Establishing the timeline for Shakespeare’s plays has always been a difficult task. Below you’ll find a list based on the earliest recorded performances of each of the plays.
Henry VI part II is the first of three Shakespeare plays based on the life and events of King Henry the VI. Set in 15th century England against the backdrop of the famous dynastic ‘war of the roses’ it dramatizes the struggle for the English throne fought between the houses of Lancaster and the house of York. Opening with the marriage of Henry to Margaret of Anjou, it focuses on the initial turmoil created by several major players to earn favor with the King. However, the central character besides Henry is Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York who along with his sons, Edward and Richard the II raises an army and plots to overthrow Henry VI and name himself king.
Shakespeare’s fascination for the English Royalty continues in his sequel to Henry VI part 2. With war breathing down his neck, Henry VI tries to strike a bargain with Richard the Duke of York promising to name him heir to the throne. Queen Margaret however disagrees. With the help of Lord Clifford and son Edward, Prince of Wales she wages war on Richard and his army defeating him. With Richard Killed, a new kingmaker emerges in the form of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, the initial intermediator between Henry and Richard. Neville routs Margaret and Clifford’s army, seizes the throne and proclaims Edward the IV, son of Richard as the new King of England.
Shakespeare’s prequel to the Henry VI trilogy opens with the Young Lancastrian King Henry VI ascending the throne amid turmoil in England for power to the monarchy. Supporters of the two warring houses of Lancaster and York choose red or white roses as symbols of their loyalty. Thus begins the war of the roses. Adding to his problems, Henry’s armies in France are defeated by French forces led by Joan of Arc. In a bid for peace, King Henry VI sides with the house of York but confirms his monarchy. He defeats the French and Joan is burnt at the stake. His subsequent marriage to captured French noblewoman Margaret’s’ Anjou sets of a renewed struggle for power to the throne of England.
Richard III (Richard the third) could well qualify as one of the most treacherous of Shakespearean characters. This Shakespeare play is an evil depiction of the scheming villainous crimes of Richard III the Duke of Gloucester and brother of King Edward IV. Richard’s heinous act of taking over the throne is marked by several murders of his own family including Edward the Prince of Wales. After marrying the Prince’s widow Queen Anne, his plotting succeeds in him becoming King. Richards’s victory is short-lived after his tyrannical succession is ended in defeat by Henry the Earl of Richmond who succeeds Richard as King Henry the VII.
Comedy of errors is a typical example of Shakespearean slapstick comedy. It narrates the comical drama of mistaken identities involving two sets of identical twins separated since birth. Both Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant Dromio have corresponding twins in the likeness of brothers with the same names residing in the city of Ephesus where incidentally syracusans aren’t allowed and the penalty is death. Comedy of errors unfolds over a series of hilarious events involving wrongful accusations, seductions, beatings and even the arrest of Antipholus of Ephesus under the charge of infidelity, thievery and insanity. The play ends on a happy note with both twins united.
Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s first Tragedy. Set against the backdrop of the Roman Empire, it never really gained approval in Victorian England, primarily because of its overuse of violent overtones. Titus Andronicus is the story of Roman general Titus and his thirst for bloody revenge against Tamora Queen of Goths may well qualify as the most violent of Shakespeare plays. In what appears to be a treacherous plot of mindless murder and revenge, Shakespeare’s characters namely Titus and Tamora along with their respective supporters revel in plotting a gory and macabre killing spree of each other. The play ends with most central characters dead including Tamora and Titus.
As an induction styled play common to Shakespearean literature, the main play of The taming of the shrew is enacted out for the benefit of the introductory character Christopher Sly. Sly is a drunkard who is tricked by a nobleman into believing he descends form nobility. The ensuing play then unfolds with the comical story of Petruchio of Verona and his courtship and marriage to Katherina. The eldest of two sisters, Katrina is a head strong ill mannered shrew. The comedy depicts Petruchio’s witty but psychological treatment of Katrina in a bid to temper her obstinate behavior. He succeeds by subduing Katharina who ultimately falls in love with her husband and becomes the obedient wife.
The two gentlemen of Verona is a classic tale of choice between love and friendship. It portrays the story of two friends Proteus and Valentine who both fall in love with the same woman Silvia daughter of the Duke of Milan. Choosing love over friendship, Proteus betrays Valentine’s plan to elope with Silvia resulting in Valentines banishment from Milan. Valentine becomes a leader of outlaws in the forest while Silvia attempts to flee and reunite with him. Meanwhile the second heroine Julia, fiancée of Proteus disguises herself as a boy to spy on Proteus. The drama ends on a happy note with the two friends resolving their differences with marriage to their respective lovers.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is totally deceptive of its title. It follows the exploits of the King of Navarre and his three companions who swear to avoid women for three years in a bid to further academic pursuits and good health. Unfortunately their commitment coincides with the visit of the princess of Aquitaine and her ladies. Their previous commitments forgotten, the men engage in a number of attempts to woo the ladies. A comical mix up follows with letters and messages being delivered to the wrong women. The untimely demise of the Princess’s father dashes all hopes of marriage for the men who are instructed by the women to engage in several tasks for a year before contemplating marriage.
Romeo and Juliet is well known as one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy. As a popular theme for modern day love stories, the tragic tale records the story of two lovers Romeo of the house of Montague and Juliet from the house of Capulet. With love doomed to end in failure, the lovers woo each other in the wake of a warring feud between the two houses of Montague and Capulet. A heartwarming tale ensues with the lovers finding ways and means to romance each other until their relationship is exposed. Tragic events of anger and hate end in the death of both lovers which reunite both factions overcome with remorse.
Richard II is an historical play that depicts the common power struggle for the throne and Richard’s attempts to establish his rule. However the central plot commences with Richard II seizing the estates of John of gaunt after his death. His son Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, attempts to retrieve his inheritance from the King. While Richard is away fighting the Welsh, Bolingbroke lobbies for supporters among the noblemen and initiates a rebellion. Bolingbroke attempts to make peace with Richard by requesting back his lands and riches to which Richard agrees. In a turn events Richard reluctantly hands over the throne to Bolingbroke who is crowned as King Henry the IV. Richard is sent to the tower where he is soon killed by conspirators.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s comedy at it s best. Based upon the quintessential and common theme of love, the play is set in an enchanted forest in a fictional land called Athens. It revolves around the tale of four lovers and an amateur troupe of actors whose lives are encountered and influenced by forest fairies led by their king Oberon and his estranged wife Queen Tatania. In what appears as its most comical scene, Oberon influences Puck the mischievous sprite to cast a spell on Queen Tatania making her fall in love with one of the minstrels. For good measure, Puck has replaced his head with that of a Donkey’s.
King John is a dramatized version of the historical events surrounding the reign of the 12th century monarch of England. This Shakespeare play focuses on King John’s endless war with France supported by a rebellious nephew Arthur and Cardinal Pandolph of the Catholic Church. John is excommunicated by the church who favors the French in its war against John. The English noblemen also side with the French king. The tide soon changes with Arthur’s accidental death and John making his peace with the church. The French, however, continue to wage war against John. But without the support of the church and English nobility, they ultimately relent. King John, however, does not savor victory as he is poisoned by a monk. His son ascends the throne as King Henry III.
The Merchant of Venice is a dramatic comedy that focuses more on the antics of its anti-hero a moneylender called Shylock. The story begins with a young merchant Antonio obtaining a loan from Shylock on behalf of his friend Bassanio. Bassanio requires the money to woo a wealthy heiress Portia. Shylock resenting Antonio agrees to lend the money on condition of extracting a pound of his flesh in case of default of payment. The unthinkable happens with Antonio losing his wealth falling in debt to Shylock. Meanwhile, Bassanio is successful in his attempt to win the affections of Portia. The play climaxes in a court scene where Portia disguised as a lawyer delivers her famous “mercy” speech to win the case against shylock.
Henry IV Part 1 is the second play of Shakespeare’s tetralogy involving Richard II and his successors. This Shakespeare play depicts the problems of King Henry IV in the likes of his wayward philandering son Hal, the Prince of Wales and his rebellious subjects led by Henry Percy nicknamed Hotspur. Hotspur conjures up support from among sections of the nobility but disunity among the rebels leads to an unsuccessful campaign against the King. Hotspur’s army is defeated at the battle of Shrewsbury. Amidst the turmoil, Prince Hal mends his ways after the firm rebuke from King Henry and slays Hotspur in battle. However, Prince Hal’s allows his friend Falstaff to take credit.
King Henry IV part 2 is an extension of Henry IV part I. Rebellion continues to plague Henry where rebels lead by the Archbishop of York, Lords Mowbray and Hastings wage a second attempt of war against Henry. Meanwhile Falstaff, friend of Prince Hal recruits men to fight for Henry. Henry’s second son Prince John leads the royal army to meet the rebels. The rebels are tricked into surrendering to Prince John who has them all executed. Out of stress and poor health Henry soon succumbs to his sickness but not before forgiving Prince Hal of his misdeeds. Prince Hal vows to be a good king and ascends the throne as Henry V.
As a love comedy, Much Ado About Nothing portrays a series of comical events surrounding two sets of lovers. Claudio a young Count betrothed to marry his love Hero suspects her of infidelity and insults her at the altar. In a scheme to make Claudio make amends, her father makes him believe that a grief stricken hero has died. Meanwhile another romantic tryst takes place between the Count Benedick and hero’s cousin Beatrice. Although well matched, they repel each other’s advances . Playing matchmaker, hero’s father brings the two together. A joint marriage is planned where Claudio is made to marry an incognito bride introduced as Beatrice’s cousin. However, she turns out to be none other than his love, the Lady Hero.
This Shakespeare Play is a historical depiction of the monarchy of Henry V revolving around the famous battle of Agincourt. Set in 15th century England, It portrays Henry V a wise and matured King as compared to his erroneous past. Henry renews his claim to the French throne but meets with defiance form France. Henry then prepares for battle traveling to France. Henry defeats the French in the decisive but bloody battle of Agincourt fought on St Crispin’s day in 1415. While The English and French nobility discuss terms of surrender, Henry woos the French Princess Katherine making her his bride. The play is notably famous for Henry’s pre battle speech coining the epic phrase, “We Few…We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers”.
As a historical tragedy, Julius Caesar is part of Shakespeare’s three Roman plays. It dramatizes the life of Julius Caesar who has just returned victorious from his campaign against Pompey. His growing popularity invites resentment from a group of tribunes led by Cassius. Cassius succeeds in recruiting Caesar’s best friend Brutus in a plot to assassinate Caesar. Despite of several warnings from his wife Caliphurnia, Caesar goes to the capitol and is assassinated by the conspirators. Roman general Mark Anthony also friend to Caesar swears revenge. Along with Octavius Caesar he meets Cassius’ army in battle on the fields of Philippi. Caesar’s ghost appears to Brutus the night before the battle. Mark Antony and Octavius are successful while Brutus and Cassius commit suicide.
As You Like it is one of Shakespeare’s well known comedies made famous for its speech “All the world’s a stage”. A senior Duke has been banished to the Forest of Arden by his younger brother. However his daughter Rosalind is allowed to remain but subsequently flees to join her father. Rosalind the main heroine of the play falls in love with Orlando who also flees to Arden from his elder brother’s dominance. During their exile in the forest Rosalind disguised as a man Ganymede, befriends Orlando as a jest. Meanwhile, the younger evil duke while marching with an army to the forest repents his ways after a religious encounter with a holy man. He turns to religion and the senior Duke has his title and lands restored.
Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy s about two separated twins Viola and Sebastian who make their way to the kingdom of Illyria. Viola disguises herself as a boy cesario and is employed by the reigning duke Orsino. Orsino’s love interest is the Lady Olivia who will not reciprocate the same as she is mourning the death of her father. Orsino sends viola to woo Lady Olivia on his behalf but Olivia ends up falling for viola who she believes to be Cesario. Meanwhile chance brings Sebastian to the court of Olivia who makes him marry her mistaking him for Viola aka Cesario. A healthy rigmarole ensues till all is cleared with the duke finding new love with viola. Noteworthy among the characters is the antics of Malvolio and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
Hamlet is one of the most powerful of Shakespearean tragedies famed for its catch line “to be or not to be’’ part of the popular speech of this play. This Shakespeare play is a classic tale of betrayal, murder and revenge. Prince Hamlet of Denmark is incited by ghostly apparitions of his father who wants revenge against his murderer Claudius. Claudius also his brother seizes both the throne and marries his brother’s wife Gertrude. The prince’s initial plot to kill Claudius fails with him killing his sweetheart Ophelia’s father instead. When prince is sent to England by Claudius, he chances upon Ophelia’s funeral instead. While Gertrude is killed by drinking poison meant for the prince, Claudius incites a duel between prince and Laertes Ophelia’s brother. Both the men are fatally wounded, but hamlet kills Claudius before succumbing to his injuries.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is a typical farce involving one of Shakespeare most significant characters, john Falstaff. Falstaff is a womanizer and a money grabber who pretends to woo two married women of Windsor Mrs. page and Mrs. Ford Both women are wise to hid lecherous behavior and play along. Complications arise in the guise of Mr. Ford disguising himself and employing Falstaff to woo his wife and present her to him as proof of her infidelity. However both men are duped by the women on several occasions. Falstaff is led on a merry chase undergoing insult, and humiliation by the women. This Shakespeare play also depicts the wooing of Anne page which ends in her marriage to her lover Mr. Fenton. In the end Falstaff is forgiven.
One of Shakespeare’s most ambiguous and problematic plays, Troilus and Cressida is set against the backdrop of the Trojan-Greek war involving Helen. Troilus son of Trojan King Priam is in love with Cressida daughter of Calchas a Trojan siding with the Greeks. Troilus and Cressida meet through her uncle Pandorus. In a turn of events, Cressida is sent to the Greek cam in exchange for a Trojan prisoner Antenor. Meanwhile in the Greek camp trouble constantly brews between Agamemnon and Greek hero Achilles. During the course of battle, Hector son of Priam kills Achilles’ friend Patroclus. An enraged Achilles then slays Hector. Meanwhile Cressida is wooed by Greek prince Diomedes angering Troilus who swears revenge.
All’s well that ends well narrates the tale of Helena daughter of a doctor and a young count Bertram. Helena is in love with Bertram who is unaware of it. Both travel to France where Helena cures the ailing French king. For her reward she is given Bertram as the husband of her choosing but Bertram does not reciprocate her love. Bertram travels to Florence to fight in Tuscan wars. Helena Travels incognito to Florence to find Bertram trying to seduce a widow’s daughter. She hatches a plan to win Bertram’s love. Back in the kings court Bertram believing Helena to be dead tries to marry someone else only to be apprehended by the King. Helena then reveals herself and Bertram is reconciled to his wife.
Measure for measure is a problematic comedy whose main theme is justice, hypocrisy, love and mercy. It narrates the story of Duke Vincentio who wishes to take stock of his kingdom disguised as Friar Lodwick. He leaves the administration in charge of his deputy Angelo who initiates strict laws of morality under the penalty of death. The main focus of this Shakespeare play revolves around the crime of Claudio who faces the death penalty for sleeping with his intended wife. His sister Isabella a nun tries to intercede on his behalf but is approached by the hypocrite Angelo for sexual favors. Thus begins a series of events overseen by the Duke aka Friar Lodwick. The play ends with Angelo’s guilt revealed. The Duke then proposes marriage to Isabella.
Like Hamlet, Othello is a significant and popular tragedy. Othello is a Moorish captain serving in the Venetian army. Unfortunately for him, he has several enemies the worst of whom is his most trusted ensign Iago. In what unravels as a classic narration of racism, love, betrayal, jealousy and wrongful accusation, Iago hatches a plot to wrongfully accuse his wife Desdemona of infidelity. Inflamed with passion and jealousy an enraged he kills Desdemona. Iago’s wife Emilia informs Othello of Desdemona’s innocence revealing Iago’s dastardly plot but she to is killed by Iago. He is filled with remorse and in revenge tries to kill Iago but only wounds him. Before he can be arrested he commits suicide.
King Lear of Britain in an attempt to avoid unrest divides his kingdom between his three daughters, each portion depending on their declaration of loyalty for him. His elder two Reagan and Goneril succeed in his affections by their hypocritical declarations of love. However Cordelia the youngest is unable to do so and is banished by Lear. Cordelia goes on to marry the King of France. King Lear gradually sinks into manic depression at the indifferent attitude of his two elder daughters’ towards him. In a tragic twist both daughters end up dead as a result of their feuding over the affections of Edmund the bastard son of Gloucester. Edmund in his bid to take over his brother’s property imprisons Lear and executes Cordelia. Lear dies soon after out of remorse.
Macbeth is a dramatic representation of the treachery of political ambition and how it can lead to madness. General Macbeth after a victorious battle is prophesied by witches to become king. However the prophesy predicts his friend Banquo’s lineage as his successors. Influenced By his wife, he murders Duncan the King of Scotland and ascends the throne. Fearing that Banquo suspects him, he orders Banquo to be killed in the forest but his son Fleance escapes. The witches warn him against Macduff the thane of Fife. He orders the killing of Macduff and his family however Macduff isn’t present. Meanwhile his wife becomes insane with guilt and dies. In revenge, Macduff and Duncan’s son Malcolm wage war on Macbeth killing him in battle. Malcolm is crowned king.
Antony and Cleopatra narrates the relationship between Mark Antony of Rome and Cleopatra the queen of Egypt. Rome is ruled by the triumvirate of Antony, Lepidus and Octavius caesar. However, Antony spends more time with Cleopatra in Egypt. He returns to Rome to successfully quell rebellion by Pompey after which he marries Octavia, Caesars widowed sister. He soon returns to Cleopatra enraging Octavius who then declares war on Anthony in a bid to become sole ruler of Rome. Anthony is defeated in battle and accuses Cleopatra of betraying him. Later, thinking Cleopatra to be dead, Anthony mortally wounds himself and subsequently dies in Cleopatra’s arms. Octavius orders Cleopatra to be brought to Rome, but Cleopatra commits suicide by getting bitten by a poisonous Asp.
Coriolanus is the tale of a Roman general whose victories against the Volscians led by Aufidius lead him to the political arena of Rome. However his quick temperament is unbecoming of a politician. He angers easily at the slightest provocation which brings him in disfavor with the people of Rome and he is banished from Rome. Meanwhile Aufidius and his Volscians rebel against Rome again. Coriolanus sides with Aufidius. The Romans take fright at the alliance and implore his mother Volumnia and his wife Virgilia to ask him to spare Rome. However Coriolanus growing popularity with the Volscians angers Aufidius and a conspiracy is hatched to kill him. Aufidius repents his misdeeds and the Volscians give him a hero’s funeral.
Timon of Athens is about Timon, who is an Athenian Noblemen. He is extravagant in his lavishness and generosity among his friends. Ultimately he is bankrupt and none of his so called friends help him. At one last party thrown for his friends, Timon instead showers them with stones and water revealing their ingratitude. He then leaves Athens to live in a cave by the sea. He discovers gold in the cave which he shares with a banished Athenian captain Alcibiades and even bandits. Senators from Athens Implore Timon to return and defend Athens against Alcibiades but Timon refuses. He ultimately wanders off into the wilderness to die but not before writing his own epitaph, read in the end of the play by Alcibiades.
Pericles is a historical play narrating the life of Pericles of Tyre. He has to flee from wrath of Antiochus after solving a riddle that revealed his incestuous relationship with his daughter. He reaches Pentapolis where he marries a noblewoman Thaisa. Returning to Tyre Thaisa appears to die in childbirth. He places her in a chest and puts it overboard whereupon she reaches Ephesus and becomes a nun. Meanwhile Marina is captured by pirates where she is sold in Mytiline but manages to find honest work. Pericles thinking her dead arrives in Mytilene where marina is introduced to him as a maid. He is overjoyed and is soon reunited with Thaisa after seeing a vision asking him to go to the temple of Diana in Ephesus.
Cymbeline is the Celtic king of Britain whose sons were styolemn by Belarus after he was banished from court. The play however does not revolve much around him, but rather over the exploits of his daughter Innogen and her suitors posthumous and Cloten her step brother whom she rejects. Her step mother the queen attempts to poison her. Amidst events surrounding the Roman attack of Britain in which the British emerge victorious. Cymbeline meets with Belarus who has been instrumental in the defense of Britain along with his two adopted sons Guiderius and Aviragus. They are revealed to him as his sons. Meanwhile Innogen dressed a page in the service of Lucius the Roman representative is given to him who reveals herself as Innogen.
Polixenes, king of Bohemia invites the wrath of his friend king leontes of Sicily who suspects Polixenes of infidelity with his wife Hermione. Polixenes fleas Sicily where Leontes imprisons his wife and exiles her newborn daughter who is raised by a shepherd in Bohemia. Later thinking Hermione to be dead, he repents his misdeeds. Hermione’s daughter grows up as Perdita a shepherd girl and is wooed by Prince Florizel Polixenes son. Polixenes disapproves and the lovers elope to Sicily. They are followed by the shepherds and Polixenes. This Shakespeare play climaxes with characters appearing in Leontes court where Perditas true identity is revealed. Leontes is reunited with Hermione.
The Tempest narrates the tale of Prospero, former Duke of Milan and his daughter Miranda who was usurped by his Brother Antonio and banished to an island. Prospero with his books of magic lives on the island with a savage creature Caliban and Ariel a sprite as his slaves. Prospero watches a shipwreck from the island whose passengers were none other than Antonio the usurper, Alonso the king of Naples, his brother Sebastian and his son Prince Ferdinand.The group is washed ashore on the same island. In a series of bemusing events Ferdinand falls in love with Miranda and is married to her with Prospero’s blessings. The entire casts of characters are then brought together and Prospero’s identity is revealed. The play ends in reconciliation and celebration.
Henry VIII or Henry 8th, is a historical play depicting King Henry’s courtship of Anne Boleyn and his subsequent separation from the Catholic Church. Cardinal Wosley head of the church had earlier instigated the execution of Henry’s Father the duke of Buckingham. Henry Married to Katherine for 20 years wants a divorce so that he can marry her lady in waiting Anne Boleyn. Both the pope and Cardinal Wosley delay permission causing Henry to initiate the divorce and marry Anne disregarding the Pope. Both Wosley and Katherine subsequently die. Wosley’s secretary is executed for attempting to murder the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Anne gives birth to a daughter Elizabeth who is prophesied to be a great Queen of England.
The two noble kinsmen can also be called a tragicomedy involving the Duke Theseus of Athens, and two cousins Palamon and Arcite. Theseus marries the Amazonian queen Hippolyta and helps three queens wage war on Creon the king of Thebes. Thebes helped by the two cousins is defeated. The cousins are imprisoned in Athens where they both fall in love with Hippolyta’s sister Emilia. After escaping they constantly feud with each other to win her affection. Theseus makes them joust each other for Emilia’s hand in marriage. After praying to the gods, the joust ends in victory for Arcite. Palamon faces death for losing but Arcite is accidentally killed after falling from his horse. His death wish is for Emilia to marry his cousin.