Shakespeare’s plays are typically divided into three categories: comedy, tragedy, and history.
|All’s Well That Ends Well||Antony and Cleopatra||Henry IV, Part One|
|As You Like It||Coriolanus||Henry IV, Part Two|
|The Comedy of Errors||Cymbeline||Henry V|
|Love’s Labour’s Lost||Hamlet||Henry VI, Part One|
|Measure for Measure||Julius Caesar||Henry VI, Part Two|
|The Merchant of Venice||King Lear||Henry VI, Part Three|
|The Merry Wives of Windsor||Macbeth||Henry VIII|
|A Midsummer Night’s Dream||Othello||King John|
|Much Ado about Nothing||Romeo and Juliet||Richard II|
|Pericles, Prince of Tyre||Timon of Athens||Richard III|
|The Taming of the Shrew||Titus Andronicus|
|The Tempest||Troilus and Cressida|
|The Two Gentlemen of Verona|
|The Winter’s Tale|
Shakespeare’s tragedy and history plays tend to be his longest. His comedies are also referred to as romances, or romantic comedies. And Hamlet is not merely his most famous work; it is also his longest.
The first collection of Shakespeare’s work is known today as the “First Folio”. It was published in 1623, under the direction of John Heminges and Henry Condell, two actors in the King’s Men. It contains 36 plays, of which half had never been printed before. Folio simply refers to the way sheets were folded and arranged into a book. Several of Shakespeare’s plays had been published previously in quarto form (a different way of folding and arranging a book which resulted in eight pages of text.)
There were roughly 800 First Folio copies printed in 1623. There are 233 known surviving copies; the most recent discovery of a First Folio occurred in late 2014, in a French library. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC has the world’s largest collection of surviving copies at 82.
Book printing was still in its infancy when it was printed. The Folio would have been sold unbound, with purchasers then paying an additional fee for leather binding.
Proofreading and corrections actually occurred during the printing process. Because of these variations, scholars have determined that the First Folio texts were typeset by at least five different workers, whom they have labeled A, B, C, D, E, with A being the most educated and accurate typesetter and E possibly an apprentice.
Several of the plays, such as Hamlet, had been printed previously and those earlier texts vary considerably in parts from the First Folio. For example, the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet changes over time. But the First Folio remains our only source for such famous works as Macbeth and The Tempest. Interestingly, the rights to Troilus and Cressida were in dispute during publication, but they were resolved in time to include it in the Folio; however, it is not listed in the Table of Contents.
The plays included in the First Folio:
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Measure for Measure
The Comedy of Errors
Much Ado About Nothing
Love’s Labour’s Lost
A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream
The Merchant of Venice
As You Like It
The Taming of the Shrew
All’s Well That Ends Well
The Winter’s Tale
Henry IV, Part One
Henry IV, Part Two
Henry VI, Part One
Henry VI, Part Two
Henry VI, Part Three
Troilus and Cressida
Romeo and Juliet
Timon of Athens
Antony and Cleopatra
The very act of publication indicates the high esteem with which Shakespeare was held by his contemporaries. There were three reprints in the 17th century: The Second Folio in 1632, the Third Folio in 1663, and the Fourth Folio in 1685.
Of these reprints, the Third Folio is the rarest, due to the destruction of unsold copies in the Great Fire of 1666. It is also the oddest folio; its publisher, Philip Chetwinde added no less than seven additional plays, of which only Pericles, Prince of Tyre is now considered Shakespeare’s work. Chetwinde was not necessarily wrong with his inclusions. The seven plays had been published under Shakespeare’s name during his own lifetime. They were: A Yorkshire Tragedy; Pericles, Prince of Tyre; Locrine; The London Prodigal; The Puritan; Thomas, Lord Cromwell; Sir John Oldcastle. It was only much later that scholars dismissed six of the works. Why didn’t Shakespeare speak up about the incorrect attribution (if true) during his lifetime? Possibly because he didn’t care. We tend to be very precious and reverential about Shakespeare’s work. But he was a working actor, playwright, and businessman. It is important to remember that bookselling was still in its infancy. Shakespeare – and all playwrights – earned little money from publication; they made money from performances.
The Fourth Folio was the standard edition used throughout the 18th and early 19th century for publication and performance.
The folios should not be considered definitive in any sense of the word. In fact, they omit several famous lines from the plays which were printed in the earlier quarto publications. But without their publication, we would likely have lost many of Shakespeare’s works.
Just as there is debate over the correct chronology and accurate publication of Shakespeare’s plays, there is also debate over authorship of certain works.
We know for certain that William Shakespeare is the sole author of most of the plays. But Pericles, Prince of Tyre? Henry VIII? Timon of Athens? Scholars believe Shakespeare collaborated on a number of his plays, though the collaborations were often no more than light revisions.
We know of three primary collaborators: John Fletcher, George Wilkins, and Thomas Middleton. Of the three, it is Fletcher whom we remember for he followed Shakespeare as house playwright for the King’s Men. And in the 17th century, his works were arguably more famous than Shakespeare’s.
|JOHN FLETCHER||THOMAS MIDDLETON||GEORGE WILKINS|
|Cardenio (lost)||Macbeth||Pericles, Prince of Tyre|
|Henry VIII||Measure for Measure|
|The Two Noble Kinsmen||Timon of Athens|
|All’s Well That Ends Well|
Of these collaborations, it must be noted that Middleton’s work on Macbeth and Measure for Measure is considered to be negligible. His work on All’s Well That Ends Well is suggested by modern scholarship, but is by no means assured. Fletcher’s work on Henry VIII is considered more obvious and substantial. Cardenio (or The History of Cardenio) is a lost work which the Stationers’ Registry in 1653 recorded as written by Shakespeare and Fletcher. Scholars believe it was inspired by the character of Cardenio in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. As for The Two Noble Kinsmen, it is based upon “The Knight’s Tale” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, a story popular enough that it had already been dramatized twice before Shakespeare and Fletcher wrote their version. It has the most problematic attributions. Scholars tend to assign the playwrights individual pieces within the same act; it is simply impossible to know for certain which lines are Shakespeare’s, and which are Fletcher’s. The play was not included in the “First Folio”, or any other collection of Shakespeare’s works. Its first publication was in the second folio collection of Fletcher’s work, published in 1679.
As for Pericles, Prince of Tyre, it was not well received in Shakespeare’s time, and history has proven only slightly kinder. It is believed that Wilkins wrote the first half, and Shakespeare the second half.
Scholars continue to debate the authorship of Titus Andronicus, with some believing that Shakespeare collaborated with George Peele, or revised his original work. Peele was a playwright and poet whose contemporaries considered him equal to Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe. Titus Andronicus is believed to be Shakespeare’s first tragedy, and its violent and blood-soaked plot is quite similar to the works of Peele (which were very popular). It was also the first of Shakespeare’s plays to be printed, in 1594. This publication is an indication of its great popularity; it was only in the 18th and 19th centuries that Titus Andronicus fell out of favor with audiences, as the Victorians in particular shared none of the Elizabeth or Jacobean love of gory theater. It was included in the First Folio and debate over its authorship only began in the late 17th century. Modern scholars believe the attribution debate was spurred by 18th and 19th century beliefs that Shakespeare could not have written such a violent work. The matter remains unsettled.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Plays By Genre List" https://englishhistory.net/shakespeare/plays-by-genre/, April 19, 2015