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Widely deemed as the best writer of all time, William Shakespeare is known as much for his tragedies as he is for his comedies, but can you name his top three? This overview of Shakespeare's most heartbreaking works not only lists his tragedies but also explains which of these works are considered his best and why.
A List of Shakespeare's Tragedies
A prolific writer, Shakespeare wrote 10 tragedies in total. They include the following, most of which you've likely heard of, even if you haven't had the opportunity to read them or see these dramas performed.
- "Antony and Cleopatra"
In this play, Mark Antony, one of three rulers of the Roman Empire, is in Egypt enjoying a love affair with the enchanting Queen Cleopatra. Before long, however, he learns that his wife has died and a rival is threatening to usurp power from the triumvirate. Mark Antony decides to return to Rome.
This drama chronicles Martius, whose heroic deeds help the Roman Empire seize the Italian city Corioles. For his impressive efforts, he receives the name Coriolanus.
This tragedy follows Prince Hamlet, who is not only grieving his father's death but is furious to learn that his mother has married his father's brother shortly afterwards.
- "Julius Caesar"
Julius Caesar arrives back home after besting the sons of Pompey the Great in battle. The Roman people celebrate him upon his return, but the powers-that-be fear that his popularity will result in him having absolute power over Rome, so they plot against him.
- "King Lear"
The ageing King Lear is faced with giving up the throne and having his three daughters rule over his kingdom in ancient Britain.
A Scottish general thirsts for power after three witches tell him that he will one day be king of Scotland. This leads Macbeth to murder King Duncan and assume power, but he is consumed with worry over his misdeeds.
In this tragedy, the villain Iago schemes with Roderigo against Othello, the Moor. Roderigo desires Othello's wife, Desdemona, while Iago seeks to drive Othello mad with jealousy by suggesting that Desdemona has been unfaithful, even though she has not.
- "Romeo and Juliet"
Bad blood between the Montagues and Capulets wreak havoc upon the city of Verona and lead to tragedy for the young couple Romeo and Juliet, each a member of the feuding families.
- "Timon of Athens"
A wealthy Athenian, Timon gives away all of his money to friends and hardship cases. This leads to his demise.
- "Titus Andronicus"
Perhaps the bloodiest of Shakespeare's plays, this drama unfolds as the two sons of a recently departed Roman Emperor fight about who should succeed him. The people decide that Titus Andronicus should be their new ruler, but he has other plans. Unfortunately, they make him a target of vengeance,
Why 'Hamlet' Stands Out
Shakespeare's tragedies are among his most famous and well-read plays, but of these, he is probably best known for "Macbeth," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet." In fact, critics widely agree that "Hamlet" is the best play ever written. What makes "Hamlet" so tragic? For one, Shakespeare reportedly was inspired to write the play after the death of his only son, Hamnet, at age 11, on Aug. 11, 1596. Hamnet likely died of bubonic plague.
While Shakespeare wrote comedies immediately following his son's death, a few years later he would write a number of tragedies. Perhaps in the few years that followed the boy's death, he had time to truly process the depth of his grief and pour them into his masterful dramas.