossible and most likely die. But not before suffering a stressful heightened situation, ultimate ruin, or destroying everyone or everything they love. Shakespeare’s tragedies often have heavily symbolic, multilayered plots that clearly juxtaposed good and evil. Such elements are combined with the kind of psychological complexity that only a terribly unhappy character can put across, and you can see why modern audiences tend to appreciate the tragedies more than their earlier counterparts. Still, Shakespeare’s tragic titled characters usually die and they usually don’t tend to be heroic. In fact, some of them tend to be huge jerks or worse. However, you’re probably more familiar with some of these since you probably had at least read a few of these in high school.
20. Antony and Cleopatra
Genre: Historical, Tragedy, Romance
Plot: Focuses on the tragic fall of Roman general and triumvirs (a joint leader after Caesar’s assassination) Mark Antony who’s seduced by the Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII. He spends much of the play ignoring his duties while living with Cleopatra in Alexandria. Meanwhile Caesar’s nephew and fellow triumvir Octavius isn’t pleased because Rome’s involved in a war with Pompey (no, not that Pompey) and could really use his help. So Antony leaves for Rome, not realizing that Octavius is jealous of his distinction and wants to get rid of him after the war is over. Meanwhile, Cleo pines and beats up a messenger who proclaims that Antony has married Octavia. The plot gets more complicated from there with a lot of stuff happening. But since this is history, I’ll cut to the chase. So anyway, Pompey is crushed and accepts a truce but later, Octavius and Lepidus break it which makes Antony pissed. Antony returns to Alexandria, proclaims he and Cleopatra rulers of Egypt and a third of the Roman Republic while Octavius imprisons Lepidus, turns on Antony, and the two fight a war. Then there’s the Battle of Actium where Cleopatra flees with 60 ships and where Octavius tells Antony to give up already. Antony loses another battle which results in his troops deserting him and him denouncing Cleopatra. Cleopatra decides to win back his love by faking a suicide and locking herself in a monument, thinking he’ll come back to her in remorse. However, her plan fails since word of her “death” leads Antony to decide that his live isn’t worth living so he stabs himself. Fortunately, he learns she’s alive and dies in her arms. After that, Octavius tries to get Cleopatra to surrender but she angrily refuses so she’s captured. So she commits suicide to retain her dignity.
Plot Origin: Based on Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Putarch’s Lives. Nevertheless, while Cleopatra died in her 30s, Mark Antony was significantly older than her.
Who Falls In Love: Well, Mark Antony and Cleopatra for starters though in real life it’s hard to say since Cleopatra’s use of sex had more to do with protecting her realm and Antony needed a strong ally. And being a Ptolemy, Cleopatra fits the bill to a tee. Still, we’re not sure if they’re really in love or they’re just giving into a passionate lust. Either way, what they have for each other is destructive.
Who Dies: Antony (bungled suicide through stabbing himself), Cleopatra (poison snake), Enobarbus who dies from despair after betraying Antony, Antony’s servant Eros who’d rather kill himself than his master and does, Sextus Pompey (for refusing to kill his enemies while they’re in a vulnerable position like drunk), Antony’s wife Fulvia (Octavius killed her before the play even starts), and a bunch of soldiers since it takes place during a war.
Reputation: You may not see it performed very often, but scholars still talk about this one since Wikipedia has tons of space dedicated to its analysis and criticism. However, they all agree that Cleopatra is by far the most complex female character in the Shakespearean canon and is portrayed as a captivating femme fatale as well as the skilled leader she really was. And the fact that a lot of the characters tend to be ambiguous. We’re not sure whether Cleo kills herself over her love for Antony or her lost power. And Octavius could be seen as either a noble ruler only wanting what’s best for Rome or a ruthless politician who only wants power for himself. Power dynamics, betrayal, and politics are other themes. Nevertheless, it’s seen as one of the better Shakespearean plays out there and perhaps one of the Bard’s most underrated. Still, there’s a 1972 movie adaptation directed and starring Charlton Heston.
Published: Between 1605 and 1608
Plot: Caius Martius is given the name Coriolanus after his more than adequate military success against various uprisings. While he is certainly brilliant, he’s arrogant and contemptuous of ordinary people that when we first meet him, he’s already being blamed for taking grain from the army which has led to food riots. As others try to calm the situation, Coriolanus that commoners aren’t worthy of grain since they haven’t done any military service. Soon after Coriolanus receives his reward, he becomes active in politics and seeks political leadership. However, not only is his temperament unsuited for the job, but two of his opponents conspire a popular uprising that gets him quickly deposed and kicked out of Rome after he made a bitter speech of how democracy sucks. In revenge Coriolanus offers his services to his old defeated enemies where they march onto Rome with the city at his mercy. But his wife and mom persuade him to spare Rome and he’s eventually murdered by Aufidius for his betrayal and that Coriolanus is much more popular than him.
Plot Origin: Largely based on the “Life of Coriolanus” in Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives as well as other sources.
Who Falls In Love: Well, he’s married with a kid but I don’t think they get into much detail on that relationship.
Who Dies: Well, Coriolanus as well as a bunch of other soldiers and hungry poor people.
Reputation: Well, while it has been critically praised by scholars, critics, and writers, but it hasn’t been performed as often as some of the other Shakespearean plays mostly because Coriolanus is perhaps the least sympathetic Shakespearean protagonist and despite the name, isn’t a comedic figure at all. It was also banned in France during the 1930s and in Post WWII Germany. Made in to a movie with Ralph Fiennes in 2011. Nevertheless, Suzanne Collins must be familiar with this play since President Snow’s first name is Coriolanus who sees nothing wrong with exploiting his people and gets deposed by a popular uprising engineered by another power hungry politician.
Plot: Prince Hamlet of Denmark whose dad is dead from mysterious circumstances while his uncle Claudius has become king and his new stepfather, a fact which the young prince isn’t at all pleased. And to make matters worse, his dad’s ghost appears telling Hamlet that Claudius killed him in order to get the throne. So Hamlet decides to take revenge by taking some course of actions including staging a play depicting the murder and justifying it through faking insanity. But as the play progresses, we’re not sure if Hamlet is really faking it. Nor are we sure as to why he doesn’t just kill his uncle right after it becomes apparent that he did kill his dad which he confesses while he’s in prayer because he doesn’t want him to go to heaven. Seriously, it didn’t take much time for him to kill Polonius through a curtain. That way, it would’ve saved a lot of trouble like King Claudius trying to send Hamlet to England with a letter that the king kill him which he foiled by giving it to idiots Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Or Claudius telling Laertes that Hamlet is solely responsible for his dad’s death and his sister’s madness (as well as her eventually suicide by drowning). Because when Hamlet comes home, Claudius puts on a banquet designed for this purpose which leads to the deaths of almost everyone who’s left.
Plot Origin: Derived from the legend of Amleth, preserved by 13th-century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum. But the story is a lot different with Hamlet killing his uncle and becoming king, only to die in battle shortly afterwards. Also, in that story, Gertrude was forced to marry Claudius.
Who Falls In Love: Well, Ophelia is certainly in love with Hamlet but it’s ambiguous whether he’s in love with her. Not to mention, we’re not sure about Claudius and Gertrude’s relationship either though he seems to love her even if he doesn’t care for his nephew all too much.
Who Dies: Well, Hamlet’s dad before the play starts, Polonius who Hamlet stabs through a curtain, Rozencrantz and Guildenstern through Hamlet sending a letter with them which gets them killed, Ophelia who goes mad and commits suicide via drowning herself, Gertrude through drinking a goblet of poison that was meant for Hamlet, Claudius through Hamlet stabbing him, and Laertes and Hamlet engaged in a sword fight in which they kill each other. Thus, the only characters left are Horatio and Fortinbras.
Reputation: This perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays and perhaps one of the most influential works in literature and among the most quoted works in the English language. It’s been performed on stage and adapted onscreen numerous times as well as inspired numerous authors. If there’s a work that could be seen as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, this would probably be it.
23. Julius Caesar
Genre: Historical, Tragedy
Plot: This should really be called “Marcus Brutus” since he’s the main character in this anyway. Now Brutus is such a scrupulously honest, loyal, and patriotic statesman who’s nonetheless drawn by his friend Caius Cassius into a plot to assassinate increasingly powerful Julius Caesar. But poor Brutus is torn between his love for Caesar and his duty to Rome. And while other characters in the conspiracy have less spotless motivations, Brutus is only moved to act by his love for the Roman Republic. Then again, he could be a self-centered patrician whom Cassius flatters into betraying his former patron Caesar. But in either case, this is his tragedy and he’s the most sympathetic of the bunch. Sure Caesar is an ambitious decoy protagonist with kingly aspirations. But Mark Antony? Yes, he’s great at wooing the masses through his oratory skills so crowds can hand Caesar power. But when it comes to avenging his friend’s death, he really gets nasty that you think maybe he should chill out in Egypt with Cleopatra for awhile. Octavian? Oh, he’s just as ambitious like his uncle but he excels in the PR department so well that it takes knowledge of what happens historically afterwards (or in Antony and Cleopatra) to realize his villainy. Or what about Cassius? He’s resentful of Caesar’s power and just gets Brutus involved in the conspiracy he just wants to Brutus to be leader so he can control him. And he doesn’t care whether Brutus wants the job or not. In fact, the less he wants it the easier he thinks it will be. And the rest of Rome? Anyone who’s not a victim or a villain just ends up in mob stirred up by Mark Antony due to their fickle nature. So anyway, after Caesar’s assassination, Rome’s plunged into civil war and a number of characters from the first several acts die during the conflict, mostly through suicide.
Plot Origin: Based on Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives.
Who Falls In Love: Well, Caesar seems to like Calpurnia enough (even though he had a kid to Cleopatra). And the Brutuses seem happy together for a time that Marcus is genuinely sad about Portia dying.
Who Dies: Caesar gets assassinated, Portia kills herself off-stage, poet Cinna is murdered by a mob, Cassius, Titinus, and Brutus all commit suicide.
Reputation: One of the first Shakespeare plays to be performed at the Globe Theatre and it was quite popular during the Restoration as well as the 18th century. However, this play has a tendency to be ruined as required reading in high school since teens tend to be more concerned with Julius Caesar getting killed off in the middle than anyone as noble and good as Brutus whose tragedy this really is. Also, despite it being more straightforward than most of the Bard’s work, its austerity isn’t for 16-year-olds, anyway. Still, Mark Antony’s speech is one of the highlights of the play since it reveals he’s really pissed off about Caesar’s assassination and really gets nasty. And no, he doesn’t believe that Brutus is an honorable man. Has 3 famed movie adaptations with one from 1950 starring Charlton Heston, one from 1953 starring Marlon Brando and James Mason, and one from 1970 starring Jason Robards, Charlton Heston, and John Gielgud. Opt for the one that doesn’t have Charlton Heston since it’s the most famous.
24. King Lear
Plot: Elderly King Lear wants to abdicate and decides to divide his kingdom among his 3 daughters Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. But only if each one gives him a public acknowledgement of their love for him. Goneril and Regan kiss his ass while Cordelia calls this idea bullshit so she’s banished and sent to marry the King of France. But keep in mind, she’s the only one who truly loves him. So Goneril and Regan get a share while Lear retire only with conditions a hundred knights, the respect and title of a king, and free room and board at his daughters’ homes. But it doesn’t take long for Lear to wear out his welcome since his daughters, resentful and wary from the outset, quickly tire from the knights causing a ruckus as well as the lavish expense of keeping them on staff. And when Lear flips his lid once more and, rather than trying to compromise with them, he stubbornly denounces them. Thus, Goneril and Regan refuse to take in his knights and he’s caught in a thunderstorm as both his followers and family desert him. And only the Fool and the disguised Duke of Kent remain with him. Then there’s a sub-plot with the Earl of Gloucester who is tricked by his illegitimate son Edmund thinking his legitimate son Edgar is trying to kill him. Gloucester is duped so Edgar has to go on the run, disguising himself as a crazed hobo. Thankfully, he falls in with Lear. Meanwhile, Edmund can’t stop angsting about how the world hates him for being a bastard and he proceeds to bang both of Lear’s elder daughters (who are both married to other guys, by the way). A few deft moves soon makes him go from nothing to possibly becoming the most powerful guy in Britain. Thankfully, Cordelia’s new hubby sends some troops to Britain.
Plot Origin: It’s derived from a pre-Roman legend of Leir of Britain. First found in Geoffrey of Monmouh’s the Historia Regum Britanniae. But the original version doesn’t end tragically.
Who Falls In Love: Cordelia marries the King of France but this is political but at least he sends help and truly loves her for herself. The fact he proposes her during the most painful moment of her life doesn’t hurt either. Then there’s Edmund banging Goneril and Regan but there’s no love from that.
Who Dies: Duke of Cornwall gets killed by his servants over blinding the Duke of Gloucester (but that guy’s later killed by Regan), Cordelia is executed but Lear kills the executioner, Lear dies of despair and exhaustion, Edgar rightfully kills Edmund, Goneril commits suicide, Kent is implied to join Lear after the play, Regan is poisoned by Goneril, and Gloucester dies somehow.
Reputation: This play is one of the more extremely powerful in the Shakespeare canon that it was unpopular with critics and audiences alike because it made what was once a traditional happily ever after fairy tale ending massively depressing instead. It’s said that the ending was fully rewritten in 1681 so Cordelia survives and marries Edgar, which was more popular for over 100 years. The original King Lear didn’t get its current reputation until after WWII. Today it’s considered one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Made into a Kurosawa movie called Ran but has sons in place of daughters and Lady Kaede in the Edmund role.
Genre: Historical, Tragedy
Plot: Fresh from putting down a rebellion against King Duncan in the Scottish Highlands, Macbeth meets 3 witches who relate a series of prophecies, one of them being that he’ll rule Scotland someday. When one of the other seemingly unlikely predictions comes true, scheming and heartless Lady Macbeth convinces her husband to commit regicide and off his heirs. Well, Macbeth does just that by inviting Duncan for dinner and killing him in his sleep. But once he becomes king, both he and Lady Macbeth are driven mad by guilt. Lady Macbeth copes with hers by sleepwalking and committing suicide, which is way less destructive than how her husband deals with it. Macbeth on the other hand, just enters into a paranoid frenzy, killing everyone in sight in order to consolidate power, especially since he thinks he’s now invincible now the witches say that “none of woman born” will slay him. Well, somehow he didn’t understand that this didn’t mean what he thinks it does. He’s then overthrown and killed by MacDuff who was born through a caesarian section when it became apparent that his mom wasn’t going to survive his birth.
Plot Origin: History as well as Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1577. However, this play really plays fast with the history. While there was a real King Macbeth of Scotland, he reigned for 17 years with his rule being rather secure since he went on a trip to Rome for a time where he was blessed by the Pope. Not to mention, he’s celebrated as a generous and decent king. He also killed King Duncan in a fair fight since the latter was encroaching on his lands after a failed conquest in England. Duncan wasn’t an old king at the time either and was a tyrant and an ineffective ruler. However, James I was descended from the guy who overthrew him (Duncan’s son Malcolm) so you get play like this. As for Lady Macbeth, she had a son from a previous marriage and her name was Gruoch. Then again, with a name like Gruoch, you can understand why she’d be so evil.
Who Falls In Love: Well, Macbeth and his lady seem to have an interesting relationship. Not sure about MacDuff and his wife.
Who Dies: Duncan gets killed by Macbeth in his sleep, Lady Macbeth kills herself off stage, Banquo and MacDuff’s family are killed by Macbeth along with a bunch of others, and Macbeth is killed by MacDuff.
Reputation: It’s one of the classic Shakespearean tragedies as well as among the shortest and most violent. There’s even a lot of superstition related to this play in the backstage world of theater who think it’s cursed. Made into several movies. Nevertheless, it’s widely performed, widely adapted, and widely popular.
Plot: Othello is a Moorish general in the Venetian army who has just acquired 2 new enemies. Roderigo hates him for marrying Desdemona whom he was interested in. And Iago hates him for promoting a young man named Cassio over him. Now Iago convinces Roderigo in a plan to ruin Othello’s life by using Cassio as a patsy. But Roderigo has no idea how much Iago is willing to manipulate and backstab everyone to get his revenge. So Iago and Roderigo plant Desdemona’s handkerchief (obtained through Iago’s wife Emilia) in Cassio’s house. Othello sees this and he’s incredibly pissed. It doesn’t help that Iago goads Cassio into talking about his affair with a courtesan Bianca but whispers her name so quietly that Othello thinks they’re talking about his wife. Enraged and hurt, Othello makes Desdemona’s life miserable despite her protests that she didn’t cheat on him (which Emilia backs up) and eventually smothers her. Cassio fights of Roderigo which leads to Iago to cut up Cassio’s leg and kill Roderigo. However, after Othello kills his wife, Emilia comes forward to tell him that Iago cooked up the whole thing and Desdemona was innocent. Iago kills her. Othello stabs Iago but he refuses to explain his motives and vows to remain silent. And Othello commits suicide before he’s arrested. But Iago gets apprehended and sent to Cassio for punishment.
Plot Origin: Based on the story Un Capitano Moro (“A Moorish Captain”) by Cinthio from 1565. In this version, Othello doesn’t even have a name and it ends with Desdemona saying that interracial marriage is evil.
Who Falls In Love: Othello with Desdemona but it doesn’t turn out well. Not sure about Iago and Emilia since she seems unhappy with him, unsurprisingly. I’m sure Cassio just wants to sleep with Bianca.
Who Dies: Well, Desdemona gets smothered by Othello, Iago secretly stabs Roderigo, Emilia is killed by Iago, and Othello commits suicide. Also, I don’t think Iago has much time to live after this play.
Reputation: This play has been very popular from the very start since it has a very detailed performance record and it was one of the few that’s never been adapted or changed during the Restoration or the 18th century. Due to its varied and enduring themes of racism, love, jealousy, betrayal, revenge and repentance, this play is often performed by professional and community theater groups alike. It’s also been adapted to opera and film. However, I tend to recommend any movie on Othello that was made in recent times since it was very common for the title role to be played as black by white actors. The first black guy to play Othello was Paul Robeson in 1943. However, the play never explicitly states that Othello is black but he’s always considered the Other in Venetian society so he can be played by any guy. But if you’re a white guy playing, just play him as an Arab. Or maybe you should opt for Iago who’s seen as one the best known Shakespearean villains to date and is considered the main character of this play anyway.
27. Romeo and Juliet
Plot: Two teenagers fall in love at first sight. But their families hate each other. So they secretly get married because Juliet’s dad wants him to marry some other guy she’s not really interested in. And besides, despite being 13, her mom’s 26. But Romeo gets into a fight where Juliet’s cousin Tybalt kills his friend Mercutio. This leads to Romeo killing Tybalt so he has to skip town. Juliet decides to run away to a grotto and fake her death. Thinking she’s dead, Romeo poisons himself. After she wakes up, Juliet finds Romeo dead so she puts her knife to her chest. Grief-stricken families reconcile.
Plot Origin: Based on an Italian tale translated into verse as The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562, and retold in prose in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter in 1567. But in this version Romeo and Juliet are 16 and they don’t get married until 9 months in.
Who Falls In Love: Well, Romeo and Juliet but it doesn’t turn out well.
Who Dies: Mercutio is killed by Tybalt, Tybalt is killed by Romeo, Paris is killed by Romeo, Romeo poisons himself, Juliet stabs herself, and Lady Montague dies from grief.
Reputation: This is the most famous Shakespearean play and one of the most popular and best liked. During the English Restoration and 18th century it was heavily revised with several modified scenes and removing so-called indecent material. One version omitted much of the action and added a happy ending. Performances in the 19th century restored the original text. Opinions of this play can depend on the quality of actors seen performing it or whether one accepts the notion of love at first sight at face value. If it’s in a production involving middle aged actors who don’t look at least 30ish in the title roles, then it just doesn’t make any sense. Adapted numerous times for stage, film, musical (West Side Story), and opera. Still, kind of prefer the Nurse, Benvolio, and Mercutio. Still, as TV Tropes says, “If Romeo and Juliet was intended as condemnation of hormonal teenagers who think their first relationship is true love and go to melodramatic extremes to prove that it is love rather than simply lust, it failed horribly.” Yet, they still make kids read this in their freshman year in high school. Remember kids, this play doesn’t provide a model for a good relationship.
28. Titus Andronicus
Plot: Roman general Titus Andronicus returns to Rome with captives in tow consisting of Goth queen Tamora, her 3 sons, and her lover Aaron the Moor. Since he’s lost all but 4 of his 25 sons in the war with the Goths (don’t ask), he sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son to honor their spirits. Tamora needless to say, ain’t happy. Emperor Saturinus then chooses Tamora as his empress after his fiancée Lavinia dumps him for his brother and who happens to be Titus’s daughter. Though her surviving brothers help her escape so it’s 22 down, 3 to go. Unfortunately, Saturninus obviously was really stupid to marry Tamora for she has Bassainus killed and frames 2 of Titus’s sons for it. Still not satisfied, Tamora gets her two surviving sons to gang rape her as well as cut off her tongue and hands so she can’t tell anyone. After Titus’s two sons are found and incriminated, Aaron says they’ll be spared if Titus cuts his own hand. He does this but the two guys are beheaded anyway which hits him hard. His remaining son Lucius is banished for trying to bust his brothers out before the execution. He joins the Goths and attempts to attack Rome. With the revelation of Lavinia’s rape and horrific mutilation, Titus sinks into despair and goes nuts. But it turns out he’s faking it so he can go snooping. When he finds out that Tamora’s behind it he kills Tamora’s last two sons, cooks them in a giant pie a la Sweeny Todd, and serves them to Tamora without her knowing. The last scene is a bloody battle where Titus kills both Tamora and Lavinia (for her own good) before being killed by Saturinus which leads to Lucius committing regicide. Lucius becomes Emperor of Rome, a fair and wise ruler for all. Oh, and he buries Aaron up to his neck and lets him starved to death but he deserved it.
Plot Origin: We’re not sure where Shakespeare got his sources for this play.
Who Falls In Love: Well Roman Emperor Saturinus chooses Tamora as his bride we’re not sure if he’s over Lavinia running away from him. But marrying her really proves to be a dumb idea. Then there’s Aaron the Moor and Tamora being involved but Saturinus doesn’t seem to mind. Also, Bassainus runs off with Lavinia.
Who Dies: Well, 3 of Titus’s sons get killed, all 3 of Tamora’s sons are killed by Titus (2 made into pies), Aaron’s son is killed by Tamora’s 2 sons, a nurse is killed by Aaron, Lavinia is killed by Titus for her own good, Tamora is killed by Titus, Bassianus is killed by Tamora, Saturinus is killed by Lucius, and Aaron gets buried alive and starved by Lucius. A bunch of other soldiers die, too.
Reputation: This was Shakespeare’s first tragedy and his goriest play ever. However, while extremely popular in its day, it had fallen out of favor by the 17th century and was disapproved primarily because of what was considered to be a distasteful use of graphic violence. And for awhile it was Shakespeare’s most maligned play. But since the mid-20th century, its reputation has improved. As S. Clarke Hulse says, Titus Andronicus is a play with “14 killings, 9 of them on stage, 6 severed members, 1 rape (or 2 or 3, depending on how you count), 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity and 1 of cannibalism—an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines.” Has a 70+% death rate for named characters. Also, who knew Titus made human meat pies before Mrs. Lovett? Think of it as a Shakespearean play for anyone who’s into slasher horror movies or Quentin Tarantino. Made into a movie in 2006. In fact, Quentin Tarantino, if you want to do Shakespeare and think Macbeth isn’t violent enough, this is the play for you. Not sure about casting Samuel L. Jackson as Aaron the Moor though. Definitely not for the whole family.