Shakespeare Produces His Later Plays

After establishing himself as one of the half-dozen great London playwrights at the end of the sixteenth century, William Shakespeare moved into a mature phase of darker tragedies. The few comedies of the period are equally dark problem plays or tragicomedies, a genre new to the English stage.

Summary of Event

With the start of a new century, and even more so with the death in 1603 of England’s late sixteenth century figurehead, Queen Elizabeth I, the London stage turned ever more away from an Elizabethan optimism and toward a Jacobean grotesque. Taste in tragedy turned toward the Italianate, Senecan revenge tragedy, which Thomas Kyd (1558-1594) had Anglicized more than a decade earlier. Shakespeare met this vogue with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1600-1601), his own version of a now lost play by Kyd. Hamlet’s brooding melancholy seemed to personify the uncertainty of the era, and even the so-called comic relief of Hamlet’s manic scenes, his toying with Polonius, and the joking gravediggers had a grim, gallows-humor edge. Literature;England
[kw]Shakespeare Produces His Later Plays (c. 1601-1613)
[kw]Plays, Shakespeare Produces His Later (c. 1601-1613)
Theater;c. 1601-1613: Shakespeare Produces His Later Plays[0180]
Literature;c. 1601-1613: Shakespeare Produces His Later Plays[0180]
England;c. 1601-1613: Shakespeare Produces His Later Plays[0180]
Shakespeare, William

Two other new vogues in theatrical taste in Stuart England, to which Shakespeare did not cater, were the domestic tragedy and the city comedy, both popular genres that tended to use a London setting. Othello, the Moor of Venice
Othello, the Moor of Venice (Shakespeare) (pr. 1604, revised 1623), Shakespeare’s first tragedy after the accession of James I, almost struck the opposite extreme, setting scenes on a world stage, in Christian Venice and “Turkish” Cyprus, with a Moorish tragic hero. Similarly, Antony and Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1606-1607) straddles the Mediterranean, poised between masculine Rome and feminine Egypt. In contrast, King Lear
King Lear (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1605-1606) was indeed set in England but certainly not in London; instead it took place in a distant, mythic past.

Shakespeare’s darker and darker explorations of the nature of evil do not descend to decadence as do the plays of his contemporaries, but evil seems increasingly universal, as the motives of the villains are increasingly ambiguous. Indeed, Iago in Othello refuses outright to explain his motives for tricking Othello into murdering his bride. In King Lear, the bastard Edmund blames his god, Nature, for his evil—implying, to viewers’ horror, that evil is the human lot, a philosophy with which the despairing Gloucester concurs.

The seventeenth century political implications of Shakespeare’s late plays were not all found on stage. On May 19, 1603, the newly crowned King James issued an instruction declaring Shakespeare’s acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men Lord Chamberlain’s Men , the king’s servants, with honorary titles of grooms of the royal chamber. Shakespeare acknowledged the favor of his monarch with a play set in the king’s native Scotland, Macbeth
Macbeth (Shakespeare) (pr. 1606), in which one of James’s ancestors, Banquo, is one of the noblest characters, and James’s own writings on witchcraft are clearly a source.

The title page of the First Folio, Shakespeare’s posthumously published collected works.

(Folger Shakespeare Library)

The seventeenth century note of pessimism struck even the relatively few comedies that Shakespeare wrote after 1600, which, instead of the light, airy, fairy-tale mood of the 1590’, sounded a chord so gloomy that twentieth century critics did not even call them comedies but rather “problem plays.” Not all of this change is attributable to national mood: Personnel changes in Shakespeare’s company necessarily affected the type of comedy he wrote. The company’s leading comedian, William Kemp, Kemp, William had played the silly, zany, over-the-top clowns of the earlier, lighter comedies, but in 1600 he left the company. His place in the group was taken by Robert Armin, Armin, Robert whose humor was more introspective, a brooding or bantering wit rather than Kemp’s buffoonery. Armin appeared as Feste in Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will
Twelfth Night (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1600-1602), Lavach in All’s Well That Ends Well
All’s Well That Ends Well (Shakespeare)[Alls Well That Ends Well (Shakespeare)] (pr. c. 1602-1603), Pompey in Measure for Measure
Measure for Measure (Shakespeare) (pr. 1604), and even the fool in King Lear.

The last of the vogues in Jacobean drama that occurred in Shakespeare’s lifetime was that of the tragicomedy Tragicomedy , associated with his younger contemporaries Francis Beaumont Beaumont, Francis and John Fletcher Fletcher, John . This dramatic form had implications for Jacobean politics, for Beaumont and Fletcher delighted in posing a conflict between the notion of the divine right of kings, requiring absolute obedience, and an evil king. Shakespeare had explored this problem even before he turned to the tragicomic form: In both Hamlet and Macbeth, he portrayed murdering, evil monarchs, as he had earlier in Richard III (pr. c. 1592-1593, revised 1623); in King Lear, his king is a fool, more criminally negligent than evil.

In Shakespeare’s tragicomedy The Winter’s Tale
Winter’s Tale, The (Shakespeare)[Winters Tale, The (Shakespeare)] (pr. c. 1610-1611), Leontes is a misguided king whose baseless jealousy, like Othello’, causes the death of his wife, Hermione. Unlike Othello, however, Leontes has no Iago kindling his false jealousy, and unlike in any of the tragedies, Shakespeare resolves the tragic death with an unexpected, unexplained, miraculous resurrection. In this and his other three tragicomedies (modern critics call them “romances”)—Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Pericles, Prince of Tyre (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1607-1608), Cymbeline
Cymbeline (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1609-1610), and The Tempest
Tempest, The (Shakespeare) (pr. 1611)—Shakespeare snatches a happy ending from the jaws of tragedy. More important, all four romances, as well as most of the tragedies of the period, explore changing Jacobean attitudes toward what Derek Hirst called “authority and conflict” in political relations.

Though 1601-1613 was largely a period of tragedies for Shakespeare, with the four romances tempering their tragedy with comic endings, even the two straight-out comedies of the period—All’s Well That Ends Well (pr. c. 1602-1603) and Measure for Measure (pr. 1604)—have a tragic somberness that led critics to call them “dark comedies,” “tragicomedies,” or simply “problem plays.” The moral assessment of both plays is obscured by the same device, “the bed trick,” in which a husband goes to bed with his wife while mistakenly thinking she is another woman. Thus he is physically faithful to her though adulterous in intention.

The problem plays raise moral questions that they do not answer, another reflection of the uneasiness of an England in transition. In Measure for Measure, moreover, moral questions are pushed even further, particularly that of the balance of justice and mercy in absolute rulers. Vincentio is a duke of Vienna who feels he has been too lenient in punishing vice; Angelo, his deputy, is a puritanical moralist who goes to the other extreme. Angelo is brought to a balance only after the (to him) horrifying discovery of lust within himself brings him to wrong Isabella, the object of his desire. Isabella, in turn, is asked to do a wrong (give herself to Angelo) in order to prevent another wrong (the execution of her brother). She refuses, and it is only by the contrivance of the bed trick that her brother is saved.


The late plays of Shakespeare, now thought of as the finest dramas in English, nearly universal in their appeal, are nevertheless reflective of the place and time in which they were written, England of the first decade-and-a-half of the seventeenth century. It was an age of changing images of the monarchy. Before James, Elizabeth I ruled by force of her individual personality. After James, Charles I’s monarchy came into increasing conflict with Parliament, leading ultimately to civil war and the king’s execution in 1642.

Between these two rulers, James and the plays of Shakespeare written in the first half of his reign represented an evolving corporate model of government. Coincidentally, the last plays to come from Shakespeare’s pen mirrored that corporate model. Many Jacobean playwrights wrote in collaboration for their companies, but until the end of his career Shakespeare never wrote this way. In the last year of his active life in the theater, however, he collaborated with John Fletcher, who would in the ensuing decade replace him as chief writer for the King’s Men, in a sort of dark comedy or romance called The Two Noble Kinsmen
Two Noble Kinsmen (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1612-1613) and a history play, Henry VIII
Henry VIII (Shakespeare)[Henry 08 (Shakespeare)] (pr. 1613). The moral clarity of the Elizabethan mind was replaced in Shakespeare’s Jacobean drama with ambiguities that often had no solutions in the plays themselves.

Further Reading

  • Bentley, G. E. Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1961. A thorough compilation of original sources, with helpful interpretations, that has not been superseded.
  • Dollimore, Jonathan, and Alan Sinfield. Political Shakespeare. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. Demonstrates the political implications of Shakespeare’s plays.
  • Gillies, John. Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. An exploration of the expanded view of the world, especially in terms of “otherness,” in Jacobean England, and how it affected Shakespeare’s settings.
  • Hirst, Derek. Authority and Conflict, 1603-1658. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. A study of the changing attitudes toward monarchy in seventeenth century England, observable in Shakespeare’s plays.
  • Kenyon, J. P. Stuart England. New York: Penguin, 1978. A standard guide to the England in which Shakespeare wrote and produced his later plays.
  • McDonald, Russ. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 1996. A wealth of background, documents, maps, and pictures to help understand the milieu in which Shakespeare wrote.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

John Fletcher; James I. Shakespeare, William