Shakespeare's Plays

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(picture credit: Folger Shakespeare Library)

First Folio Cover

William Shakespeare, in terms of his life and his body of work, is the most written-about author in the history of Western civilization. His canon includes 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and 2 epic narrative poems. The First Folio (cover shown at left) was published posthumously in 1623 by two of Shakespeare's acting companions, John Heminges and Henry Condell. Ever since then, the works of Shakespeare have been studied, analyzed, and enjoyed as some of the finest masterpieces of the English language.

It is all the more wondrous when one can study the works and see Shakespeare developing as a playwright right there upon the pages. Love's Labours Lost and the early comedies are the work of a gifted and clever author. Perhaps such plays alone would have earned him literary fame in later days. The grandeur of a Hamlet or King Lear, however, is the work of a master who learned from his own writing and long practice.

In his time, Shakespeare was the most popular playwright of London. As centuries have passed, his genius eclipses all others of his age; Jonson, Marlowe, Kyd, Greene, Dekker, Heywood—none approach the craft or the humanity of character that marks the Bard's work. He took the art of dramatic verse and honed it to perfection. He created the most vivid characters of the Elizabethan stage. His usage of language, both lofty and low, shows a remarkable wit and subtlety. Most importantly, his themes are so universal that they transcend generations to stir the imaginations of audiences everywhere to this day.

His plays generally fall into four categories:

  1. Pre-1594 (Richard III, The Comedy of Errors)
  2. 1594–1600 (Henry V, Midsummer Night's Dream)
  3. 1600–1608 (Macbeth, King Lear)
  4. Post-1608 (Cymbeline, The Tempest)

The first period has its roots in Roman and medieval drama—the construction of the plays, while good, is obvious and shows the author's hand more brusquely than the later works. The earliest Shakespeare also owes a debt to Christopher Marlowe, whose writing probably gave much inspiration at the onset of the Bard's career.

The second period showed more growth in style, and the construction becoming less labored. The histories of this period are Shakespeare's best, portraying the lives of kings and royalty in most human terms. He also begins the interweaving of comedy and tragedy, which would become one of his stylistic signatures. His comedies mature in this period as well, portraying a greater characterization in their subjects.

The third period marks the great tragedies, and the principal works which would earn the Bard his fame in later centuries. His tragic figures rival those of Sophocles, and might well have walked off the Greek stage straight onto the Elizabethan. Shakespeare is at his best in these tragedies. The comedies of this period, however, show Shakespeare at a literary crossroads—moody and without the clear comic resolution of previous comedies. Hence, the term "problem plays" to describe them.

The fourth period encompasses romantic tragicomedy. Shakespeare at the end of his career seemed preoccupied with themes of redemption. The writing is more serious yet more lyrical, and the plays show Shakespeare at his most symbolic. It is argued between scholars whether this period owed more to Shakespeare's maturity as a playwright or merely signified a changing trend in Elizabethan theatre at the time.

Shakespeare on the Web

SRC A Brief History of William Shakespeare's First Folio
In 1621, two longtime colleagues of William Shakespeare decided that their deceased friend should be canonized for his work as a playwright. The resulting First Folio has become one of the most important—and valuable—books in English ever committed to print.
SRC The Evolution of Shakespeare's Fools in Three Plays
While the fool is an archetype nearly as old as the hero, Shakespeare took this standard trope and adapted it to suit a variety of situations.
SRC Ghosts of Shakespeare
Shakespeare made sparing use of ghosts in his plays, but when he used them, he made them memorable. But why use them at all? And was Shakespeare evincing a belief in actual ghosts?
SRC Shakespeare's King Henry V: Drama Versus History
A look at how Shakespeare's play King Henry the Fifth compares with English history.
SRC Shakespeare's King John: Drama Versus History
A look at how Shakespeare's play King John compares with English history.
SRC Shakespeare's King Richard II: Drama Versus History
A look at how Shakespeare's play King Richard the Second compares with English history.
SRC Shakespeare's Richard III: Portrait of a Villain
The real Richard III probably wasn't as wicked, deformed, or witty as the villain we know from Shakespeare.
SRC Shakespeare's Source Material
William Shakespeare was a gifted writer that made a career out of borrowing from a variety of sources.
SRC Shakespeare's Worst Speaking Roles
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em. Then there are these roles.
Internet Shakespeare Editions
The aim of the Internet Shakespeare Editions is to make scholarly, fully annotated texts of Shakespeare's plays available in a form native to the medium of the Internet. Includes records of the original quarto and folio versions, available to scholars, teachers, and the general public for educational purposes.
The Oxford Shakespeare
The 1914 Oxford edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare ranks among the most authoritative published this century. presents this edition online in its entirety. Edited by W. J. Craig.
New Oxford Shakespeare Online
The New Oxford Shakespeare presents an entirely new consideration of all of Shakespeare's works, edited from first principles from the base-texts themselves, and drawing on the latest textual and theatrical scholarship.
Project Gutenburg
The Shakespeare page at the Internet's original provider of free online texts.
Shakespeare at Play
Shakespeare at Play merges full-length video and text of Shakespeare's plays using multitouch technology in an innovative iOS app.
Shakespeare Uncovered
Shakespeare Uncovered combines history, biography, iconic performances, new analysis, and the personal passions of its celebrated hosts.
Shakespeare's Works (Folger Shakespeare Library)
The Folger has copies of every play, from the earliest printings to modern editions, and offers carefully edited print and digital texts. Resources include plot synopses, brief textual histories, and selected images from the Folger collection.
William Shakespeare in Quarto Archive
This British Library archive is a digital collection of the 21 known pre-1642 quarto editions of William Shakespeare's plays.
The Works of William Shakespeare at MIT
The Web's first edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. This site has offered Shakespeare's plays and poetry to the Internet community since 1993.

Literary Criticism and Study

A. C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy
A. C. Bradley's classic work goes online thanks to the Shakespeare Navigators' Web site. It's the complete book, which makes it a valuable resource.
Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, by William Hazlitt (1817)
Wikisource presents an e-book of Hazlitt's original 19th century work on the Bard's plays.
International Shakespeare Association (ISA)
The International Shakespeare Association is an umbrella organization to connect Shakespearians and Shakespeare societies around the world.
Limbs of Alarbus Shakespeare Blog
Dr. Alfred J. Drake presents his collection of lecture notes on Shakespeare's plays.
Samuel Johnson's "Shakespeare" Preface
The preface to Samuel Johnson's famous 1765 work on Shakespeare.
Shakespeare Association of America (SAA)
The Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) is a non-profit, academic organization devoted to the study of William Shakespeare and his plays and poems, the cultural and theatrical milieu in which he lived and worked, and the various roles he has played in both Anglo-American and world culture ever since.
Shakespeare in Connotations
A listing Shakespeare-dedicated articles from Connotations: A Journal for Critical Debate, including links to online articles.
Shakespeare Online
Here you will find many resources to help you in the study of Shakespeare and his works. Shakespeare Online has something to offer everyone, whether you are a teacher, a student, or a Shakespeare enthusiast in general.
The Shakespeare Study Guide
Mike Cummings, a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania, presents a number of essays and analyses that explore the works of Shakespeare.
University of Basel, Switzerland
The University of Basel English Department has pages dedicated to Shakespeare criticism from the 16th to early 20th centuries as well as a recent criticism page.
World Shakespeare Bibliography
Provides over 83,000 annotated entries for all important books, articles, book reviews, dissertations, theatrical productions and their reviews, audiovisual and electronic media related to Shakespeare and published or produced between 1969 and 2012.


ELH—Early Literary History Journal
Since 1934, ELH has consistently published superior studies that interpret the conditions affecting major works in English and American literature. Edited by Ronald Paulson.
Early Modern Literary Studies
Early Modern Literary Studies is a refereed journal serving as a formal arena for scholarly discussion and as an academic resource for researchers in the area. Articles in EMLS examine English literature, literary culture, and language during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
A convergence of in-depth and up-to-the-minute information from Shakespeare scholars, teachers, and theatre professionals.
Shakespeare Quarterly
Founded in 1950 by the Shakespeare Association of America, Shakespeare Quarterly is a refereed journal committed to publishing articles in the vanguard of Shakespeare studies.
SHAKSPER: The Global Electronic Shakespeare Conference
SHAKSPER is the international electronic conference for Shakespearean researchers, instructors, students, and those who share their academic interests and concerns.