SparkNotes Blog

Ask a Teacher: What’s Your Favorite Shakespeare Play?

Q: What’s your favorite Shakespeare play? Why?

A: This is a tough question, because it requires an exclusive answer—it’s like asking a parent who their favorite child is. The temptation is to offer a cop-out answer like “I love them all equally,” when in reality, I was obviously the favorite, and for good reason. But these questions are fun precisely because they require you to make definitive statements. Besides, thanks to Roland Emmerich, we now know that Shakespeare was actually the 17th Earl of Oxford anyway—so maybe the stakes aren’t so high, after all. Thanks, Roland, for finally revealing the shocking truth.

My favorite Shakespeare play is Macbeth. Let’s get my tastes out there front-and-center: I like the tragedies. Some of the comedies and history plays are great, don’t get me wrong, but for whatever reason, the tragedies satisfy my fix for the sublime in a way these genres achieve only sporadically. So why not choose King Lear, you ask, or Hamlet? I think they are better, more psychologically and philosophically complex plays, to be honest. But they can’t touch Macbeth for sheer, pitch-black nihilism. I mean, it is just relentlessly bleak, and it is about our attraction to that bleakness—the magnetic attraction of horror, which I saw in a recent episode of Mad Men, where everyone is looking raptly at photographs from a murder scene while also absent-mindedly (dutifully) commenting on how horrible the whole thing is. Macbeth has a leanness of plot and language that the other plays can’t touch. The whole play just has a violent, gravitational pull towards tragedy from the first scene

I also picked it because it is the best stage production I’ve ever seen. My now-wife and I went to go see it at the American Players Theater in Spring Green, WI, some years back. This is an amazing company, and an amazing space—they do open-air Shakespeare every summer in the middle of a forest, near Frank Lloyd Wright’s eminently weird House on the Rock. Anyway, it was dusk when the curtain first opened. The intermission came when things were starting to fully unravel, and by the time we reassembled for the unrelenting second half of the play, it was a pitch-black and starless night. What I’m trying to say is that it scared the living lights out of me, and you can substitute adjectives for effect. Plus, towards the end of the play, there was a moment when the trees of Elsinore come alive. This always looks weird when staged indoors, but at this production, hidden crewmembers actually shook the giant trees behind the stage, which towered over Macbeth and actually seemed magnificent, otherworldly.

Hopefully that answers your question. I could still cop-out, if I wanted (“well, my favorite play to read at hostels in Berlin is Hamlet”). But I’m going to stay strong, in a way Macbeth never could. What’s your favorite play/staging?

Mr. Jung teaches college writing in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and their growing collection of street maps.