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Top 5: The Best of the Bard

Duke's Sarah Beckwith, chair of theater studies, talks about her favorite Shakespeare plays.

Shakespeare: So much to choose from.

For Sarah Beckwith, selecting her five favorite Shakespeare plays is a nearly impossible task. On a different day, she concedes, this list might be different.

Here, Beckwith, a Shakespeare scholar, chair of Duke's theater studies department and defender of the Bard, offers up her Top 5 Favorite Shakespeare Plays. 

1. The Winter's Tale

Surely the best play ever written about the destructive tyrannical nature of mistrust and the fragility of a social order that must be remade by and in forgiveness. Shakespeare's late romance re-writes Robert Greene's "Pandosto" as a tale about the capacity of human beings to grant each other a second life in forgiveness, here figured as the slow, magical emergence of the wronged woman from stone as a statue appears to come to life. 

2. A Midsummer Night's Dream

It has fairies in it, but there is nothing cute about it. This is Shakespeare's play about the mad drives of erotic love as two young couples exchange partners in the forest during the course of one mad evening. Here's a play about the crazy, disruptive impersonality of desire for which the best image becomes an ass's head. Sublime and hilarious all at once. 

3. King Lear

It is a remorseless and fearless exploration of a universe which the gods seem to have deserted.  

4. Coriolanus

Savage, brilliant, deeply political. Shakespeare's Roman play explores the military man Rome needs but whose uncompromising bellicosity threatens to bring Rome to ruin. An astonishing play about aristocratic mores and the culture of honor. It is deeply relevant now because it is a meditation on the denial of the public nature of language and of the dangers of imagining that language can be someone's possession.

5. Cymbeline

Call it Shakespeare's kitchen sink drama because it may be the most profoundly recursive play he wrote, catching up in its range of reference so much of what has gone before: girl dressed as boy, themes of jealousy, the miraculous family reunion. This play contains the most bravura recognition scene of them all and seems to have been written especially for that scene. It also contains one of the most beautiful songs: "Fear no more the heat of the sun" which Virginia Woolf was to borrow for Mrs. Dalloway.