Plays Written by Shakespeare: How Many Plays Did He Write?

Shakespeare (illustration)
Shakespeare (illustration). CSA Images/Printstock Collection/Getty Images

Question: How many plays were written by Shakespeare?

Answer:

Shakespeare wrote 38 plays.

However, in recent years the publisher Arden Shakespeare added a new play to their collection: Double Falsehood under Shakespeare’s name. Technically, this revises the total number of plays to 39!

The problem is that we don’t have a definitive record, and it is likely that many of his plays were written in collaboration with other writers.

It will take time for Double Falsehood to be fully incorporated and accepted into the Shakespeare canon, which means that it is generally accepted that Shakespeare wrote 38 plays in total. The total number of plays is periodically revised and often disputed.

Play Categories

The 38 plays are typically categorized into three segments drawing a line between the tragedies, comedies and the histories. However, for many this three-way categorization is far too simplistic. Shakespeare's plays are nearly all based on historical accounts, all have tragic characters at the heart of the plot and have lots of comic moments threaded throughout.

Nevertheless, here are the most widely accepted categories for Shakespeare's plays:

  • The Histories: These plays tend to focus on the Kings and Queens of England - especially the War of the Roses, the impact of which was still felt in Shakespeare's time. It is important to note that the history plays are not historically accurate. Rather, they are written possibly to Shakespeare's own agenda or possibly to carry political favor in Elizabethan and Jacobean society. Some of the best known Shakespeare histories are Henry V and Richard III.
  • The Tragedies: Shakespeare is perhaps best known for his tragedies. Indeed, his most performed plays include the tragedies Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth. What each of these plays have in common is a tragic central character who gains power throughout the play and dies at the end. Romeo falls in love and dies tragically when he thinks Juliet has died. Hamlet builds himself up to avenge the murder of his father, but dies whilst fighting. Macbeth murders his way to King and dies fighting.
  • The Comedies: A Shakespearean comedy has little in common with modern comedy. Whilst they may both have comic characters, a Shakespearean comedy is more easily identifiable by its structure. Often there are stock plot devices like characters dressing up as the opposite sex, confusion from characters overhearing each other and a moral at the heart of the play. Some of the best known comedies include Measure for Measure and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

However, as mentioned above, many plays do not fit neatly into the above categories. These are often labelled as the problem plays.

  • The Problem Plays: There are various definitions of the problem plays. Traditionally, the label relates to All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida because they do not fit general categorization. However, the term is also used to describe many of the plays that resist categorization and there remains debate whether plays like The Merchant of Venice and The Winter's Tale should be included, because they too explore a moral.

Of all the categories, the comedies are the most difficult to categorize. Some critics like to identify a subset of the comedies as "dark comedies" to differentiate the plays written for light entertainment from those that take a darker tone.

 

Our list of Shakespeare plays brings together all 38 plays in the order in which they were first performed. You can also read our study guides for the Bard’s most popular plays.