Dr. Angela's 5 Must-Read English Literary Stories of All Time

Dr. Angela's 5 Must-Read English Literary Stories of All Time

Welcome to Dr. Angela’s top five favourites!

Below, is a list, in no particular order, of my favourite English literary stories, and the reasons why. This set of works is not only fascinating from a literary sense, but also mind-blowing when examined from a psychological perspective.

Oedipus the King (Oedipus Rex)
By: Sophocles


Oedipus the King is a classic Ancient Greek tragedy, where a prophecy foretells of Oedipus killing his father and marrying his mother. To counter the prophecy, he is sent away to die as a baby, but instead lives and returns to Thebes as an adult to solve the Sphynx’ riddle, killing his father on the way, and earning the right to marry the Queen, his mother.

It is not for nothing that this play’s theme is at the basis of Freudian psychoanalytic theory characterizing the unconscious relationship between a son and his mother. The Oedipus Complex is a boy’s unconscious desire to kill his father, in order to win over his mother. Freud’s theory has not been supported by scientific research as a basic developmental process in young boys. However, it does highlight how this play deals with complex psychological issues, as many of the Ancient Greek plays do. Oedipus’ parents acted out of fear, and thus he did not know their identity. By their actions, they inadvertently set in motion the events that would eventually lead to the prophecy actually being fulfilled. Would the prophecy have come to fruition if they would have raised him and loved him, as parents should, instead of casting him aside?

Adoption practices and laws, although vary by country and have evolved over the years, have long been closed and have left many children without access to information regarding their close biological relatives. This makes the possibility of being married to your parent or sibling without knowing it a reality! When Oedipus discovered the truth, he blinded himself. He might have slightly overreacted, as the Ancient Greek plays always have an extra flair for the dramatic, but when you actually think about it, can you blame him? Imagine settling down with someone and having children, only to discover years later that you are married to your parent!

This play is a recommended read to all, but especially to adoption lawmakers and parents of adopted children. Sophocles warned us of the risks of being blind to the truth (pun intended!), two and a half thousand years ago. 

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By: Sophocles


Antigone is another Ancient Greek tragedy written by Sophocles. Chronologically, it occurs after Oedipus the King.

Antigone, the heroine of this play, is the incestual daughter of King Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta. In this play, King Creon, Jocasta’s brother, forbids the public mourning of one of Antigone’s brothers, Polynices, who died waging war against Thebes. Antigone defies the ruling and buries her brother knowing that the consequences to her actions would be death. When brought before the king, she does not deny it and rather, affirms that divine law overrides human law and stands by her decision.

This play is not only tragic because the protagonist is sentenced to death for doing the right thing and confronts us with the fact that many people throughout history have been crucified simply for being at odds with a more powerful authority. It is also devastatingly tragic in that it illustrates the fate of women, especially young women, who choose to voice their opinion and stand up for what they believe in, a fate that has long been reality for women in many parts of the world.

Antigone is avant-garde to say the least. Sophocles loved to push the boundaries and make the audience feel at odds with their own emotions and beliefs. Can you imagine how appalled the audience must have been, when the play was first performed, to witness a young woman disobeying, not only a man senior to her, but her king? Yet, at the same time, how heartbroken they must have felt watching a charming and relatable young girl being punished for doing, not only what was expected of the Gods, but what basic human curtesy entails.

This play is also compelling as it deals with suicide in a very direct manner. King Creon sentences Antigone to be buried alive for her crimes against Thebes. As he regretted his decree, he rushed to release her from her tomb, only to find that she had hanged herself. Her death and the matter in which she perished being all too difficult to bear, resulted in the death of other significant characters in the play.

Sophocles succeeded in evoking paradoxical emotions in the audience (or readers). Antigone is both beautiful and horrible. It will make you feel both inspired and distraught at the same time. Enjoy!

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By: Euripides


In my opinion, Medea, is by far the most tragic of the Ancient Greek plays. In this play, Medea’s husband, Jason, abandons her for King Creon’s daughter. She murders the princess and is banished from the city. She ultimately kills her children. There is nothing more unnatural in the world than a mother murdering her children. Women at odds with post-partum depression sometimes contemplate filicide, and some even commit it, but Medea was described as a loving mother to her children who were far beyond the newborn stage where post-partum filicide usually takes place. This makes her acts all that more disturbing and impactful.

It is only fitting to examine this play through psychological lenses, as the character had such a strong mark in history that it found its way into early psychoanalytic theories of development. Carl Jung, psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, spoke of the Medea Complex: A disturbed relationship between a mother and child with destructive aspects, such as a mother's wish to kill her children as a means of revenge against their father. It is a central theme in the description of Jung’s Terrible Mother. 

In this play, Euripides confronts the audience (or reader) to ask why someone would commit murder. Under what circumstance would such an atrocious behaviour occur? Medea struggles with strong emotions of anger and jealousy and wrestles with the ideas of killing her children. In the literature, Medea’s mental state and actions have been debated since the play was first enacted. She has often been described as consumed with madness. It is only logical to assume she was mad. What stable-minded mother murders her children?  But was she insane? In the eyes of the law, no. She knew her actions were wrong. She acted in vengeance to punish Jason. The ultimate vengeance is in her decision to allow him to live, so that he can suffer from the loss of his children. Interestingly, some scholars have interpreted her actions as merciful; saving her children from a lifetime of misery and pain caused by being ostracized and having nowhere to go, nothing to eat, and no financial support to survive and thrive.

From a psychological perspective, I believe that she can be better understood as someone with borderline, narcissistic, and antisocial personality disorder, with an underlying tendency towards sadism (illustrated by the notion that her pleasure in Jason’s pain outweighed her remorse for hurting her children). Even from the perspective that she enacted with mercy – as an ‘Angel of mercy’ – we still circle back to narcissistic traits and sadism. Add major depression to the mix, which usually alters someone’s better judgment, and we get Medea.

What is even more troublesome about this play is that although humans have evolved over the past two and half thousand years, we really have not changed at all. As Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote in 1849, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Filicide by a mother was a rare occurrence and it evoked powerful aversive reactions in others then and it still does now. Similarly, the mental state of filicidal women was debated then, just in the same manner as it is now. As this play has shown, it will likely continue to be debate in the future.

What do you think: Was Medea mad, mean, or merciful?

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By: William Shakespeare


The name of famous playwright William Shakespeare is definitely synonymous with fine English literature. Although opinions differ amongst scholars, Macbeth is, in my opinion, Shakespeare’s finest tragedy.

Macbeth is encouraged by his wife, Lady Macbeth, to kill the king, in order to become King, after three witches tell him that he will be King. Does he become King, because it was his destiny as foreseen by the witches, or does he create his destiny, because he behaved in a manner influenced by what the witches told him? Would he have become king if he had never spoken to them? Is it prophecy or self-fulfilling prophecy?

Motivated by greed, power, and a wife with questionable morals, Macbeth created an environment, which bread paranoia, and eventually contributed to his own demise in the end.

Interestingly, Shakespeare does not shy away from setting forth a strong female character. Lady Macbeth’s own personal ambition to become Queen, makes her a powerful propeller in Macbeth’s regicidal actions. She actively but subtly manipulated him into doing her bidding. She is however consumed with guilt in the end and committed suicide off-stage.

Witches, prophecies, and an insatiable need for power are the perfect ingredients for the rise and fall of great but flawed characters. This recipe was perfected by Shakespeare in Macbeth. It has however been reproduced countless times by other great writers and storytellers, such as George R. R. Martin’s portrayal of Daenerys Targaryen in a Song of Ice and Fire.

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As You Like It
By: William Shakespeare


As You Like It is the only comedy on the list. Tragedies and human misery tend to leave longer lasting impressions on people (as seen above) than funny, lighthearted ones, because of the emotions that they evoke in us. However, the character depth and complexities in this play, as well as the masterful conversations created by Shakespeare make it a memorable and impactful story that has stood the test of time.

In this play, the main character Rosalind, disguises herself as a boy, Ganymede, to hide in the forest after being banished. This is wittingly playful by Shakespeare on two main levels. First, it illustrates the disparity in gender roles, that although was more flagrant in the late 16th and early 17th century, still resonates today. Shakespeare subtly but amusingly alluded to this divergence in the fact that at the time the play was written, only men could work as actors, thus, Rosalind’s character was played by a man, who dressed as a girl, who dressed as a boy. Although the conversation about gender roles and gender expression has shifted over the years, As You Like It, brought to light that things are not always as they seem and are much more complicated than what meets the eye.

Second, it vividly illustrates the ability of a person to morphe their demeanours when put in different situations. We do not behave the same way as a parishioner as we do at a Rock concert, nor do we behave in the same manner at home and in public. We behave differently in our roles as spouses than in our roles as coworkers or friends. The monologue ‘The Seven Ages of Man,’ one of Shakespeare’s most famous, summarizes all social interactions. In fact, I quoted the following passage in my psychology doctoral dissertation on interpersonal patterns of behaviour: “All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts […]” We are basically all actors in our own plays, we wear different costumes (faces, masks, hats, shoes) to enact our different societal roles. Who are we really when the costumes come off and we are left alone with ourselves? Now that is the question…

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