Let's start with the plays that I had to read for my English class on Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
1 THE SPANISH TRAGEDY Thomas Kyd (England 1582)
The Spanish Tragedy was one of the most popular plays of its time and set the trend for revenge tragedies. Shakespeare clearly incorporated many aspects of this play in Hamlet. A must read for anyone that is even remotely interested in the period and looking for the places where Shakespeare found his inspiration. It is also filled with strange characters whose actions can be an fascinating source of debate.
2 TITUS ANDRONICUS William Shakespeare (England 1588)
So far, this is one of the best Shakespeare plays I've read. Not as good as Hamlet, Macbeth or Richard III, but almost as haunting and violent. The character of Lavinia and her mutilated body is one of the most powerful images that I've come out of Shakespeare's imagination. There has been an ongoing debate about whether or not this play can be considered immature since it is Shakespeare's first tragedy, and most of it focuses on the great amount of violence that pervades the play.
3 THE JEW OF MALTA Christopher Marlowe (England 1589)
This anti-Semitic play was the source of inspiration behind The Merchant of Venice. However, The Jew of Malta is not charged with the complexity of Shakespeare's Shylock, which means that the main character of this play is utterly evil. It remains a fairly inspired play, with some memorable characters.
4 THE MERCHANT OF VENICE William Shakespeare (England 1596)
I'm usually not very fond of comedies, but this one surprisingly kept me interested. Merchant is filled with ambiguous characters, and the debate over whether Shakespeare intended Shylock to be a compassionate portrayal of the Jews is still fascinating. But what interested me the most in this play was its depiction of gender and homosexuality. In the end, even the Merchant's status as a comedy is contested, which makes the play even more interesting.
5 THE ROARING GIRL Dekker and Middleton (England 1607)
This play is famous for the character of Moll Cutpurse, an independent woman who dresses and acts like a man. However, beyond the Moll and the ambiguous sexuality of some other characters, this play completely failed to interest me. I think this was partly due to the language of the sexual jokes that were difficult to understand.