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Shakespeare's Top 3 Best-Known Famous Plays

Jule Romans is the author of "Shakespeare Love Quotes" and other books. She has over 30 years of experience in education.

Shakespeare's three best-known plays are Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet. Each one has an interesting story and a movie adaptation. Shakespeare's three best-known plays are also all tragedies. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth all end badly for the main characters.

Romeo and Juliet

Two young lovers come from two different sides of a generations-long feud. This play is a favorite of English teachers because it tends to help younger people connect with Shakespeare's characters.

This may be one reason it is one of Shakespeare's top three best-known plays.


The Prince of Denmark is caught in a web of dangerous intrigue involving his closest family. This play tends to attract the more scholarly and artistic readers. Actors and theater people love this play because of the intense dilemma and struggles for the leading role.

This level of popularity has spilled over into the mainstream, making Hamlet another one of Shakespeare's top three.


A Scottish general is manipulated by supernatural forces to act on his own greed and lust for power. This play explores the themes of greed, fate, free will, and the supernatural. It contains one of the most cold-blooded females in all of Shakespeare's works. In addition, it offers a high level of violence and passion.

With all these things, this play is among Shakespeare's three best-known plays.

Romeo and Juliet: Star-Crossed Lovers

Romeo and Juliet claims the top spot in Shakespeare's three best-known plays.

In Romeo and Juliet, the two romantic leads come from opposing sides of a family feud in the fictional city of Verona, Italy.

The "fearful passage of their death-marked love" (Act I, Prologue) ends in grief, but finally puts a stop to the enmity of their families. In the process, friends and family members die violently. Spoiler Alert: the lovers themselves commit suicide because of a miscommunication that has terrible consequences.

Notable Scenes

Romeo and Juliet remains one of Shakespeare's three best-known plays because of its enduring themes and the power of attraction between the two main characters. Within the play, there are several memorable scenes that many people know, even if they have not read or studied the play.

One of the most notable scenes is known as the "balcony scene." In this scene, Romeo stands beneath Juliet's balcony and overhears her private thoughts. Juliet is, of course, thinking about Romeo. When he reveals himself, Juliet is surprised, but also pleased.

Both declare their love for each other and keep talking for the whole night, ending with a promise to marry in secret as soon as possible. This initial connection is the basis of many dramatic twists and turns that follow in the play.

A favorite of drama and English teachers, this play has gained enduring fame as one of Shakespeare's three best-known plays.

Source of the Story of Romeo and Juliet

The story is based on Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare liberally borrowed from a narrative poem called The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet. This poem was first published in 1562 by Arthur Brooke. Sadly, Brooke perished in a shipwreck in 1563, soon after its publication.

Movie Adaptations of Romeo and Juliet

In 1968, Franco Zeffirelli produced a visually appealing movie starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. At the time, the piece was a bit scandalous, with partial nudity and many sexual undertones.

The film won the 1969 Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design. It was nominated for the Best Picture and Best Director awards.

In 1996, Baz Luhrman used two of the most popular teen actors to create an updated version of Romeo and Juliet. Claire Danes played Juliet, and Leonardo DiCaprio played Romeo. This movie version updated the setting, including gang violence, guns, cross-dressing, and drug use.

While the language remained unchanged, it is possible to follow the entire story without listening closely to the dialogue. The film was nominated for the 1996 Oscar for Best Art Design but did not win.

Hamlet: The Prince of Denmark

Hamlet ranks second in the list of Shakespeare's three best-known plays.

In Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark is trapped by his devious uncle, who has usurped the throne and married Hamlet's mother.

His closest family members become his greatest threat. After the unexpected death of his father, Hamlet is visited by his father's ghost. This ghost of the king tells Hamlet to "avenge [my] most foul and unnatural murder" (Act I, Scene 5).

Dire Events

As events unfold, incest, poisoning, madness, and deception lead to the death of nearly everyone in the royal court. Along the way, Hamlet is faced with some of the most challenging dilemmas in all of Shakespeare.

He dies, begging his best friend to share his story with the world.

Sources for the Story of Hamlet

The sources for the story of Hamlet trace as far back as Icelandic tales from the 13th century. Both Scandinavian and French legends detail the madness and melancholy of a doomed prince.

The most likely source is closer to the time period, though more difficult to name. Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy had many of the same ideas and concepts, so it is often used as a reference point for other theories of the origin of Hamlet.

The most popular theory revolves around another play, possibly written by Kyd, that has since been lost. Many scholars refer to it as the Ur-Hamlet.

Movie Adaptations of Hamlet

Hamlet has two popular movie versions. Mel Gibson starred alongside Glenn Close in Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 adaptation of the play. Helena Bonham Carter played Ophelia.

Perhaps the most respected adaptation was Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film starring Derek Jacobi. This movie was nominated for four Oscars.

Macbeth: Power, Greed, and Murder

Macbeth comes in third in the list of Shakespeare's three best-known plays.

In Macbeth, an ordinary soldier becomes a power-mad tyrant when he is tempted by supernatural forces. He takes action on his own greed and bloodlust, with dreadful results.

On the way home from battle, Macbeth and his best friend Banquo are interrupted by three evil witches. These three foretell that Macbeth will become king.

Instead of allowing events to take a natural course, Macbeth and his wife conspire to murder King Duncan.

The Downfall of a Tyrant

Their plot is successful for a short time, and Macbeth takes the throne. But things begin to unravel quickly. In the end, Macbeth is vanquished, but not before he has brutally murdered all his opponents- including his own best friend.

Macbeth dies unrepentant and miserable, a victim of his own false sense of security. "And we all know security/ is mortals' chiefest enemy" (Act 3, Scene 5).

Sources for the Story of Macbeth

Shakespeare relied heavily on Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland as the source for many of his history plays and tragedies.

Macbeth was drawn from Holinshed's work, but in a more complex manner than some of his other works.

Parts of the play are taken directly from the account of the real Scottish soldier named Macbeth and the real King Duncan of Scotland. However, the supernatural elements seem to be more related to Holinshed's account of King Duffe.

Lady Macbeth's influence over her husband seems to come from a different source entirely. Many think this aspect of the play was drawn from the works of a Roman philosopher named Seneca.

Movie Adaptations of Macbeth

The classic movie adaptation of Macbeth was created in 1948 by the legendary Orson Welles. The film is a black-and-white vintage look at the play. Although some of the characters are sometimes difficult to tell apart, this version is well worth seeing.

Director Roman Polanski created a film version of Macbeth in 1971. This version contained graphic violence and strong sexual content.

There is also a movie from 2006 that updates the story of Macbeth and places it in a gang of warring teens from Melbourne, Australia. That film received mixed reviews but is well appreciated by those who know Australian films.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Jule Romans