Sunday, 19 February 2012

How Many Plays Did Shakespeare Write?

When Did Shakespeare Write His Plays?
Between Gazing Thoughtfully to
The Right, Apparently
If you believe he wrote anything at all, which I do (see here for more on that), it’s still impossible to know with absolute certainty how much Shakespeare wrote.

Shakespeare began to be noted as one of the hip, young things of the London theatre scene sometime in the early 1590s.

Interestingly, from about 1585 until his plays started to be performed in London, no one knows where Shakespeare was or what he was doing - another argument used in the case against him by the anti-Stratfordians.

However, it is possible that during these ‘lost years’ William Shakespeare was a relatively unknown actor and jobbing playwright. It was, of course, when his plays started to make a splash that he became hot property.

How Many Plays Did Shakespeare Write?

There’s no way of knowing exactly how many plays Shakespeare wrote, it’s unknown how many works he penned in collaboration with other playwrights and, more importantly, it is impossible to be sure whether some plays simply didn’t survive the centuries - and it’s certain that there are at least some plays that have been lost: Love’s Labour’s Won and The History of Cardenio are just two examples that Shakespeare scholars know of.

And when it comes to collaborations, we can be pretty certain that a few of those existed, too. The Noble Kinsman, written with John Fletcher, for example.

However, if we disregard the one collaboration and the two lost plays that are known, there are 37 plays attributed, either solely or predominantly, to William Shakespeare.

Tragedies, Histories and Comedies

What Did Shakespeare Write?: The
Cover of The First Folio, 1623

Each of Shakespeare’s plays was pigeonholed, when published in the first folio of 1623, in one of three genres: tragedy, comedy or history. In truth, these labels are, arguably, as good as useless.

For example, Richard III is categorised as a history play, but conforms to many of the conventions of tragedy. Vice versa, Julius Caesar is labelled tragedy, but is, without doubt a history.

And it gets even more sticky when you start to look at the comedies, that aren’t really comedies.

Although, it should be pointed out that ‘comedy’ didn’t always mean what we use it to mean. Many so-called comedies didn’t have a laugh-out-loud moment in ’em. They did, however, usually end on a ‘happy note’, often with the marriage of one or more young couples.

That said, there are some comedies that have such dubiously tragic content, that even a supposedly happy ending, isn’t quite comfortable. The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well have ambiguous shifts between very dark subject matter and content that is intended to be humorous.

These three plays, along with Timon of Athens, The Winter’s Tale and Troilus and Cressida, have been labelled Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’, because, although no play fits neatly into one category, these six are even trickier to define. More on problem plays to come in a future post.

When Were Shakespeare’s Plays Written?

It will, by now, probably come as no great surprise to learn that no one can be sure exactly when Shakespeare’s plays were written. After all, if it’s unclear how many he wrote or where he was for almost a decade, it would be a little ambitious to try and put a precise date on all his plays.

However, the few performance records that exist, details that are known of Shakespeare’s career and his theatre company make it possible to give a rough guide to the chronology of his plays.

1590-2Love’s Labour’s LostHenry VI Parts 1,2,3
1592-4The Comedy of Errors

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
1593-4Richard IIITitus Andronicus
1594-6A Midsummer Night's Dream

The Merchant of Venice
King John

Richard II
1594-7The Taming of The ShrewRomeo and Juliet
1597-8Henry IV Parts 1,2
1598-9Henry VJulius Caesar
1597-1600The Merry Wives of Windsor
1598-1600Much Ado About Nothing
1599-1600As You Like It
1599-1601Twelfth Night or What You Will
1600-04All’s Well That Ends Well
1601-3Troilus and Cressida
1603-4Measure for Measure
1605-6King Lear

1607-8PericlesAntony and Cleopatra

Timon of Athens
1610-11The Winter’s Tale
1611-12The Tempest
1612-13Henry VIII

Whatever you may think of him, you've got to admit, he was a prolific little playwright!

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare's life, career and plays, check out What's It All About, Shakespeare's first ebook An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.


  1. Replies
    1. Do you mean counting from the list above, or you dispute the authorship of some? If you mean counting the list above, you might be missing the three separate parts of 'Henry VI' and the two separate parts of 'Henry IV'.