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William Shakespeare

The Plays

Chronology of Composition

The chronology of Shakespeare's plays is uncertain, but a reasonable approximation of their order can be inferred from dates of publication, references in contemporary writings, allusions in the plays to contemporary events, thematic relationships, and metrical and stylistic comparisons. His first plays are believed to be the three parts of Henry VI ; it is uncertain whether Part I was written before or after Parts II and III. Richard III is related to these plays and is usually grouped with them as the final part of a first tetralogy of historical plays.

After these come The Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus (almost a third of which may have been written by George Peele), The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labour's Lost, and Romeo and Juliet. Some of the comedies of this early period are classical imitations with a strong element of farce. The two tragedies, Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet, were both popular in Shakespeare's own lifetime. In Romeo and Juliet the main plot, in which the new love between Romeo and Juliet comes into conflict with the longstanding hatred between their families, is skillfully advanced, while the substantial development of minor characters supports and enriches it.

After these early plays, and before his great tragedies, Shakespeare wrote Richard II, A Midsummer Night's Dream, King John, The Merchant of Venice, Parts I and II of Henry IV, Much Ado about Nothing, Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. The comedies of this period partake less of farce and more of idyllic romance, while the history plays successfully integrate political elements with individual characterization. Taken together, Richard II, each part of Henry IV, and Henry V form a second tetralogy of historical plays, although each can stand alone, and they are usually performed separately. The two parts of Henry IV feature Falstaff, a vividly depicted character who from the beginning has enjoyed immense popularity.

The period of Shakespeare's great tragedies and the "problem plays" begins in 1600 with Hamlet. Following this are The Merry Wives of Windsor (written to meet Queen Elizabeth's request for another play including Falstaff, it is not thematically typical of the period), Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens (the last may have been partially written by Thomas Middleton).

On familial, state, and cosmic levels, Othello, Lear, and Macbeth present clear oppositions of order and chaos, good and evil, and spirituality and animality. Stylistically the plays of this period become increasingly compressed and symbolic. Through the portrayal of political leaders as tragic heroes, Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra involve the study of politics and social history as well as the psychology of individuals.

The last two plays in the Shakespearean corpus, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, may be collaborations with John Fletcher. Shakespeare also may have had a small part in writing the play Double Falsehood, first published in 1727 and thought to be mainly the work of Fletcher. The remaining four plays— Pericles (two acts of which may have been written by George Wilkins), Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest —are tragicomedies. They feature characters of tragic potential, but resemble comedy in that their conclusions are marked by a harmonious resolution achieved through magic, with all its divine, humanistic, and artistic implications.

Appeal and Influence

Since his death Shakespeare's plays have been almost continually performed, in non-English-speaking nations as well as those where English is the native tongue; they are quoted more than the works of any other single author. The plays have been subject to ongoing examination and evaluation by critics attempting to explain their perennial appeal, which does not appear to derive from any set of profound or explicitly formulated ideas. Indeed, Shakespeare has sometimes been criticized for not consistently holding to any particular philosophy, religion, or ideology; for example, the subplot of A Midsummer Night's Dream includes a burlesque of the kind of tragic love that he idealizes in Romeo and Juliet.

The strength of Shakespeare's plays lies in the absorbing stories they tell, in their wealth of complex characters, and in the eloquent speech—vivid, forceful, and at the same time lyric—that the playwright puts on his characters' lips. It has often been noted that Shakespeare's characters are neither wholly good nor wholly evil, and that it is their flawed, inconsistent nature that makes them memorable. Hamlet fascinates audiences with his ambivalence about revenge and the uncertainty over how much of his madness is feigned and how much genuine. Falstaff would not be beloved if, in addition to being genial, openhearted, and witty, he were not also boisterous, cowardly, and, ultimately, poignant. Finally, the plays are distinguished by an unparalleled use of language. Shakespeare had a tremendous vocabulary and a corresponding sensitivity to nuance, as well as a singular aptitude for coining neologisms and punning.

Editions and Sources

The first collected edition of Shakespeare is the First Folio, published in 1623 and including all the plays except Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen (the latter play also generally not appearing in modern editions). Eighteen of the plays exist in earlier quarto editions, eight of which are extremely corrupt, possibly having been reconstructed from an actor's memory. The first edition of Shakespeare to divide the plays into acts and scenes and to mark exits and entrances is that of Nicholas Rowe in 1709. Other important early editions include those of Alexander Pope (1725), Lewis Theobald (1733), and Samuel Johnson (1765).

Among Shakespeare's most important sources, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587) is significant for the English history plays, although Shakespeare did not hesitate to transform a character when it suited his dramatic purposes. For his Roman tragedies he used Sir Thomas North's translation (1579) of Plutarch's Lives. Many times he rewrote old plays, and twice he turned English prose romances into drama ( As You Like It and The Winter's Tale ). He also used the works of contemporary European authors. For further information on Shakespeare's sources, see the table entitled Shakespeare's Play.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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