William Shakespeare, also known as the Bard, is responsible for some of the best plays and poetry ever written in the English language. His most well-known works include Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth and Hamlet. However, Shakespeare wrote plenty more than just those. Publishing in the 17th century wasn’t quite what it is today, and the truth is that we don’t know exactly how many plays Shakespeare wrote for sure.
Most scholars agree that Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays. However, either because they are lost, or because of the poor documentation of the time, and the fact that authors don’t sign their names in a corner of their work like painters do, no one knows exactly how many plays Shakespeare wrote. It’s possible that he authored or co-authored an additional five plays, but those are not included in traditional collections of Shakespearean plays.
In the 17th century, playwrights often utilized the stage as a platform for dispensing their personal opinions on the hot topics of the day. Because of this, plays had to be registered before they could be published, essentially so that they could be censored. Shakespeare never published any of his plays, so none of them were registered. Some of them were published by unauthorized publishers (because there were no copyright laws at the time protecting playwrights or their work), but other than that, they were only performed until about seven years after Shakespeare’s death (April 23, 1616).
In 1623, John Hemminges and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, collected 36 of Shakespeare’s plays and had them published in the First Folio. Pericles, Prince of Tyre is the only play attributed to Shakespeare that did not appear in the First Folio.
William Shakespeare’s plays can roughly be divided into three categories: tragedies, comedies and histories. This is how they were categorized in the First Folio.
Additionally, Shakespeare may have authored or co-authored the following plays that were either lost or simply not positively identified as his work:
To understand how Shakespeare's plays may have been received by his peers and audiences, scholars combine different primary sources to tell a story. Shakespeare’s popularity can be best understood by taking a few different points into consideration. Each of these points tells a similar tale of Shakespeare’s popularity. Many people liked and enjoyed his plays, but like all entertainers, Shakespeare had some detractors as well.
One indication of his success would be the constant production of his plays. Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616. During that time, he had at least one, if not more, plays in production every year from 1592 until 1613. In fact, because the dates for events in Shakespeare’s life are fuzzy due to lack of written data, some scholars have speculated that he may have had plays in production as early as the 1580s.
Theaters showed performances of plays shortly after they were written. This means that Shakespeare constantly penned new material to entertain his public that eagerly attended his many performances.
From 1594, only an acting troupe known as Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later renamed King’s Men, performed Shakespeare’s plays.
Actors built the Globe Theater themselves. A dispute with owners of the previous land where the theater was located caused many of the acting company to tear down pieces of the theater and reconstruct it on the Thames River. Circular in shape, the theater accommodated patrons from the lowest tier, who paid a penny and sat on the floor, to the highest tier, who paid more and sat in balconies.
Different levels of British society at the time came together to enjoy the only entertainment of the time, plays. Shakespeare and the King’s Men made court appearances for Queen Elizabeth I and James I.
Shakespeare chose many themes for his plays that would entertain audiences compared to some other plays of the day based on morality issues. Shakespeare wrote primarily comedies in his early career, then his tragedies, followed by his tragicomedies or romances.
Scholars note evidence of Shakespeare’s collaboration with other playwrights at the time. Writers often borrowed from each other, and Shakespeare was no exception. By producing good writing on topics of interest to people, Shakespeare had many loyal fans.
His plays must have been quite popular for people to gather in public places during the one of the worst epidemics seen in history, the Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death.
Like many people in entertainment, Shakespeare had his share of unhappy critics.
However, Shakespeare's plays spoke to the common man by tapping into the ideas and interests shared by many. Since his death, Shakespeare continues to inspire many people who read his works.