Shakespeare Writes His Dramas Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Shakespeare produced a body of dramatic work that helped define theatrical convention in Elizabethan England and that has been appropriated by countless schools of dramatic performance and literary criticism ever since.

Summary of Event

English playwright William Shakespeare wrote thirty-nine plays between approximately 1589 and 1613. These plays, which have been broadly categorized as histories, comedies, tragedies, and romances, are widely considered to be the finest dramatic work in the English language. This judgment is especially noteworthy, because Shakespeare worked at a time when the theater as a formal literary institution in England, and especially as an arena for individual expression or accomplishment, was still a relatively novel phenomenon. Theater, English Shakespeare, William Jonson, Ben Marlowe, Christopher Fletcher, John Kyd, Thomas Heminge, John Condell, Henry Greene, Robert Lyly, John Greene, Robert Lyly, John Kyd, Thomas Marlowe, Christopher Burbage, James Burbage, Cuthbert Burbage, Richard Heminge, John Condell, Henry Fletcher, John Jonson, Ben

An engraving of William Shakespeare done from the Chandos portrait.

(Library of Congress)

In the sixth century, the Catholic Church exerted its influence to close down the decadent theater of the late Roman Empire. An official, institutionalized form of theater did not exist in Western Europe for four centuries thereafter. Ironically, it was the Catholic Church that also sponsored the beginnings of a new dramatic form within the church liturgy in the tenth century. Semidramatic and dramatic representations of the events of Easter evolved by the end of the twelfth century into complex and lengthy dramas dealing with other festivals in the liturgical calendar.

In the early fourteenth century, drama moved out of the churches and into the streets. Various town craft guilds began to present cycles of plays depicting biblical stories, from accounts of the Creation and the Garden of Eden to the ascension of Christ; these plays were known as Corpus Christi plays because they were associated with the midsummer feast of Corpus Christi. Saints’ plays, focusing on the lives of the saints, and morality plays, which presented allegorical renditions of humanity’s spiritual journey through life, were also widely current in England. Morality plays were performed by wandering troupes of actors, contained stock characters and low comedy, and were intended to entertain as well as to instruct. Catholicism;influence on theater[theater]

These plays survived into the late sixteenth century and had an appreciable influence on William Shakespeare. Shakespeare probably saw Corpus Christi plays as a youth. In the early sixteenth century, teachers and schoolboys began to produce plays that were based on Roman comedy but adapted to English customs and mores. Tragedies based on classical models, particularly those of Roman playwright Seneca the Younger (4 b.c.e.-65 c.e.), began to appear in the mid-sixteenth century. The most influential Renaissance playwrights to precede Shakespeare were Robert Greene, who opened up for Shakespeare the work of Greek romance; John Lyly, known for his elaborate, courtly language and a sensitive portrayal of the psychology of love; Thomas Kyd, whose play The Spanish Tragedy Spanish Tragedy, The (Kyd) (pr. c. 1585-1589) was probably the most frequently performed play in the sixteenth century; and Christopher Marlowe, whose “mighty lines,” tragic seriousness, and spirit of aspiration heavily influenced subsequent dramatists.

When Shakespeare arrived in London in the late 1580’, the city proper and its suburbs had a population of approximately 200,000 inhabitants, making it the largest city in Europe. The city stretched along the north bank of the Thames River from the old Tower of London on the east to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Fleet Ditch on the west. Visitors approaching London from the south bank of the Thames (the Bankside) crossed London Bridge to enter the city. London authorities frowned on large public gatherings because they believed such gatherings made both crime and spread of the bubonic plague more likely. Consequently, public theaters were constructed in the suburbs to escape the stringent regulations imposed by the Lord Mayor and council of aldermen.

London’s first public theater, known as The Theatre, Theatre, The (London playhouse) was built in Finsbury Fields by James Burbage in 1576. The Curtain was built the following year, and the Rose, the first playhouse on the Bankside, was built about ten years later. Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, sons of James, dismantled The Theatre in 1599 because of trouble about the lease of the land. They rebuilt the theater on the Bankside and renamed it the Globe Theatre Globe Theatre . These public theaters held about two to three thousand people.

Smaller private theaters, based on the great halls of Tudor houses, flourished in the city proper during the 1580’s and again in 1598-1599. The prices charged at these theaters were higher, the accommodations were more comfortable, and the audiences were more elite than at the larger venues. The plays written for these select audiences tended to be more satirical and were oriented to courtly values.

By the time Shakespeare arrived in London, then, the flimsy mobile scaffolds of traveling acting troupes had been replaced by permanent structures, and the theater was a thriving enterprise. It was not, however, altogether a respectable one. Gentlemen poets were perfectly acceptable in polite society, but commoners, particularly ones like Shakespeare, who did not have the benefit of a university education, were highly suspect. Shakespeare was one of the first men to earn a fortune with his pen, and even then, it was as a theatrical producer rather than as a playwright that he earned the bulk of his income.

Shakespeare apparently coveted respectability and earned it long before he died. He began to purchase property in the 1590’s and was established in the rank and title of gentleman in 1596. His rapid rise in the world came through his association with the Burbages. By 1594, Shakespeare was a partner in, as well as actor and primary playwright for, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Lord Chamberlain’s Men[Lord Chamberlains Men] This company was dominated by James Burbage, the owner of The Theatre; Cuthbert Burbage, manager of the company; and Richard Burbage, the principal actor of the troupe. Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth, the troupe became known as the King’s Men King’s Men[Kings Men] , to honor the accession of King James to the English throne.

Shakespeare began writing plays around 1589. He was the author of two historical tetralogies. The first tetralogy comprised Henry VI, Part I (wr. 1589-1590, pr. 1592), Henry VI, Part II (pr. c. 1590-1591), Henry VI, Part III (pr. c. 1590-1591), and Richard III (pr. c. 1592-1593). Richard II (pr. c. 1595-1596), Henry IV, Part I (pr. c. 1597-1598), Henry IV, Part II (pr. 1598), and Henry V (pr. c. 1598-1599) constituted the second tetralogy. The history plays are concerned with the consequences of civil strife and with questions about the nature of kingship and the relationship between humanity, morality, depth of character, and the ability to rule well. Characteristically, Shakespeare presents paradoxes, dilemmas, and questions rather than answers. His comedies—from joyous early ones, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596) to darker ones, such as Measure for Measure (pr. 1604)—are wonderfully complex, entertaining, and perplexing. Shakespeare never ceases to examine the nature of human life and the mysteries of sexual attraction and romantic love.

The tragedies are generally taken to be Shakespeare’s most profound and compelling works. Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596), Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604), Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601), Macbeth (pr. 1606), King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606), and Antony and Cleopatra (pr. c. 1606-1607) are all intensely engaging, disturbing, and enriching works that probe the darker mysteries of human life and the human heart with unrelenting eloquence and honesty. Their greatness triumphantly survives translation and transposition, compelling attention in virtually every culture in the world. Finally, in the romances, such as The Tempest (pr. 1611) and The Winter’s Tale (pr. c. 1610-1611), Shakespeare returns to the great themes of the tragedies with a more hopeful and quiet mind.

Shakespeare died without ever having bothered to publish his plays. Apparently, he had little concern for their ultimate fate or for his own enduring fame. Fortunately, John Heminge and Henry Condell, actors in the King’s Men, gathered copies of thirty-six plays, half of which had already been printed in individual quarto editions, and published the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s dramatic works in 1623. Only Pericles, Prince of Tyre (pr. c. 1607-1608), Two Noble Kinsmen (pr. c. 1612-1613, with John Fletcher), and Henry VIII (pr. 1613, with Fletcher) were missing from the first edition. The fact that Shakespeare did not oversee the production of the Folio, as Ben Jonson had overseen the publication of his own The Workes of Benjamin Jonson (1616), means that neither the Folio texts nor any surviving quartos or playbook copies of particular plays can be said to be definitive. Although there are numerous discrepancies among the surviving copies of the plays, however, textual critics and editors are in general agreement about the most accurate versions.


In The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994), critic Harold Bloom summarized the genius of Shakespeare, acknowledging that he “perceived more than any other, and had an almost effortless mastery of language, far surpassing everyone.” Shakespeare’s greatest originality was arguably in the representation of human character and personality and their mutability. His characters live beyond the bounds of his plays: Bottom, Shylock, Falstaff, Hamlet, Lear.

Part of what made Shakespeare a unique author, besides his extraordinary facility with language, was what nineteenth century poet John Keats called “negative capability,” that is, Shakespeare’s ability to see into characters’ lives with an extraordinary self-effacing sympathy. It is as if Shakespeare overhears his characters rather than making them speak. Even his minor characters are individuals with distinct and consistent voices that seem real.

Shakespeare is fascinating, in part, because he is the least aggressive and self-conscious of the greatest artists. Audiences and readers know what Hamlet thinks, or Antony, or Prospero, but they are never sure of Shakespeare; he has the generosity and largeness and indifference of nature. Michelangelo said in one of his letters: “the ultimate artist has no idea.” Shakespeare seems to have been such an artist. Truly, as his contemporary Ben Jonson said, “He was not of an age, but for all time.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andrews, John F., ed. William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence. 3 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985. A comprehensive general reference work that contains sixty essays on the historical and cultural context of Shakespeare’s work, career, and influence on his own time and on future generations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994. A humanist defense of the canon and canonicity, in which Shakespeare figures prominently. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold, ed. Elizabethan Drama. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Anthology of essays that place Shakespeare and his plays in their cultural context, evaluating both his originality and his indebtedness to tradition. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. An updated edition of one of the greatest works of Shakespeare criticism. Cavell delves into the philosophy of self and other in Shakespearean tragedy. His reading of King Lear is unparalleled. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Grazia, Margreta, and Stanley Wells, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Anthology of commissioned essays on the life and work of the Bard. Includes a survey of Shakespeare criticism in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, a survey of performances from 1660 to 1900, an overview of Shakespeare on film, an essay on genre, and an exploration of Shakespeare’s reading habits, among others. With illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evans, G. Blakemore, with J. J. M. Tobin, eds. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. An excellent edition of the complete works of Shakespeare with thorough annotation, full critical introductions, and a wealth of ancillary material.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. A pioneering work in new historicism that continues to serve as one of the most important contributions in the field and one of the most rewarding for readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kahn, Coppèlia. Man’s Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. Written by a distinguished feminist critic, this work provides a study of masculinity in Shakespeare’s plays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loomba, Anita. Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1989. Loomba analyzes race as it affects drama of the Renaissance period and discusses the uses of Shakespeare in colonialist and postcolonialist contexts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDonald, Russ, ed. Shakespeare: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, 1945-2000. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004. Collects approximately fifty of the most influential essays and book chapters on Shakespeare from the second half of the twentieth century. Organized on the basis of the school of criticism represented in fourteen sections, such as “New Criticism,” “Psychoanalytic Readings,” and “Race and Postcolonialism.” Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare: A Life in Drama. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. A noted Shakespearean scholar offers a critical introduction to Shakespeare’s literary achievements as a playwright, grouping the plays together to analyze comparable themes and characters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare: For All Time. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Survey of Shakespeare reception and criticism, from the Renaissance through the twentieth century. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

1576: James Burbage Builds The Theatre

1590’s: Birth of Opera

Dec., 1598-May, 1599: The Globe Theatre Is Built

Categories: History