Everything You Need to Know About Shakespeare's Plays

Painting showing Romeo and Juliet meeting on the balcony with the nurse looking on.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

William Shakespeare is best known for his plays, although he was also an accomplished poet and actor. But when we think about Shakespeare, plays like "Romeo and Juliet," "Hamlet," and "Much Ado About Nothing" immediately spring to mind.

How Many Plays?

A remarkable fact about Shakespeare's plays is that scholars can’t agree on how many he actually wrote. Thirty-eight plays is the most popular hypothesis, but after many years of wrangling, a little-known play called "Double Falsehood" has now been added to the canon.

The main problem is that it is believed that William Shakespeare wrote many of his plays collaboratively. Therefore, it is difficult to identify the content penned by the Bard with any accuracy.

What Were Shakespeare's Plays About?

Shakespeare was writing between 1590 and 1613. Many of his early plays were performed at the building that would eventually become the infamous Globe Theatre in 1598. It was here that Shakespeare made his name as a budding young writer and penned such classics as "Romeo and Juliet," "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," and "The Taming of the Shrew."

Many of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies were written in the early 1600s and would have been performed at the Globe Theatre.

Genres

Shakespeare wrote in three genres: tragedy, comedy, and history. Although this seems very straightforward, it is notoriously difficult to categorize the plays. This is because the histories blur comedy and tragedy, the comedies contain elements of tragedy, and so on.

  • Tragedy

Some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays are tragedies. The genre was extremely popular with Elizabethan theatergoers. It was conventional for these plays to follow the rise and fall of a powerful nobleman. All of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists have a fatal flaw that propels them towards their bloody end.

Popular tragedies include "Hamlet," "Romeo and Juliet," "King Lear," and "Macbeth."

  • Comedy

Shakespeare’s comedy was driven by language and complex plots involving mistaken identity. A good rule of thumb is if a character disguises themselves as a member of the opposite sex, you can categorize the play as a comedy.

Popular comedies include "Much Ado About Nothing," and "The Merchant of Venice."

  • History

Shakespeare used his history plays to make social and political commentary. Therefore, they are not historically accurate in the same way we would expect a modern historical drama to be. Shakespeare drew from a range of historical sources and set most of his history plays during the Hundred Years' War with France.

Popular histories include "Henry V" and "Richard III."

Shakespeare’s Language

Shakespeare used a mixture of verse and prose in his plays to denote the social standing of his characters.

As a rule of thumb, common characters spoke in prose, while noble characters further up the social food chain would revert to iambic pentameter. This particular form of poetic meter was extremely popular in Shakespeare’s time.

Although iambic pentameter sounds complex, it is a simple rhythmic pattern. It has ten syllables in each line that alternate between unstressed and stressed beats. However, Shakespeare liked to experiment with iambic pentameter and played around with the rhythm to make his character’s speeches more effective.

Why is Shakespeare’s language so descriptive? We should remember that the plays were performed in daylight, in the open air, and with no set. In the absence of atmospheric theater lighting and realistic sets, Shakespeare had to conjure up mythical islands, the streets of Verona, and cold Scottish castles through language alone.