Scholars of Elizabethan drama believe that William Shakespeare wrote at least 38 plays between 1590 and 1612. These dramatic works encompass a wide range of subjects and styles, from the playful "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to the gloomy "Macbeth." Shakespeare's plays can be roughly divided into three genres-comedies, histories, and tragedies-though some works, such as "The Tempest" and "The Winter's Tale," straddle the boundaries between these categories.
Shakespeare's first play is generally believed to be "Henry VI Part I," a history play about English politics in the years leading up to the Wars of the Roses. The play was possibly a collaboration between Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, another Elizabethan dramatist who is best known for his tragedy "Doctor Faustus." Shakespeare's last play is believed to be "The Two Noble Kinsmen," a tragicomedy co-written with John Fletcher in 1613, three years before Shakespeare's death.
Shakespeare's Plays in Chronological Order
The exact order of the composition and performances of Shakespeare's plays is difficult to prove-and therefore often disputed. The dates listed below are approximate and based on the general consensus of when the plays were first performed:
- "Henry VI Part I" (1589-1590)
- "Henry VI Part II" (1590-1591)
- "Henry VI Part III" (1590-1591)
- "Richard III" (1592-1593)
- "The Comedy of Errors" (1592-1593)
- "Titus Andronicus" (1593-1594)
- "The Taming of the Shrew" (1593-1594)
- "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" (1594-1595)
- "Love's Labour's Lost" (1594-1595)
- "Romeo and Juliet" (1594-1595)
- "Richard II" (1595-1596)
- "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1595-1596)
- "King John" (1596-1597)
- "The Merchant of Venice" (1596-1597)
- "Henry IV Part I" (1597-1598)
- "Henry IV Part II" (1597-1598)
- "Much Ado About Nothing" (1598-1599)
- "Henry V" (1598-1599)
- "Julius Caesar" (1599-1600)
- "As You Like It" (1599-1600)
- "Twelfth Night" (1599-1600)
- "Hamlet" (1600-1601)
- "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (1600-1601)
- "Troilus and Cressida" (1601-1602)
- "All's Well That Ends Well" (1602-1603)
- "Measure for Measure" (1604-1605)
- "Othello" (1604-1605)
- "King Lear" (1605-1606)
- "Macbeth" (1605-1606)
- "Antony and Cleopatra" (1606-1607)
- "Coriolanus" (1607-1608)
- "Timon of Athens" (1607-1608)
- "Pericles" (1608-1609)
- "Cymbeline" (1609-1610)
- "The Winter's Tale" (1610-1611)
- "The Tempest" (1611-1612)
- "Henry VIII" (1612-1613)
- "The Two Noble Kinsmen" (1612-1613)
Dating the Plays
The chronology of Shakespeare's plays remains a matter of some scholarly debate. Current consensus is based on a constellation of different data points, including publication information (e.g. dates taken from title pages), known performance dates, and information from contemporary diaries and other records. Though each play can be assigned a narrow date range, it is impossible to know exactly in which year any one of Shakespeare's plays was composed. Even when exact performance dates are known, nothing conclusive can be said about when each play was written.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that many of Shakespeare's plays exist in multiple editions, making it even more difficult to determine when the authoritative versions were completed. For example, there are several surviving versions of "Hamlet," three of which were printed in the First Quarto, Second Quarto, and First Folio. The version printed in the Second Quarto is the longest version of "Hamlet," though it does not include over 50 lines that appear in the First Folio version. Modern scholarly editions of the play contain material from multiple sources.
Another controversial question regarding Shakespeare's bibliography is whether the Bard actually authored all of the plays assigned to his name. In the 19th century, a number of literary historians popularized the so-called "anti-Stratfordian theory," which held that Shakespeare's plays were actually the work of Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, or possibly a group of playwrights. Subsequent scholars, however, have dismissed this theory, and the current consensus is that Shakespeare-the man born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564-did, in fact, write all of the plays that bear his name.
Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that some of Shakespeare's plays were collaborations. In 2016, a group of scholars performed an analysis of all three parts of "Henry VI" and came to the conclusion that the play does include the work of Christopher Marlowe. Future editions of the play published by Oxford University Press will credit Marlowe as co-author.
Another play, "The Two Noble Kinsmen," was co-written with John Fletcher, who also worked with Shakespeare on the lost play "Cardenio." Some scholars believe that Shakespeare may have also collaborated with George Peele, an English dramatist and poet; George Wilkins, an English dramatist and inn-keeper; and Thomas Middleton, a successful author of numerous stage works, including comedies, tragedies, and pageants.