The writing of Shakespeare’s plays
Shakespeare produced his plays and poems at an astonishing rate. If you ask “How many plays did Shakespeare write?” you are asking a question that it’s impossible to answer. The usual answer is that he wrote thirty-six plays but it is an answer that grossly oversimplifies the real situation for the sake of convenience.
In the first place we are extremely lucky to have any of his plays at all. The texts were basically disposable, although some were kept in the theatres that owned them. Many texts were destroyed by accident – some by fire – or stolen. However, in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, two of his actor friends, who worked with him for several years in his King’s Men theatre company, John Heminge and Henry Condell, gathered together every text they could find and published them as a collection – “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies” – known as the First Folio. If they had not done that we would not ever have seen or read eighteen of his best plays, including As You Like It, Antony and Cleopatra, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and The Tempest, as the original texts of those plays have not survived.
The second oversimplification of the answer “thirty-six” is that many of the plays were written in collaboration with other writers, and, moreover, many of the plays of other writers were partly written by Shakespeare. Modern technology is being used to try and sort out some kind of answer as to how much of any of those plays Shakespeare actually wrote, but that work is far from finished.
The third oversimplification is that most of the plays are just one version of a play that was revised, sometimes several times. It seems, too, that Shakespeare didn’t just turn up in London and become a great writer overnight. Every writer, including one as great as Shakespeare, has to learn the craft. It is thought that Shakespeare was already writing plays before he left Stratford for London and was able to show his work to established writers before being taken on by a writing team.
Henry VI Part 2 is usually cited as Shakespeare’s first play but there is scholarly evidence that there were many hands in the writing of it, and the parts that are credited to Shakespeare show an expertise in several of the elements of what makes a good play, suggesting that he was already an experienced writer when he first wrote for a London theatre.
Shakespeare is also regarded as a great poet, or author of poems. Here is a list of all works credited to him – plays and poems, in chronological order.
This list is as accurate as possible, based mainly on dates estimated by literary historians. We know when most of the plays were first performed but not necessarily when they were written, as they could have been written long before they were first staged.
1588 – 1593
Titus Andronicus. The more scholarly work is done on this play the less of the text Shakespeare seems to have written. It is thought that the author is George Peel, with some input from Shakespeare.
Two Gentlemen of Verona. Possibly a revision of a play by Robert Greene, by Shakespeare, working with George Peele and Thomas Nashe, first performed 1594
Poem: A Lover’s Complaint, published 1609, with the sonnets
1589 – 1594
The Comedy of Errors, first performed 1594
Henry VI, Part 2, Shakespeare writing in a team, including Christopher Marlowe, George Peel, Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene, first performed 1592
Henry VI, Part 3 Play, first performed 1592.
The Taming of the Shrew, first performed 1594
Henry VI Part 1, the revision of a play by Robert Greene, The true Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke. Shakespeare worked on it with Greene, Nashe, Peele and Marlowe.
Edward III, partly written by Shakespeare with one or more of Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Michjael Drayton, Thomas Nashe, George Peele.
Richard III, first performed 1597
1592 – 1605
The Sonnets. Shakespeare wrote and revised them during these years. Sonnets 128 and 144 were printed in a poetry collection, The Passionate Pilgrim 1n 1599. They were first printed in a complete sequence in 1609.
Poem: Venus and Adonis
Poem: The Rape of Lucrece
1594 – 1595
Love’s Labours Lost, first performed 1597
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, first performed 1605
King John, first known performance 1737
Richard I I, first performed 1595
Romeo and Juliet, first performance unknown but before or during 1597
The Merchant of Venice, first performed 1605
Henry IV, Part 1, first performed 1600
Henry IV, Part 2, first performed 1600
The Merry Wives of Windsor, first performed 1601/2
Much Ado About Nothing, first performed 1610
Henry V, first performed 1605
Julius Caesar, first performed 1599
1599 – 1600
As You Like It, first performed 1603
Poem: The Phoenix and the Turtle, first published 1601
Hamlet, first performed 1602
Twelfth Night, first performed 1602
Troilus and Cressida, first performed 1604
1602 – 1604
Measure for Measure, first performed 1604
1603 – 1604
All’s Well that Ends Well, first performed 1604
Othello, first performed 1604
King Lear, first performed 1606
Macbeth, first performed 1606
Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, first performed
Anthony and Cleopatra Play, first performed 1607
Coriolanus Play, first performed 1609
Pericles by William Shakespeare, George Wilkins and others first performed 1619
Cymbeline , first performed 1611,
The Winter’s Tale, first performed 1611
The Tempest, first performed 1611,
Henry VIII, or All Is True, by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, first performed 1613
Cardenio (lost play) by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, first performed 1613
The Two Noble Kinsmen by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare, first performed 1612