Shakespeare led a life of Allegory; his works are the comments on it.
– John Keats
During his career Shakespeare is believed to have written 37 plays. No one knows for sure because of poor documentation and records, that and plays were meant to be performed so no one was too fussed on making sure they survived in print. If the collaborated plays, as well as those believed lost like Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won are included, then the number rises. Some argue he wrote 28 plays himself and collaborated on 10 and the Wikipedia article on collaborations is even more confusing again.
Sticking with the 37 figure for now, the majority of plays were comedies with a total of 17, while tragedies and historical plays come next at 10 each. The first play scholars believe Shakespeare penned was Henry VI, Part One, written sometime during 1589-1590 when Shakespeare was 25 years old. Part Two and Part Three followed in 1590-91. He composed plays on average every 1.5 years until his final play Cardenio which is thought to have been written in 1612-13. The Tempest in 1611 is his last surviving solo creation, though he is recorded as a contributor on The Two Noble Kinsmen with John Fletcher in 1613 when he was 49, his last official recorded play.
There is a wonderful timeline that maps out when each work was written which you can see a more detailed version here including key performances. I’ve chosen a few dates to show the timeline of when each play was written.
1589-1590. Shakespeare is believed to have written his very first play, Henry VI, Part One
1590-91. Shakespeare is believed to have written Henry VI, Part Two and Henry VI, Part III.
1592-93. Shakespeare is thought to have written the plays Richard III and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
1592-94. The Comedy of Errors written in this time.
1593-94. Titus Andronicus and The Taming of the Shrew are thought to have been written.
1594-1595. Shakespeare pen’s Love Labour’s Lost.
1594-1596. King John is assumed to have been written.
1595. Shakespeare is thought to have composed Richard II (performed that very same year), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (thought to be composed for a wedding), and Romeo and Juliet.
1596. The Merry Wives of Windsoris thought to have been written.
1596-1597. The Merchant of Venice and Henry IV, Part One are thought to have been written.
1598. Thought to have written the play Henry IV, Part Two.
1598-99. Writes Much Ado About Nothing.
1599. Julius Caesaris performed at the newly opened Globe Theatre for the first known time. Henry V believed to be written.
1600-1601. Shakespeare is thought to have composed Hamlet at this time.
1601-1602. Twelfth Night or What You Will, All Well That Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida are probably composed.
1604. Measure for Measure is believed to have been written in this year. Othello is also written.
1605. King Lear is believed to have been composed in this year and as is Macbeth.
1606. Antony And Cleopatra is believed to have been composed.
1607-1608. Timon of Athens, Pericles and Coriolanus are composed.
1609-1610. Cymbeline is thought to have been composed.
1610-1611. The Winter’s Tale is written.
1611. The Tempest was written.
1612-1613. Shakespeare is thought to have written Cardenio, his only lost play during this period and with John Fletcher as a likely contributor, composes Henry VIII.
1613. The Two Noble Kinsmen is penned. A 1634 entry within the Stationer’s Registry confirms that both William Shakespeare and John Fletcher composed this play.
Shakespeare was also an actor, performing in his own and other people’s plays. His first recorded role in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour in 1598. But it’s believed during 1585-1592 that Shakespeare first went to London to join a company of actors as a playwright and performer. He appeared in many plays over his career, many by Ben Johnson who was a friend. His final known acting performance was in Johnson’s production of Sejanus in 1603.
What I found interesting was not only did Shakespeare help build the Globe to have his theatre company’s plays performed, it’s believed The Tempest was written specifically with performances at the Blackfriars Theatre in mind, which The King’s Men (as they’d became known) leased in 1608.
I’ll be discussing in a later post about why these plays have survived and been loved while other playwright’s didn’t. I also like that while the comedies outnumber the tragedies, they aren’t as well known and the “masterpieces” like Hamlet or Macbeth. I’ve included some links below to learn more about the plays as well as included a full list of his surviving plays.
All’s Well That Ends Well | As You Like It
Cymbeline | The Comedy of Errors
Love’s Labour’s Lost | Measure for Measure
The Merchant of Venice | The Merry Wives of Windsor
A Midsummer Night’s Dream | Much Ado About Nothing
Pericles | The Taming of the Shrew
Troilus and Cressida | The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Twelfth Night | The Winter’s Tale
Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus
Hamlet | Julius Caesar
King Lear | Macbeth
Othello | Romeo and Juliet
Timon of Athens | Titus Andronicus
Henry IV 1 and 2 | Henry V
Henry VI 1, 2, and 3 | Henry VIII
King John | Richard II
Links and Bits