What Was the First Play Shakespeare Wrote?

And Why Don't We Already Know?

Shakespeare by William Blake
Shakespeare by William Blake, 1800. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The identity of the first play written by the Elizabethan poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616) is quite controversial among scholars. Some believe it was Henry VI Part II, a history play first performed in 1590–1591 and published (that is, according to records kept in the "Stationer's Register") in March 1594. Others suggest it was Titus Andronicus, first published January 1594, and still others mention the Comedy of Errors, published in June 1594.

Other scholars believe he wrote or co-wrote a tragedy named Arden of Faversham, published in April 1592, and currently officially attributed to Anonymous. All of these were likely written between about 1588–1590.

Why Don't We Know?

Unfortunately, there is simply no definitive record of the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays—or even exactly how many he wrote. That's for a number of reasons.

  • Shakespeare didn't own the copyright of his plays—they were owned by the theatre company
  • Shakespeare often collaborated with other playwrights, who contributed substantial pieces to one another's works
  • None of the plays were published until the 1590's after they had appeared in the theatres for several years

Writers who are known or suspected to have collaborated with Shakespeare on one another's plays include Thomas Nashe, George Peele, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher, George Wilkins, John Davies, Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and several as-yet-unidentified authors.

In short, Shakespeare, like other writers during his day, wrote for his own audience, in his own time, and for a theatre company that was competing with others. The copyright on the plays was owned by the theatre company, so actors and directors could and did freely change the text. Some difficulty then is involved in trying to pin down a date when a play was first put to paper when the text changed so much during its production.

Evidence for Dating the Plays

Several attempts to piece together a coherent list of writing dates for the plays have been published, but they disagree: the historical record is not complete enough to give a definitive answer. Scholars such as Russian-born American linguist Marina Tarlinskaja have brought statistical analysis of linguistic patterns to the problem.

In her 2014 book, Tarlinskaja looked at how English verse changed over time during Shakespeare's day. In his writing, she detected evidence of common poetic features such as how much variation and fluidity he used in his iambic pentameter. For example, most noble heroes in Shakespeare speak in constrained verses; villains speak in a looser verse, and clowns speak in prose. Othello, for example, begins as a hero but his syntax and verse gradually decays through the play as he evolves into a tragic villain. 

So Which was First? 

Tarlinskaja was able to determine which plays were likely earlier than others (Henry IV part 2, Titus Andronicus, Comedy of Errors, Arden of Faversham), as well as provide evidence supporting the co-authorship of Shakespeare and his associates on others. However, it is unlikely that we'll ever know definitively which of the plays was Shakespeare's earliest: we do know that he first began writing a handful of plays in the late 1580's or early 1590's.

 

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