50 Classic Plays Every Student Should Read
Even students not particularly interested in nurturing a career in the theater arts can still appreciate drama’s aesthetic and literary merit. Great plays proudly stand the test of time along other written works, and earn coveted positions on university syllabi in both the English and theatre departments. They enjoy references in plenty other forms of media for their cultural, historical and intellectual relevance. Far more than these 50, listed in absolutely no particular order whatsoever, warrant reading, of course. But they do represent a great start when exploring drama’s potential as challenging works of literary achievement.
- Lysistrata by Aristophenes: Even today, the eponymous heroine’s attempts to end war by uniting every Greek woman and declaring a moratorium on sex makes for hilarious reading.
- Electra by Sophocles: Both Sophocles and Euripides explored the tragic story of Agamemnon’s daughter seeking revenge on her mother and stepfather after his terrifying murder.
- Antigone by Sophocles: As the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, Antigone is no stranger to the gods’ toying in mortal affairs, and her battle against King Creon serves as a tragic climax.
- Cyclops by Euripides: This sterling Greek comedy is the only known example of a completed satyr play and depicts the familiar story of Odysseus and his encounter with a monstrous Cyclops.
- Oedipus the King by Sophocles: Most scholars today consider Oedipus the King the absolute greatest Greek play, and its influence continues on into today’s pop culture. Cursed by the gods, the eponymous hero tries to flee an all-too-familiar prophecy.
- Agamemnon by Aeschylus: King Agamemnon returns home from a 10-year war to find his wife has turned on him in both a sexual and a murderous sense.
- Medea by Euripides: After her husband Jason (of Argonauts fame) betrays her with another woman, Medea embarks on a roaring rampage of revenge as only the Greeks know how to write.
- The Trojan Women by Euripides: Esteemed playwright Euripides may have written The Trojan Women as a commentary on the then-raging Peloponnesian War.
- The Bacchae by Euripides: Young Dionysus, enraged over his mortal family’s insistence on denying his divine heritage, unleashes with the fury. Revenge happens to be a rather common theme in Greek drama.
- The Tracking Satyrs by Sophocles: Only fragments of this famous satyr play exists, but its central plot — the god Hermes as he begins inventing music — is easily discernible.
- Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov: This masterful piece of modernist family drama reflects on the results of a life largely wasted and the repercussions it holds on loved ones.
- Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett: A play so gleefully absurd, even Sesame Street had to pay homage. Protagonists Vladimir and Estragon spend an entire play waiting for Godot. And it is amazing.
- A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen: Even before the feminist movement really took hold, Henrik Ibsen was writing about housewives feeling alienated from the husbands and children forced upon them.
- The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter: Pianist Stanley Webber attends a birthday party thrown by his landlords, which attracts a couple of attendees with less-than-friendly motives.
- The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill: Socialist and anarchist political ideologies come to light through the life experiences of down-on-their-luck barflies longing for their more prosperous pasts.
- The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht: Bertolt Brecht was a master of epic theatre, and the musical The Threepenny Opera is one of his most recognizable works. Here, capitalism receives a thorough parodying at the hands of Marxist philosophy.
- Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller: Iconic Willy Loman flounders in delusion, thinking himself far more capable than he actually is, and his family greatly suffers as a result.
- The Killer by Eugene Ionesco: Really more of an absurdist than a modernist, Eugene Ionesco’s wonderfully avant-garde The Killer focuses on the nature of transcendence, experience and the intersections between the two.
- Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw: This satire picks apart British society with the familiar narrative of a Cockney girl given a full makeover by a more “proper” gentleman.
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee: Lauded playwright Edward Albee’s award-winning masterpiece offers a fictitious look at the lives of two couples as the older of the two grow drunker and begin hurling abuses each other and their companions.
- A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry: When a $10,000 life insurance check from the deceased Younger patriarch pops in the mail, his family finds itself entirely at odds over how they should spend it.
- A Free Man of Color by John Guare: The wealthiest African-American man in New Orleans has to completely reconsider his beloved city when the Louisiana Purchase means the encroach of racism and segregation.
- Topdog/Underdog by Suzan Lori-Parks: Suzan Lori-Parks lets tensions slowly boil and build between brothers with completely opposite goals and motivations in this essential, thrilling character study.
- Doubt by John Patrick Shanley: Set in a Catholic school, John Patrick Shanley used the pedophilia scandal as a springboard to exploring how teachers, parents and students might react when such news hits their own communities.
- Angels in America by Tony Kushner: The political and social dynamics of oft-marginalized LGBTQIA individuals come to vivid, dramatic life here — especially through the oneiric visions of a man dying from AIDS.
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Thomas Stoppard: Watch the tale of Hamlet unfold through the eyes of two very minor characters from the original. Even those unfamiliar with Shakespeare can still appreciate its frenetic pace and snappy dialogue.
- Equus by Peter Shaffer: Alienation and society’s collective emotional suppression drive a mentally disturbed young man to the point he commits horrendous act of animal cruelty.
- Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet: When the opportunity to land some exclusive real estate leads crop up, an office full of shady salesmen do (almost) whatever they have to do to take them from the competition.
- The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler: Female sexuality, oftentimes seen as a taboo subject even today, receives a frank, much-needed celebration through a diverse series of monologues.
- The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee: Transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau serves as the protagonist of this fictionalized account of his very real, very brief stint in prison for refusing to pay his taxes.
- A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams: The iconic Blanche DuBois unexpectedly bursts into the life of her sister and brother-in-law, serving as a symbol of fading southern glory.
- Tartuffe by Moliere: Moliere’s essential comedy satirized the political and religious climate of 17th Century France and stirred up a fair amount of controversy.
- The Mandrake by Nicolo Machiavelli: While Nicolo Machiavelli lived in exile for apparently scheming against the all-powerful Medici family, he penned a play meant to satirize the very foundations of Italian society.
- The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde: One of the most popular farces ever written, this distinguished classic centers around a lazy young gentleman who escapes into an alter ego with the hopes of avoiding as much responsibility as he can.
- Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe: Here, Christopher Marlowe puts his own spin on the traditional story of Faust, who makes a fateful trade with Satan himself — his soul for a lifetime’s worth of knowledge.
- Spreading the News by Lady Augusta Gregory: Gossip surges through rural Ireland thanks to one mistaken statement that swells into something uncontrollable in this beloved, long-running classic.
- Our Town by Thornton Wilder: Thornton Wilder’s enduring drama explores the everyday lives of average small-town Americans in the first three decades of the 20th Century.
- The Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge: The Playboy of the Western World‘s historical infamy — riots broke out at its premiere — sometimes precludes its status as a thoroughly enjoyable play about a runaway man seeking refuge in a public house.
- Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry: Before Theatre of the Absurd became a movement, this first of three burlesques centering around King Ubu kicked off his bitingly satirical adventures with obscenely delightful, surreal action.
- The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan: As the title implies, The School for Scandal involves dastardly plots to spread gossip and mischief throughout London society.
- Othello: One of William Shakespeare’s most wrenching, memorable tragedies focuses on the evil, manipulative machinations of a soldier slowly tearing apart his general’s life.
- Romeo and Juliet: Somehow, a pair of whiny teenagers unable to see past their own myopia continues to be a “romantic” pop culture sensation. Despite the eye-gouging stupidity of the central characters, however, this classic play is still worth the read.
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Love’s myriad absurdities receive a thorough, occasionally bawdy, dissection in Shakespeare’s beloved comedy. Fans of fantasy tropes such as fairies and magic will particularly find A Midsummer Night’s Dream enchanting.
- The Tempest: Deposed Milanese duke Prospero dramatically dabbles in the magical arts with the hope of transporting his daughter Miranda to her place at the throne.
- The Taming of the Shrew: In Shakespeare’s lauded comedy, the battle of the sexes comes to a head when a Veronese gentlemen sets his sights on breaking a spirited, independent woman. Debates over whether or not “shrew” Katherina Minola’s final speech was intended as sincere or ironic continue to wage even today.
- As You Like It: As You Like It is the quintessential pastoral comedy, love, politics and cross-dressing intertwine to create a twisty, entertaining and funny tale as only Shakespeare can deliver.
- Twelfth Night: Christmas festivities serve as a backdrop for another silly offering from The Bard, containing such familiar romantic comedy elements as transvestitism, mistaken identities, long lost twins and plenty more.
- Hamlet: The eponymous prince battles with the dual demons of his father’s murder and mother’s hastened remarriage to his uncle in one of the most intense, dramatic tragedies ever penned.
- Macbeth: At the urging of his sinister wife, Macbeth schemes to usurp the throne of Scotland by any means necessary.
- King Lear: Insanity descends upon King Lear, inspiring him to start parceling out all his holdings to the two daughters heaping on the flattery over the third — who just so happens to be the only one genuinely concerned about his mental and physical health.