Shakespeare’s Plays


As with Shakespeare’s life, questions about Shakespeare’s plays remain unresolved.Usually there are 37 plays listed as belonging to Shakespeare, but scholars are not entirely sure if all the plays attributed to Shakespeare were in fact written by him, or entirely by him. For example, Shakespeare’s last play, Henry VIII, may have been written as a collaboration (as this way of writing plays was not uncommon in Shakespeare’s time).  Furthermore, there are a small number of other plays, not usually listed as Shakespeare’s, which may have been his.  It is also possible that some of Shakespeare’s plays have been lost.

Shakespeare, like other writers of the time, borrowed heavily from other sources.His plays were usually based on the plots of other literary, historical or classical works.  He did not simply re-tell the tale however, but usually made structural changes, (for example, in character, plot and theme) as well as giving his story a depth and understanding that the original material often lacked.


Shakespeare’s plays are usually classified according to the nature of the play, that is, comedy, tragedy or history (chronicle).   Although we use these categories for convenience sake, Shakespeare’s plays are often too complex for this simple kind of classification.  A tragedy, for example, may contain humorous episodes, while some comedies have serious, even potentially tragic aspects in them. 


Shakespeare’s comedies often have a romantic element in them and involve some kind of mix up (for example, of identity), which in the end is  resolved happily for the central protagonists.

EXAMPLES:  The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream,  The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing,

As You Like It, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest.


Shakespeare’s tragedies often involve a central character with a tragic flaw, or some other exaggerated character trait, which leads to the destruction of themselves and others.

EXAMPLES:  Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Timon of Athens, Anthony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus.


Shakespeare’s history plays concern significant English royal persons.  The plays were not always historically accurate, but were changed or heightened for dramatic effect. Their existence and popularity is sometimes attributed to the rise of nationalism that was occurring in Shakespeare’s time and they often reflect some of the important issues of state occurring at the time.

EXAMPLES:  Henry VI (Parts I, II and III), Richard III, King John, Richard II, Henry IV (Parts I and II), Henry V, Henry VIII.


Records of opening play performances in Elizabethan times are hard to come by.  This makes it difficult to date the writing or performance of Shakespeare’s plays accurately and therefore there is much conjecture amongst researchers on the subject.  The following time periods are intended only as an approximate guide to when the plays were written:

1588-1594:  The Comedy of Errors, Henry VI (Parts I, II and III), The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, Love Labour’s Lost, Titus Andronicus, King John.
1595-1600:  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Henry IV (Parts I and II),

Henry V, Julius Caesar, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merry Wives of Windsor, As You Like It.
1601-1608:  Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Pericles, Coriolanus, Anthony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens.
1609-1616: Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Henry VIII.


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