All the World's a Stage: The Best Shakespeare Plays in Audio

Looking for an incomparable audio experience that pairs impeccable performance and timeless stories? You're sure to find your next listen in our collection of the best audio adaptations of William Shakespeare's plays.

If there’s one writer whose work translates spectacularly to audio format, it’s the Bard. Hearing Shakespeare’s dialog masterfully performed by professionals with the correct emphasis and tone can make all the difference in catching every clever joke and innuendo, picking up on subtle foreshadowing, and sometimes even understanding the plot itself.

Taking into account both the most well-known of Shakespeare’s plays and the most well-performed adaptations for audio, here are our choices for the best Shakespeare audiobooks to add to your library today.

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Hamlet: Fully Dramatized Audio Edition

It should come as no surprise that Hamlet occupies a spot on our list, as it is widely considered one of Shakespeare’s best plays. (In fact, some would argue it is the greatest play of all time...but we’ll leave you to decide that on your own). A multilayered tragic drama of love, lust, power, and revenge, Hamlet follows the events that take place after a young prince learns that his recently deceased father was murdered by his uncle, the treacherous Claudius, who now sits on the late king’s throne. The Folger Shakespeare Library’s audio adaptation does the work absolute justice, with a full cast of players, both men and women, as well as sound effects to help spark the listener’s visual imagination. This lovingly rendered production will hold up to even the most exacting Shakespeare aficionado’s standards.

Othello: Fully Dramatized Audio Edition

The second Shakespearean tragedy and Folger production on our list is one of the Bard’s most contextually relevant works for 21st-century listeners. Taking on topics of race, sex, and prejudice, Othello tells the story of a Moorish general whose marriage to a Venetian woman and promotion of a less-experienced soldier provokes his jealous subordinate, Iago, to weave a web of lies and subterfuge that results in widespread death and despair. In this play, Shakespeare coined two now-ubiquitous phrases: Jealousy is the green-eyed monster and wear my heart upon my sleeve. A full cast of talented voice actors makes Iago’s complex net of intentional misunderstandings easy to follow, and each cast member’s emotional performance ensures the impact of the jealousy, rage, and ultimate regret at the foundation of this classic.

Macbeth: Fully Dramatized Audio Edition

The Scottish Play, as it's widely known among those who’ve performed it, is shrouded in an air of the unnatural—evidenced by not only actors refusing to refer to it by name for fear of superstitious consequences but also the eerie, otherworldly aura that permeates the work itself. Narrated in part by a trio of witches, Macbeth is the story of a man who, at the urging of his nefarious wife, murders a king in order to seize his throne. But instead of finding fortune and contentment in power, Macbeth is driven to madness by guilt and fear. A comparatively quick listen at just over two hours, Macbeth’s brevity only serves to heighten its impact as a tragic fable about morality, power, and hubris.

Julius Caesar

Like many of the Bard’s tragedies, Julius Caesar focuses on a tormented hero caught in an ill-fated power dynamic. Unlike most of his other works, though, this entry is semi-biographical, based on the writings of the historian Plutarch, who recorded the events of the real Roman emperor’s life and tragic end. Grappling with complex questions about loyalty, democracy, and power, Julius Caesar brings us some of Shakespeare’s notable quotations—Et tu, Brute, Friends, Romans, countrymen, and It was Greek to me, among the most famous—as well as some of his greatest character development and tragic irony. As always, the Folger Theatre’s full-cast adaptation ensures that every plot twist and turn of phrase lands perfectly, making this easily one of the best ways to experience the Bard’s classic.

King Lear

Any Shakespeare enthusiast will recognize the names narrating this selection immediately, as all are among the ranks of the most decorated Shakespearean actors in all of Britain. (Those less familiar with Shakespearean actors may recognize Kenneth Branagh as Professor Gilderoy Lockhart of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets fame.) The cast members of this recording have built their careers on performing and interpreting Shakespeare’s works thousands of times over, and their expertise in producing this audio adaptation is second to none. In King Lear, the titular monarch's attempts to divide his kingdom fairly among his three daughters are foiled by the jealous manipulation of two of his children—and his own susceptibility to their obvious flattery. As a whole, King Lear stands as a searing indictment of narcissism, greed, and just plain foolishness.

Twelfth Night

At long last, one of Shakespeare’s comedies appears on our list, and it’s a listen unlike any other: Twelfth Night is the funniest and most well-written of his works in the genre. The play is an altogether hilarious romantic comedy of errors, driven by gender-bending mistaken identities and hopelessly unrequited love. The cast once again features some of the UK’s most prominent Shakespearean actors, including Laurence Olivier Award-winning actor Julian Glover and Jonathan Firth (an accomplished performer in his own right, as well as the brother of Academy Award-winning actor and Audie Award-winning narrator, Colin Firth). Through a plot driven by intentional deceptions and confusions of identity, the cast’s brilliant character acting brings every nuance and innuendo into detailed focus, resulting in a hilarious audio experience.

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Fully Dramatized Audio Edition

Chock-full of all of the elements that make the Bard’s more lighthearted fare great, A Midsummer Night’s Dream brings together magic, cunning, love, jealousy...and one truly dismal play put on by a troupe of hopelessly incompetent actors being manipulated by the fairies that inhabit the forest in which the story is set. The Folger’s Theatre players’ voice acting is stellar as always, but it’s the gleeful, dynamic performance of the sly sprite Puck that truly makes this adaptation soar.

Romeo and Juliet: The Fully Dramatized Audio Edition

Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy that can also be read as a sly satire highlighting the absurdity inherent in the infatuation stages of young romance. The Folger Library’s full-cast production is acted to perfection, with Romeo and Juliet’s frantic infatuation played at a veritable fever pitch, while Mercutio, the Nurse, and the rest of the cast provide the dry wit and juxtapositional irony for which Shakespeare is famous. And as Shakespeare’s shortest play, it’s just barely over two hours in length, making it easy to digest in the span of an afternoon.

The Tempest

If written today, The Tempest might be described as a dark comedy. The play begins when Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, harnesses his supernatural powers to cause a violent storm at sea to shipwreck a vessel carrying, among others, the brother who usurped his position more than a decade ago. With the intention of restoring himself and his daughter to their rightful positions, Prospero’s shipwreck sets in motion an unexpected series of events, including a comically ill-fated plot against his own life. If this cocktail of dramatic intrigue weren’t enough, the cast is led by the incomparable Sir Ian McKellen as Prospero, making this adaptation of The Tempest an irresistible listen.

The Merchant of Venice

The last selection on our list is another of Shakespeare’s works that rings painfully relevant to society today. Though classified a comedy and certainly featuring humorous scenes,The Merchant of Venice remains controversial for what many argue are its anti-Semitic central themes. The action centers on the Venetian merchant Antonio’s decision to borrow money from a Jewish lender named Shylock, who carries a hateful grudge against Antonio for his past prejudicial treatment of the Jewish community. When Antonio is bankrupted and forced to default on the loan, he must contend with the consequences of agreeing to Shylock’s gruesome terms, which require he part with a pound of flesh in lieu of timely repayment. Played by a skilled cast of Shakespearean actors (you may recognize Bill Nighy from his roles in Emma and Love Actually, among other films), The Merchant of Venice allows the listener to laugh and be looped into the lush world of Renaissance Venice while pondering important questions about the long-lasting wounds of cultural bias.

Hamlet: Fully Dramatized Audio Edition

It should come as no surprise that Hamlet occupies a spot on our list, as it is widely considered one of Shakespeare’s best plays. (In fact, some would argue it is the greatest play of all time...but we’ll leave you to decide that on your own). A multilayered tragic drama of love, lust, power, and revenge, Hamlet follows the events that take place after a young prince learns that his recently deceased father was murdered by his uncle, the treacherous Claudius, who now sits on the late king’s throne. The Folger Shakespeare Library’s audio adaptation does the work absolute justice, with a full cast of players, both men and women, as well as sound effects to help spark the listener’s visual imagination. This lovingly rendered production will hold up to even the most exacting Shakespeare aficionado’s standards.

Othello: Fully Dramatized Audio Edition

The second Shakespearean tragedy and Folger production on our list is one of the Bard’s most contextually relevant works for 21st-century listeners. Taking on topics of race, sex, and prejudice, Othello tells the story of a Moorish general whose marriage to a Venetian woman and promotion of a less-experienced soldier provokes his jealous subordinate, Iago, to weave a web of lies and subterfuge that results in widespread death and despair. In this play, Shakespeare coined two now-ubiquitous phrases: Jealousy is the green-eyed monster and wear my heart upon my sleeve. A full cast of talented voice actors makes Iago’s complex net of intentional misunderstandings easy to follow, and each cast member’s emotional performance ensures the impact of the jealousy, rage, and ultimate regret at the foundation of this classic.

Macbeth: Fully Dramatized Audio Edition

The Scottish Play, as it's widely known among those who’ve performed it, is shrouded in an air of the unnatural—evidenced by not only actors refusing to refer to it by name for fear of superstitious consequences but also the eerie, otherworldly aura that permeates the work itself. Narrated in part by a trio of witches, Macbeth is the story of a man who, at the urging of his nefarious wife, murders a king in order to seize his throne. But instead of finding fortune and contentment in power, Macbeth is driven to madness by guilt and fear. A comparatively quick listen at just over two hours, Macbeth’s brevity only serves to heighten its impact as a tragic fable about morality, power, and hubris.

Julius Caesar

Like many of the Bard’s tragedies, Julius Caesar focuses on a tormented hero caught in an ill-fated power dynamic. Unlike most of his other works, though, this entry is semi-biographical, based on the writings of the historian Plutarch, who recorded the events of the real Roman emperor’s life and tragic end. Grappling with complex questions about loyalty, democracy, and power, Julius Caesar brings us some of Shakespeare’s notable quotations—Et tu, Brute, Friends, Romans, countrymen, and It was Greek to me, among the most famous—as well as some of his greatest character development and tragic irony. As always, the Folger Theatre’s full-cast adaptation ensures that every plot twist and turn of phrase lands perfectly, making this easily one of the best ways to experience the Bard’s classic.

King Lear

Any Shakespeare enthusiast will recognize the names narrating this selection immediately, as all are among the ranks of the most decorated Shakespearean actors in all of Britain. (Those less familiar with Shakespearean actors may recognize Kenneth Branagh as Professor Gilderoy Lockhart of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets fame.) The cast members of this recording have built their careers on performing and interpreting Shakespeare’s works thousands of times over, and their expertise in producing this audio adaptation is second to none. In King Lear, the titular monarch's attempts to divide his kingdom fairly among his three daughters are foiled by the jealous manipulation of two of his children—and his own susceptibility to their obvious flattery. As a whole, King Lear stands as a searing indictment of narcissism, greed, and just plain foolishness.

Twelfth Night

At long last, one of Shakespeare’s comedies appears on our list, and it’s a listen unlike any other: Twelfth Night is the funniest and most well-written of his works in the genre. The play is an altogether hilarious romantic comedy of errors, driven by gender-bending mistaken identities and hopelessly unrequited love. The cast once again features some of the UK’s most prominent Shakespearean actors, including Laurence Olivier Award-winning actor Julian Glover and Jonathan Firth (an accomplished performer in his own right, as well as the brother of Academy Award-winning actor and Audie Award-winning narrator, Colin Firth). Through a plot driven by intentional deceptions and confusions of identity, the cast’s brilliant character acting brings every nuance and innuendo into detailed focus, resulting in a hilarious audio experience.

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Fully Dramatized Audio Edition

Chock-full of all of the elements that make the Bard’s more lighthearted fare great, A Midsummer Night’s Dream brings together magic, cunning, love, jealousy...and one truly dismal play put on by a troupe of hopelessly incompetent actors being manipulated by the fairies that inhabit the forest in which the story is set. The Folger’s Theatre players’ voice acting is stellar as always, but it’s the gleeful, dynamic performance of the sly sprite Puck that truly makes this adaptation soar.

Romeo and Juliet: The Fully Dramatized Audio Edition

Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy that can also be read as a sly satire highlighting the absurdity inherent in the infatuation stages of young romance. The Folger Library’s full-cast production is acted to perfection, with Romeo and Juliet’s frantic infatuation played at a veritable fever pitch, while Mercutio, the Nurse, and the rest of the cast provide the dry wit and juxtapositional irony for which Shakespeare is famous. And as Shakespeare’s shortest play, it’s just barely over two hours in length, making it easy to digest in the span of an afternoon.

The Tempest

If written today, The Tempest might be described as a dark comedy. The play begins when Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, harnesses his supernatural powers to cause a violent storm at sea to shipwreck a vessel carrying, among others, the brother who usurped his position more than a decade ago. With the intention of restoring himself and his daughter to their rightful positions, Prospero’s shipwreck sets in motion an unexpected series of events, including a comically ill-fated plot against his own life. If this cocktail of dramatic intrigue weren’t enough, the cast is led by the incomparable Sir Ian McKellen as Prospero, making this adaptation of The Tempest an irresistible listen.

The Merchant of Venice

The last selection on our list is another of Shakespeare’s works that rings painfully relevant to society today. Though classified a comedy and certainly featuring humorous scenes,The Merchant of Venice remains controversial for what many argue are its anti-Semitic central themes. The action centers on the Venetian merchant Antonio’s decision to borrow money from a Jewish lender named Shylock, who carries a hateful grudge against Antonio for his past prejudicial treatment of the Jewish community. When Antonio is bankrupted and forced to default on the loan, he must contend with the consequences of agreeing to Shylock’s gruesome terms, which require he part with a pound of flesh in lieu of timely repayment. Played by a skilled cast of Shakespearean actors (you may recognize Bill Nighy from his roles in Emma and Love Actually, among other films), The Merchant of Venice allows the listener to laugh and be looped into the lush world of Renaissance Venice while pondering important questions about the long-lasting wounds of cultural bias.

 

More Listens for Shakespeare Fans

Romeo and Juliet: A Novel

Shakespeare's great tragic love story is reimagined as a novel in this exceptional Audible Original. Author David Hewson brings a feminist edge to Romeo and Juliet while further contextualizing each moment. With a performance by fan-favorite narrator Richard Armitage that listeners describe as spell-binding, vivid, and just perfect, this retelling does tribute to the Bard's original drama while adding a thoughtful, modern flair and commentary.

Hamnet

This New York Times best seller by writer Maggie O'Farrell follows the emotional turmoil that results when Agnes and her playwright husband (whose career is just beginning to take off) lose their young son, Hamnet, to the bubonic plague. A staggering work of historical fiction set in 1580s England that is firmly grounded in the devastation of grief, love, and loss, Hamnet offers a wholly unforgettable exploration of the life and death of Hamnet Shakespeare, the Bard's only son.

Vinegar Girl

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler brings wit and charm to one of Shakespeare's most beloved comedies in Vinegar Girl. A retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, this clever audiobook follows forthright Kate Battista as she is forced to help her scientist father out of a rather pressing predicament. Dr. Battista's brilliant lab assistant, Pyotr, holds the key to a great discovery and advancement. Unfortunately, he's being deported. So, Kate's father enlists her help in an absurd plot to keep Pyotr in the country—and hilarity ensues. Kirsten Potter narrates with her signature verve and charm.

Macbeth

Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø is known as one of the foremost authors in Nordic Noir, with dark and thrilling crime novels like The Snowman and The Bat keeping thousands of listeners on the edge of their seats. So, it's only fitting that Nesbø shared his take on one of Shakespeare's most grim plays. His Macbeth modernizes the tale, shifting the setting to a crime-ridden industrial town in the 1970s. Here, Duncan is not the King of Scotland but the chief of police, and Hectate not a conniving, soothsaying witch but a sinister drug lord set on manipulating head of SWAT Inspector Macbeth.

If You Come Softly

If you can't help but fall for a star-crossed lovers plot, you'll adore Jacqueline Woodson's YA stunner, If You Come Softly. In a way that loosely mirrors some of the key tensions of Romeo and Juliet, this listen sharply addresses racism and prejudice, interracial relationships, morality and identity, and the pure sweetness of young love. Black teenager Jeremiah's world is jostled when he arrives at a fancy new Manhattan prep school, leaving behind the familiarities of his native Brooklyn. Once there, he meets Ellie, a Jewish classmate, and the pair are instantly smitten. But staying with your first love isn't so easy when the world can be close-minded and startlingly unjust.

How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

Ask anyone who's ever studied a Shakespearean work, whether it be in the classroom or for their own pleasure, and they'll tell you that deciphering the Bard's intent isn't always simple. Luckily, this Great Courses guide to reading and understanding Shakespeare makes the process a whole lot easier. Over the course of 24 lectures, this listen shares tips and tools for better understanding a play's narrative and grasping each and every detail, so you can ultimately enjoy listening to Shakespeare's masterpieces even more.

Romeo and Juliet: A Novel

Shakespeare's great tragic love story is reimagined as a novel in this exceptional Audible Original. Author David Hewson brings a feminist edge to Romeo and Juliet while further contextualizing each moment. With a performance by fan-favorite narrator Richard Armitage that listeners describe as spell-binding, vivid, and just perfect, this retelling does tribute to the Bard's original drama while adding a thoughtful, modern flair and commentary.

Hamnet

This New York Times best seller by writer Maggie O'Farrell follows the emotional turmoil that results when Agnes and her playwright husband (whose career is just beginning to take off) lose their young son, Hamnet, to the bubonic plague. A staggering work of historical fiction set in 1580s England that is firmly grounded in the devastation of grief, love, and loss, Hamnet offers a wholly unforgettable exploration of the life and death of Hamnet Shakespeare, the Bard's only son.

Vinegar Girl

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler brings wit and charm to one of Shakespeare's most beloved comedies in Vinegar Girl. A retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, this clever audiobook follows forthright Kate Battista as she is forced to help her scientist father out of a rather pressing predicament. Dr. Battista's brilliant lab assistant, Pyotr, holds the key to a great discovery and advancement. Unfortunately, he's being deported. So, Kate's father enlists her help in an absurd plot to keep Pyotr in the country—and hilarity ensues. Kirsten Potter narrates with her signature verve and charm.

Macbeth

Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø is known as one of the foremost authors in Nordic Noir, with dark and thrilling crime novels like The Snowman and The Bat keeping thousands of listeners on the edge of their seats. So, it's only fitting that Nesbø shared his take on one of Shakespeare's most grim plays. His Macbeth modernizes the tale, shifting the setting to a crime-ridden industrial town in the 1970s. Here, Duncan is not the King of Scotland but the chief of police, and Hectate not a conniving, soothsaying witch but a sinister drug lord set on manipulating head of SWAT Inspector Macbeth.

If You Come Softly

If you can't help but fall for a star-crossed lovers plot, you'll adore Jacqueline Woodson's YA stunner, If You Come Softly. In a way that loosely mirrors some of the key tensions of Romeo and Juliet, this listen sharply addresses racism and prejudice, interracial relationships, morality and identity, and the pure sweetness of young love. Black teenager Jeremiah's world is jostled when he arrives at a fancy new Manhattan prep school, leaving behind the familiarities of his native Brooklyn. Once there, he meets Ellie, a Jewish classmate, and the pair are instantly smitten. But staying with your first love isn't so easy when the world can be close-minded and startlingly unjust.

How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

Ask anyone who's ever studied a Shakespearean work, whether it be in the classroom or for their own pleasure, and they'll tell you that deciphering the Bard's intent isn't always simple. Luckily, this Great Courses guide to reading and understanding Shakespeare makes the process a whole lot easier. Over the course of 24 lectures, this listen shares tips and tools for better understanding a play's narrative and grasping each and every detail, so you can ultimately enjoy listening to Shakespeare's masterpieces even more.


Still starved for the Bard? Our fascinating guide to seven books inspired by Shakespearean drama is full of picks that would make excellent additions to your library.

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