Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Shakespeare's Plays: Popular and Unpopular

Shakespeare's Popular Plays

Richard III

Henry IV, part 1

Henry V

The Comedy of Errors

The Taming of the Shrew

A Midsummer Night's Dream

The Merchant of Venice

As You Like It

Much Ado About Nothing

Twelfth Night

The Merry Wives of Windsor

Romeo and Juliet

Julius Caesar

Hamlet

Othello

King Lear

Macbeth

Antony and Cleopatra

The Tempest

Shakespeare's Unpopular Plays

Henry VI, part 1

Henry VI, part 2

Henry VI, part 3

King John

Richard II

Henry IV, part 2

Henry VIII

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Love's Labor's Lost

All's Well That Ends Well

Measure For Measure

Titus Andronicus

Troilus and Cressida

Timon of Athens

Coriolanus

Pericles

Cymbeline

The Winter's Tale

The Two Noble Kinsmen

Oddly enough, the count comes out 19-19.

The hardest play to categorize was Two Gentlemen of Verona, a borderline play; it is either the most popular of the unpopular plays or the least popular of the popular plays. Another borderline play is Richard II. Measure For Measure is in the gray area. The Winter's Tale has its partisans, especially among critics who are more sensitive to the poetry than playgoers, but it must go in the unpopular category.

I confess, putting Henry IV, part 1 in the popular category might be wishful thinking, as it is my favorite play by Shakespeare (an admittedly idiosyncratic opinion). Henry IV, part 1 does not get produced nearly as much as it should, probably because the female roles are quite small and most theatre companies have some actresses they need to keep happy. Also I think people are confused and intimidated by all the numbers in the history plays. People feel they have to go back to school to understand the history plays. What gets overlooked is that Henry IV, part 1 has a brilliant structure and the best climax in all of Shakespeare. It has one of the greatest comic characters ever written (Falstaff), a tragic character (Hotspur) and a romantic character (Prince Hal). Each character plays a variation on the theme of honor.

Of the unpopular plays, at least six are thought to be collaborations with other playwrights. Our current age seems to devalue collaboration. Most of the unpopular plays have weak or episodic plots. People want a tight, entertaining story more than anything.

None of Shakespeare's unpopular plays is entirely without interest, especially when you look at them as poems rather than stage plays. Personally, the plays I would most like to see or be in are in the unpopular category. I'm thoroughly sick of Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet.

Popularity changes over time. Pericles was one of Shakespeare's most popular plays in the 17th century, and among the first to be revived when the theatres reopened in the Restoration; today it is one of the Bard's least known plays. Coriolanus was popular into the 19th century, but the rise of egalitarianism in the 20th century has made the elitist hero unpopular. Titus Andronicus was first denounced by a critic in 1687, remained unpopular for the next two and a half centuries and is only now gaining some popularity.

5 comments:

GWB said...

What's your opinion of Troilus and Cressida? Have you read Chaucer's poetic version, Troilus and Criseyde?

Personally, I found Chaucer's version quite engaging despite the Christian narrator inserting himself to decry how badly the lovers deserved their fate because they were pre-Christian sinners, and must admit to never having read Shakespeare's take on the story.

Myrhaf said...

I have not read Chaucer, but I've read Troilus and Cressida and seen it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I believe it is Shakespeare's most cynical play. All the majesty and heroism of Homer is reduced to squalidness and bickering. One of the most important characters is Thersites, a slanderous pimp. He says "All the argument is a whore and a cuckold." He and the play reduce the Iliad to a whore (Helen) and a cuckold (Menelaus). The play is certainly among the most unpleasant products of Shakespeare's pen.

Ana Milo said...

I am picking out a monologue to perform at a competition and they hate when Shakespeare is performed because it is always the same common monologues. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on which play would have a strong female monologue that isnt popular or common.

Myrhaf said...

My advice on monologues:

Don't settle for the first monologue that seems okay. You want a piece to which you have a strong personal response -- one that shows you at your best. This is a problem I have had over the years, although I now have good monologues of Dogberry and Polonius.

It's okay to have a somewhat common monologue if it shows you at your best. But the more common the piece, the more powerful your acting must be. Unless you have a brilliant new take on Portia's courtroom speech, you want to stay away from it.

Schedule at least 10 hours over the next month looking for monologues. If you can do an hour a day, that's 30 hours. Thumb through all of Shakespeare's plays looking for female monologues. Be sure to check out Winter's Tale, which has a lot of women's roles.

When I was young, I was determined to pick an obscure monologue for a regional audition in San Francisco. This turned out to be a mistake. The only comment I got was that I could have chosen a better monologue. The judges were not impressed by obscurity.

Rachel said...

What would you say is THE least popular play of Shakespeare's? (Or if it is tied between a few, you could give me the top five least popular or even better top three)

Also do you know if Shakespeare have a personal favorite play? (out of his own plays)

Thanks :)