This article presents a possible chronological listing of the composition of the plays of William Shakespeare.
Shakespearean scholars, beginning with Edmond Malone in 1778, have attempted to reconstruct the relative chronology of Shakespeare's oeuvre by various means, primarily using external evidence (such as references to the plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries in both critical material and private documents, allusions in other plays, entries in the Stationers' Register, and records of performance and publication), and internal evidence (allusions within the plays to contemporary events, composition and publication dates of sources used by Shakespeare, stylistic analysis looking at the development of his style and diction over time, and the plays' context in the contemporary theatrical and literary milieu). Most modern chronologies are based on the work of E.K. Chambers in "The Problem of Chronology" (1930), published in his book William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, Vol. I.
Due to the fragmentary nature of the surviving evidence, there is no such thing as a definitive or precise chronology, nor can there be. Dates of performance are often of limited use, as in many cases the first recorded performance of a given play does not represent the first actual performance of that play. For example, the first recorded performance of Romeo and Juliet was not until 1662, but it is known that the play was definitely performed during Shakespeare's lifetime. In cases such as this, performance history reveals nothing about the date of composition.
Similarly, dates of first publication are often relatively useless in determining a chronology, as roughly half of the plays were not published until seven years after Shakespeare's death, in the First Folio (1623), prepared by John Heminges and Henry Condell, and published by Edward Blount, William Jaggard and Isaac Jaggard. Performance dates and publication dates are also problematic insofar as many of the plays were performed several years before they were published. For example, Titus Andronicus was performed in 1592, but not published until 1594, Othello was performed in 1604 but not published until 1622, King Lear was performed in 1606 but not published until 1608. Performance and publication dates can thus be used only to determine terminal dates of composition, with the initial dates often remaining much more speculative.
In addition, some scholars dissent from the conventional dating system altogether. A notable scholar to do so is E.A.J. Honigmann, who has attempted to push back the beginning of Shakespeare's career four or five years to the mid-1580s, with his "early start" theory. Honigmann argues that Shakespeare began his career withTitus Andronicus in 1586 (the conventional school of thought is that Shakespeare began writing plays upon arriving in London c.1590). Most scholars, however, adhere to a more orthodox chronology, and some, such as Gary Taylor and Sidney Thomas, argue that the early start theory causes more problems than it solves.
The chronology presented by E.K. Chambers in 1930 is as follows:
Modern Complete Works
There are six major modern scholarly editions of the Complete Works of Shakespeare: The Riverside Shakespeare (edited by G. Blakemore Evans in 1974, with a second edition in 1996), The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works (edited by Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett and William Montgomery in 1986, with a second edition in 2005), The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition (edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard and Katharine Eisaman Haus in 1997, with a second edition in 2008), The Arden Shakespeare: Complete Works (edited by Richard Proudfoot, Ann Thompson and David Scott Kastan in 1998, with a second edition in 2002 and a third in 2011), The Complete Pelican Shakespeare (edited by Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller in 2002), and The RSC Shakespeare: Complete Works (edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen in 2007). Additionally, as with Oxford, Arden, Pelican and the RSC, theNew Cambridge Shakespeare, the New Penguin Shakespeare, the Signet Classic Shakespeare, the Dover Wilson Shakespeare, the Shakespeare Folios and theFolger Shakespeare Library all publish scholarly editions of individual plays, although none have issued a complete works volume.
Arden presents the plays alphabetically without any attempt to construct an overall chronology. Oxford, Riverside, Norton and RSC all present chronologies which differ from one another and which attempt to construct only approximate dating. The following list adopts the Oxford Shakespeare chronology, although none of the major chronologies has any real authority over any of the others.
- First official record: in Francis Meres' Palladis Tamia (1598), referred to as "Gētlemē of Verona."
- First published: First Folio (1623).
- First recorded performance: an adaptation by Benjamin Victor was performed at Drury Lane in 1762. The earliest known performance of the straight Shakespearean text was at Covent Garden on 15 April 1784, although because of the reference to the play in Palladis Tamia, we know it was definitely performed in Shakespeare's lifetime.
- Evidence: Stanley Wells argues that the play's "dramatic structure is comparatively unambitious, and while some of its scenes are expertly constructed, those involving more than, at the most, four characters betray an uncertainty of technique suggestive of inexperience." As such, the play is considered one of the first Shakespeare composed upon arriving in London c.1590, at which point he would have lacked theatrical experience. Furthermore, the discussion between Launce and Speed regarding the vices and virtues of Launce's mistress (3.1.276-359) seems to borrow from John Lyly's Midas, which was written in late 1588 and/or early 1589, thus fixing a terminus post quem for the play. This situates the date of composition as somewhere between 1589 and 1591, by which time it is known Shakespeare was working on the Henry VI plays. In his 2008 edition of the play for the Oxford Shakespeare, Roger Warren, following E.A.J. Honigmann, suggests Shakespeare may have written the play prior to his arrival in London, possibly as early as 1587, although he acknowledges this theory is purely speculative.
1596 second quarto of A Shrew
- First official record: possible version of the play entered into Stationers' Register by Peter Short on 2 May 1594 as "a booke intituled A plesant Conceyted historie called the Tayminge of a Shrowe." First record of the play as it exists today is found in the First Folio (1623).
- First published: possible version of the play published in quarto in 1594 as A Pleasant Conceited Historie, called The taming of a Shrew (printed by Peter Short for Cuthbert Burby). This text was republished in 1596 (again by Short for Burby) and 1607 (by Valentine Simmes for Nicholas Ling). The play as it exists today was first published in the First Folio as The Taming of the Shrew.
- Additional information (publication): there is a general lack of scholarly agreement regarding the exact relationship between the 1594 A Shrew and the 1623 The Shrew. Originally, A Shrew was seen as a non-Shakespearean source for The Shrew, meaning The Shrew must have been completed sometime after 2 May 1594. This remained the predominant theory until 1850, when Samuel Hickson suggested that A Shrew was in some way derived from The Shrew. Peter Alexander developed Hickson's work into his reported text/bad quarto theory, which necessitates that The Shrew must have been written prior to 2 May 1594. However, there are other theories about the relationship between the texts. In 1942, R.A. Houk posited the "Ur-Shrew" theory, suggesting that the plays are two completely unrelated texts by different authors based on the same (now lost) source. In 1943, G.I. Duthie refined this theory, suggesting that A Shrew was a reported text of an early draft of The Shrew. In his 1998 edition of A Shrew for the New Cambridge Shakespeare: The Early Quartos series, Stephen Roy Miller suggested A Shrew was an adaptation of The Shrew written by someone other than Shakespeare. Critics remain divided on this issue.
- First recorded performance: according to Philip Henslowe's diary, a play called The Tamynge of A Shrowe was performed at Newington Butts on 13 June 1594. This could have been either the 1594 A Shrew or the Shakespearean The Shrew, but as the Admiral's Men and the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's own company, were sharing the theatre at the time, and as such Shakespeare himself would have been there, scholars tend to assume it wasThe Shrew. The Shakespearean version was definitely performed at court before Charles I and Henrietta Maria on 26 November 1633, where it was described as "likt."
- Evidence: a terminus ante quem for A Shrew would seem to be August 1592; a stage direction at 3.21 mentions "Simon," which probably refers to the actor Simon Jewell, who was buried on 21 August 1592. The Shrew must have been written earlier than 1593, as Anthony Chute's Beauty Dishonoured, written under the title of Shore's wife (published in June 1593) contains the line "He calls his Kate, and she must come and kiss him." This must refer to The Shrew, as there is no corresponding "kissing scene" in A Shrew. There are also verbal similarities between both Shrew plays and the anonymous play A Knack to Know a Knave (first performed in June 1592). Knack features several passages common to both A Shrew and The Shrew, but it also borrows several passages unique to The Shrew. This suggests The Shrew was on stage prior to June 1592. However, Kier Elam further narrows the terminal date of The Shrew to 1591, based on Shakespeare's probable use of two sources published that year; Abraham Ortelius' map of Italy in the fourth edition of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum and John Florio's Second Fruits. As neither Shrew play is likely to have been written any earlier than 1590, this places the likely date of composition of The Shrew as 1590-1591, with A Shrew written sometime prior to August 1592.
1594 quarto of The First part of the Contention
- First official record: version of the play entered into the Stationers' Register by Thomas Millington on 12 March 1594 as "a booke intituled, the firste parte of the Contention of the twoo famous houses of York and Lancaster with the deathe of the good Duke Humfrey and the banishement and Deathe of the Duke of Suffolk and the tragicall ende of the prowd Cardinall of Winchester, with the notable rebellion of Jack Cade and the Duke of Yorkes ffirste clayme unto the Crowne."
- First published: version of the play published in quarto in 1594 as The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolke, and the Tragicall end of the proud Cardinal of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Jack Cade: and the Duke of Yorke's first claim unto the Crowne (printed by Thomas Creede for Thomas Millington). This text was republished in 1600 (by Valentine Simmes for Millington) and in 1619. The 1619 text was printed with the 1595 octavo of Henry VI, Part 3 under the title The Whole Contention betweene the two Famous Houses, Lancaster and Yorke. With the Tragicall ends of the good Duke Humfrey, Richard Duke of Yorke, and King Henrie the sixt, as part of William Jaggard's "False Folio" (printed byThomas Pavier). The 1623 Folio text of 2 Henry VI appears under the title The second Part of Henry the Sixt, with the death of the Good Duke Humfrey.
- Additional information (publication): scholars are undecided as to the exact nature of the relationship between the 1594The Contention and the 1623 2 Henry VI. There are four main theories: The Contention is a bad quarto, a reported text constructed from memory based upon a performance of 2 Henry VI; The Contention is an early draft of 2 Henry VI; The Contention is both a bad quarto and an early draft (i.e. a reported text based upon a staging of an early draft of the play);The Contention is an anonymous source for 2 Henry VI. Originally, the bad quarto theory was generally accepted by scholars. First suggested by Samuel Johnson in the original edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765), it remained the predominant theory until challenged by Edmond Malone in The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare (1790), favouring the early draft theory. In 1929, Peter Alexander and Madeleine Doran re-established the dominance of the bad quarto theory. Scholars have continued to debate the issue since then, with no real consensus reached. The source theory, originated byGeorg Gottfried Gervinus in 1849 has fallen out of favour in the twentieth and twentieth-first centuries.
- First recorded performance: although it is known that the play was definitely performed in Shakespeare's day, adaptations dominated the stage throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The earliest known such adaptation was in 1681, with John Crowne's two-part play, Henry the Sixth, The First Part andThe Misery of Civil War. Two more adaptations followed in 1723. The first was Humfrey Duke of Gloucester by Ambrose Philips, the second was Theophilus Cibber's King Henry VI: A Tragedy, both of which adapted scenes from 2 Henry VI. Another adaptation followed in 1817, J.H. Merivale's Richard Duke of York; or the Contention of York and Lancaster, which used material from all three Henry VI plays, but removed everything not directly related to York. The earliest known production of the Shakespearean 2 Henry VI was on 23 April 1864 at the Surrey Theatre, directed by James Anderson.
- Evidence: it is known that True Tragedy (i.e. 3 Henry VI) was on stage by June 1592. It is also known that True Tragedy was definitely a sequel to The Contention, meaning The Contention must also have been on stage by early 1592 at the latest. It is also thought that Henry VI, Part 1 was a new play in March 1592. If The Contention predates 1 Henry VI, the theatrical evidence would place the likely date of 2 Henry VI as 1591.
- First official record: version of the play published in octavo in 1595. 3 Henry VI was never entered into the Stationers' Register.
- First published: version of the play published in octavo in 1595 as The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixt, with the Whole Contention betweene the two Houses Lancaster and Yorke (printed by Peter Short for Thomas Millington). This text was republished in quarto in 1600 (by William White for Millington) and in 1619. The 1619 text was printed with the 1594 quarto of 2 Henry VI under the title The Whole Contention betweene the two Famous Houses, Lancaster and Yorke. With the Tragicall ends of the good Duke Humfrey, Richard Duke of Yorke, and King Henrie the sixt, as part of William Jaggard's "False Folio" (printed by Thomas Pavier). The 1623 Folio text of 3 Henry VIappears under the title The third Part of Henry the Sixt, with the death of the Duke of Yorke.
- Additional information (publication): scholars are undecided as to the exact nature of the relationship between the 1595True Tragedy and the 1623 3 Henry VI. There are four main theories: True Tragedy is a "bad octavo", a reported text constructed from memory based upon a performance of 3 Henry VI; True Tragedy is an early draft of 3 Henry VI; True Tragedy is both a bad quarto and an early draft (i.e. a reported text based upon a staging of an early draft of the play); True Tragedy is an anonymous source for 3 Henry VI. Originally, the bad quarto theory was generally accepted by scholars. First suggested by Samuel Johnson in the original edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765), it remained the predominant theory until challenged by Edmond Malone in The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare (1790), favouring the early draft theory. In 1929, Peter Alexander and Madeleine Doran re-established the dominance of the bad quarto theory. Scholars have continued to debate the issue since then, with no real consensus reached. The source theory, originated by Georg Gottfried Gervinus in 1849 has fallen out of favour in the twentieth and twentieth-first centuries.
- First recorded performance: although it is known that the play was definitely performed in Shakespeare's day, adaptations dominated the stage throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The earliest known such adaptation was in 1681, with John Crowne's two-part play, Henry the Sixth, The First Part andThe Misery of Civil War. In 1699, 3 Henry VI was also partly incorporated into Colley Cibber's The Tragical History of King Richard the Third. In 1723, Theophilus Cibber's King Henry VI: A Tragedy also adapted scenes from 3 Henry VI. Another adaptation followed in 1817, J.H. Merivale's Richard Duke of York; or the Contention of York and Lancaster, which used material from all three Henry VI plays, but removed everything not directly related to York. The earliest known production of the Shakespearean 3 Henry VI was on 4 May 1906 at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, directed by F.R. Benson.
- Evidence: in Groatsworth of Wit, Robert Greene writes about "an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his 'tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide', supposes that he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you, and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country." Obviously directed at Shakespeare, this is a reference to a line in 3 Henry VI, when York refers to Margaret as a "tiger's heart wrapped in woman's hide" (1.4.137). As Groatsworth was registered in the Stationers' Register on 20 September 1592, this means that True Tragedy must have been on stage prior to 23 June 1592, as that was when the government shut the London theatres due to an outbreak of plague. To have been on stage by June 1592, the play was most likely written sometime in 1591.
- First official record: possibly in Philip Henslowe's diary. On 3 March 1592, Henslowe reports seeing a "ne" play called "Harey the vj" (i.e. Henry VI), which could be a reference to 1 Henry VI, although this is not universally accepted. An entry found in the Stationers' Register on 19 April 1602 transferring the rights from Thomas Millington to Thomas Pavier of "The first and Second parte of Henry VJ" is thought to refer to what we today call 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI, not 1 Henry VI. The first definite record of the play was not until the First Folio in 1623.
- First published: First Folio (1623), as The first Part of Henry the Sixt.
- First recorded performance: possibly on 3 March 1592 at The Rose, as seen by Philip Henslowe. The earliest definite performance was on 13 March 1738 at Covent Garden.
- Additional information (attribution): many critics consider 1 Henry VI to have been written as a prequel to the successful two-part play, The Contention andTrue Tragedy. Possibly co-written with Thomas Nashe and/or other unidentified dramatists.
- Evidence: on 3 March 1592, Philip Henslowe saw a new play called "Harey the vj" at The Rose, but he gives no further information. In August, Thomas Nashe published Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Divell, in which he refers to a play he had recently seen featuring a rousing depiction of Lord Talbot, a major character in 1 Henry VI. Most critics take Nashe's reference to Talbot as supportive of the fact that the play Henslowe saw was 1 Henry VI. As such, to have been a new play in March 1592, and assuming it was a prequel written after the other two plays in the trilogy, the play was most likely written in 1591 or very early 1592.
1594 quarto of Titus Andronicus
- First official record: Philip Henslowe's diary, 24 January 1594, where he records seeing the play "titus & ondronicus" at The Rose.
- First published: published in quarto in February 1594 as The Most Lamentable Romaine Tragedie of Titus Andronicus, the first known printing of a Shakespearean play (printed by John Danter for Edward White and Thomas Millington). The play was republished in 1600 (printed by James Roberts for White) and 1611 (printed by Edward Allde for White). The Folio text appears under the title The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus.
- First recorded performance: on 24 January 1594 performed by Sussex's Men at The Rose, as recorded in Henslowe's diary.
- Additional information (attribution): Titus is most likely a collaboration between Shakespeare and at least one other dramatist, probably George Peele.
- Evidence: E.A.J. Honigmann dates the play 1586, arguing it to be Shakespeare's first piece, written several years prior to his arrival in London. In his 1994 edition of the play for the New Cambridge Shakespeare, Alan Hughes makes a similar argument, suggesting a date of 1588. Most scholars, however, tend to favour a post-1590 date, although there is by no means a consensus amongst them as to what that date may be. In his introduction to the 2001 edition of the play for the New Penguin Shakespeare (edited by Sonia Massai), Jacques Berthoud argues for a date of 1591; in his 1984 edition for the Oxford Shakespeare, Eugene M. Waith argues for a date of 1592; in his 1995 edition for the Arden Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate argues for a date of 1593. What is known is that the play is unlikely to have been written later than June 1592, as that was when the London theatres were closed due to an outbreak of plague. Additionally, stylistic analysis has shown that Titus belongs to Shakespeare's pre-plague group of plays. If it is assumed that the Henry VI trilogy was complete by March 1592 at the latest, it would suggest Titus was composed either immediately afterwards, or perhaps simultaneously as he was completing them, suggesting a date of late 1591/early 1592.
1597 quarto of Richard III
- First official record: version of the play entered into the Stationers' Register by Andrew Wise on 20 October 1597 as "The tragedie of kinge Richard the Third w th the death of the duke of Clarence."
- First published: version of the play published in quarto in December 1597 as The tragedy of King Richard the third. Containing, his treacherous plots against his brother Clarence: the pittiefull murther of his innocent nephewes: his tyrannicall usurpation: with the whole course of his detested life, and most deserved death (printed by Valentine Simmes for Andrew Wise). This text was republished in 1598 (by Thomas Creede for Wise), 1603 (again by Creede for Wise), 1605 (by Creede for Matthew Lawe), 1612 (again by Creede for Lawe) and 1622 (by Thomas Purfoot for Lawe). The Folio text appears under the title The Tragedy of Richard the Third, with the Landing of Earle Richmond, and the Battell at Bosworth Field.
- Additional information (publication): because the 1597 quarto is of such good quality, without the obvious errors common to the 'original' bad quartos, as designated by Alfred W. Pollard (the 1597 Romeo and Juliet, the 1602 The Merry Wives of Windsor, the 1600 Henry V and the 1603 Hamlet), scholars are undecided as to the exact relationship between the quarto and the 1623 folio texts. If Q1 is a bad quarto, it is an uncommonly "good" bad quarto. It is thought that F1 was set from Q3 (the 1605 text), Q6 (the 1622 text) and the author's foul papers, and as such, Q1 and F1 differ from one another substantially. Most significantly, F1 contains roughly 230 lines not in Q1, Q1 contains roughly 40 lines not in F1, there are over 2000 textual differences, some scenes are arranged differently (including the order of the entry of the ghosts in 5.4), and Q1 has fewer characters than F1. There are two main theories: the quarto is a reported text, reconstructed from memory based on a performance of the play; the quarto is a performance text, a refined version of the longer folio text written by Shakespeare himself after the play had been staged. No real consensus has been reached on this issue.
- First recorded performance: the play was performed extensively in Shakespeare's lifetime, and evidence would seem to suggest it was one of his most popular plays; it is mentioned in Palladis Tamia in 1598 (as "Richard the 3."), and by the time of the First Folio in 1623, had been published in quarto six times, and referenced by multiple writers of the day. Regarding specific performances however, there is little solid evidence. In 1602, John Manningham mentions seeingRichard Burbage playing the role of Richard, probably at the Globe, where his performance so impressed a female member of the audience that she asked him to visit her later that night in the guise of Richard. The earliest definite performance was at St James's Palace on 16 or 17 November 1633 by the King's Men.
- Evidence: it is known that Richard III was definitely a sequel to True Tragedy, which was on stage by 23 June 1592, hence Richard III must have been written roughly around the same period. A common argument regarding Shakespeare's chronology at this point in his career is that Richard III is a significantly better play than any of the Henry VI plays, with a much tighter structure, a more mature manner and a greater degree of stylistic control. This dramatic improvement in his writing is attributed to his absorbing the lessons of Senecan tragedy when composing Titus, which he was then able to incorporate into Richard.Additionally, in his 2000 edition of the play for the Oxford Shakespeare, John Jowett argues that the play may originally have been written for Lord Strange's Men, but Shakespeare added some new material after it had passed to Pembroke's Men, a company which formed in mid-1592 and disbanded in September 1593. The patron of Strange's Men was Ferdinando Stanley, 5th Earl of Derby, a direct descent of Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby, a major character in the play. However Shakespeare altered much of his source material (Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard III) regarding this character, presenting him as far more heroic and honourable than does More. For example, Shakespeare has Thomas lead a battalion against Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field, when it was in fact his brother William who led them. This suggests Shakespeare was writing with Ferdinando in mind, knowingly praising the ancestor of the company's patron. However, the play also takes the time to praise the ancestors of the patron of Pembroke's Men, Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke. Prior to the Battle of Bosworth, a list of names of lords who have joined Richmond's cause is read aloud, two of whom are "Sir Walter Herbert, a renown'd soldier" (4.5.9) and "redoubted Pembroke" (4.5.11). This passage is completely extraneous to the rest of the plot, is almost always cut in performance and has been argued to be an addition to the original composition. Pembroke is later mentioned by Richmond, who asks for him to be sent to his tent to consult on the eve of battle (5.4.5-8), a request never mentioned again. Additionally, in Q1, Richmond is flanked by "three lords" in 5.2, but in F1, the lords are all named, one of whom is the previously mentioned Walter Herbert. Both the request for Pembroke, which is subsequently forgotten, and the change of the anonymous lord to a specific historical individual suggest addition after initial composition. Jowett argues that coupled with the narratively vital praise of Stanley's ancestor, the less integrated references to Herbert and Pembroke create something of a hypothetical internal chronology of composition in which Shakespeare initially writes the play for Strange's Men, but, perhaps due to the closing of the theatres in June 1592, the play passes to Pembroke's Men for a regional tour, at which point he adds the lines praising the ancestors of the new company in whose hands the play has now found itself.