Shakespeare’s Plays in Order of Composition

        The composition dates of poems which were printed can usually be estimated with some confidence because the English government licensed registration of the official permission to publish to the Stationers Company, the guild of scribes, limners, printers, book binders, and book sellers.  Their "entry book of copies" or registry provides authoritative dates before which any given printed book must have been composed.  An aristocratic poet, like Surrey or Sidney, might not publish during his lifetime, but non-aristo poets tended to publish soon after composition in hopes of earning money for their work, so publication dates largely correspond to dates of composition unless publication was delayed for some reason.  Because Shakespeare wrote for the stage, not for the press, and appears to have had only an indirect interest in the quarto editions published during his lifetime, scholars rely on internal references to contemporary events, or on other people's diary or letter references to the plays’ performances, to give us some idea when they might have been written.  Probably the most famous of these external sourcs of performance dates is the manuscript diary of Philip Henslowe (?-1616), which was edited for print in 1904-8 by Walter W. Greg and made available in digital facsimile by the Internet Archive.  Other sources of information include theoretical patterns of change in his use rhymed verse (which seems to diminish in frequency over his career), the quality of his blank verse (which grows less formal and more "speech-like" with more enjambed and fewer end-stopped lines), and the increasing frequency with which known-dated plays use "feminine endings" or words which add unaccented syllables after those necessary to form the last iambic foot (i.e., ^/^ rather than ^/--the designation "feminine" vs. "masculine" or "strong" endings is, of course, a nineteenth-century term of art). The following are estimates of the plays’ order and date of composition based on the work of Hardin Craig, T.W. Baldwin, E.K. Chambers, F.J. Furnivall, G. König, and George Saintsbury. More recent scholarship has challenged some of these dates, but the order is relatively certain. Genres are specified in color to emphasize some rather obvious but important trends in his career, and to encourage speculation about relationships among the plays’ plots, characters, themes, etc..

Love’s Labors Lost 1588 comedy

Comedy of Errors 1589 comedy

Two Gentlemen from Verona 1590 comedy

Parts 1, 2 & 3 of Henry VI 1591 history

Romeo and Juliet 1591 tragedy

Titus Andronicus 1592 tragedy

Richard III 1593 history

Taming of the Shrew 1594 comedy

Midsumer-Night’s Dream 1594 comedy

King John 1595 history

Richard II 1595 history

Parts 1 & 2 of Henry IV 1596 history

Merchant of Venice 1597 tragi-comedy

Much Ado About Nothing 1598 comedy

Henry V 1599 history

Merry Wives of Windsor 1597 comedy

Julius Caesar 1599 history (or tragedy if you like)

Hamlet 1600 tragedy

As You Like It 1600 comedy

Twelfth Night 1601 comedy

All’s Well That Ends Well 1602 comedy [Elizabeth I dies, 1603]

Measure for Measure 1604 comedy

Othello 1604 tragedy

King Lear 1605 tragedy

Macbeth 1606 tragedy

Antony and Cleopatra 1606 tragedy (or history?)

Timon of Athens 1607 tragedy

Coriolanus 1608 tragedy

Pericles 1608 tragi-comedy or "romance"

Cymbeline 1609 tragi-comedy or "romance"

Winter’s Tale 1610 tragi-comedy or "romance"

Tempest 1611 tragi-comedy or "romance"

Henry VIII 1612 history (finished by others?)

Another estimated play-composition order w/dates--note Lear does not move:

1589-92  1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI

1592-93  Richard III, The Comedy of Errors

1593-94  Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew

1594-95  The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo and Juliet

1595-96  Richard II, A Midsummer Night's Dream

1596-97  King John, The Merchant of Venice

1597-981 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV

1598-99  Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V

1599-1600  Julius Caesar, As You Like It

1600-01  Hamlet, The Merry Wives of Windsor

1601-02  Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida

1602-03  All's Well That Ends Well

1604-05  Measure For Measure, Othello

1605-06  King Lear, Macbeth

1606-07  Antony and Cleopatra

1607-08  Coriolanus, Timon of Athens

1608-09  Pericles

1609-10  Cymbeline

1610-11  Winter's Tale

1611-12  The Tempest

1612-13  Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen