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 16th and 17th century wasn't quite what it is today, and the truth is that we don't know the exact details surrounding the plays of William Shakespeare. Let's take a look at what we do know.
Most scholars agree that William 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 for certain. 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 on April 23, 1616.
In 1623, John Heminges 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 be divided roughly into three categories: tragedies, comedies and histories. Although the exact dates that Shakespeare penned each of his plays can't be known, the Royal Shakespeare Company provides us with estimates (indicated in parentheses below). The first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays were published in 1623 as the First Folio.
Shakespeare knew how to strike a chord in the tragedy department. Two teenagers killing themselves over love lost is certainly tragic. Yet, Romeo and Juliet was merely only one of possibly 10 tragedies penned by Shakespeare:
Titus Andronicus (1591 - 1592)
Romeo and Juliet (1595 - 1596)
Julius Caesar (1599)
Timon of Athens (1604 - 1606)
King Lear (1605 - 1606)
Antony and Cleopatra (1606 - 1607)
It's important to note that, in the context of Shakespearean plays, "comedy" doesn't necessarily mean it's funny (though it usually is). Rather, a comedy is just one with a happy ending, usually involving a wedding. A tragedy, by contrast, is one with an unhappy ending, usually involving one or more deaths. Shakespeare filled theatres with some of these comedies:
The Taming of the Shrew (1580 - 1590)
The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1590s)
The Comedy of Errors (1594)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595 - 1596)
Love's Labour's Lost (1595 - 1596)
The Merchant of Venice (1596 - 1597)
The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597 - 1601)
Much Ado About Nothing (1598)
As You Like It (1599)
Twelfth Night (1601)
Troilus and Cressida (1601 - 1602)
All's Well That Ends Well (1603 - 1606)
Measure for Measure (1604)
Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1608)
The Tempest (1611)
The Winter's Tale (1611)
There's no doubt Shakespeare found the royal court to be something of an enigma. He crafted tales of betrayal, love, and murder, all within the king's court. We can learn a lot about this period in time through these plays:
King John (1595 - 1597)
Richard II (1595 - 1596)
Richard III (1592 - 1594)
Henry IV, Part 1 (1596 - 1597)
Henry IV, Part 2 (1597 - 1598)
Henry VI, Part 1 (1592)
Henry VI, Part 2 (1591)
Henry VI, Part 3 (1595)
Henry V (1599)
Henry VIII (1613)
Additionally, Shakespeare may have authored or co-authored the following plays that were either lost or simply not positively identified as his work:
Love's Labour's Won
Sir Thomas More
The Two Noble Kinsmen
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 play, if not more, 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 even in the late 1580s as well.
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.
Richard Burbage (1567-1619), known as a method actor, played the lead roles in many of Shakespeare's plays, including Hamlet, Othello, Richard III, and King Lear, as well as those written by Ben Jonson. He owned 25% of the Globe Theater after having helped tear down the old one and rebuild it.
William Kempe (1560-1603) was an actor, dancer and singer but was best known for his comedy work in Shakespeare's plays including Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, Falstaff in Henry IV, Peter in Romeo and Juliet, and Costard in Love's Labour's Lost.
Henry Condell (1568-1627) was one of the 26 actors known to have been in the troupe. He co-owned the Globe Theater, with John Heminges, and helped edit and publish Shakespeare's First Folio, without the permission of Shakespeare himself.
John Heminges (1556-1630) was also one of the actors in the troupe. With Condell, he co-owned the Globe Theater and helped him edit and publish Shakespeare's First Folio.
Actors built the Globe Theater themselves. A dispute with the 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.
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.
Although his plays were exceedingly popular, theatres and other public forums had to shut down from roughly 1592 to 1594. During this time, the Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, went on to become one of the worst epidemics in history.
Like many people in entertainment, Shakespeare had his share of unhappy critics.
One notable critic of Shakespeare was Robert Greene. He called Shakespeare "an upstart crow."
However, Shakespeare's plays spoke to the common man by tapping into the ideas and interests shared by many. Since his death, Shakespeare has continued to inspire many people who read his work.
Love him or hate him, it's easy to make the case that Shakespeare was one of the greatest writers the world has ever known. Not only did he pump out an enormous volume of writing, he also wrote plays that the crowd adored.
Would you believe he didn't stop with this massive list of plays? He was also a masterful poet. Shakespeare is renowned for having mastered the art of the sonnet. Whether you go on to enjoy his plays or his sonnets - or both - feel free to make use of this Shakespeare Translator. It'll help you transport back to a world where you could attend a play for a penny.