Dating the Plays

From Titus to Lear: when was it written?

If, as we believe, Shakespeare’s plays as we know them from the First Folio of 1623, are the product of at least one revision, some more than one over the years, and, as we also believe, that they are a compound of the author’s experience at the time each was written, the political reality of that moment in time, and the particular audience for whom they were originally written, then one way of establishing the most likely moment when, is to seek for a time when these elements overlap.  Keeping in mind that the play as we know it from the First Folio would most likely have been altered over time by revisions, particularly the comedies, which required that outdated topics be replaced by current topical references, we must also keep in mind that the First Folio version may well have been revised by its editors, chiefly to expunge anything suggesting a scandalous connection to certain real Court individuals with whom the author had a bone to pick.

In general, the earliest, written at some point between the early 1560s to the mid-70s while he was in his teens or his early twenties, were written for a Court audience, with the Queen as a (silent) patron. Mainly comedies, pastorals styled after Greek Romance, at least one was a blood and guts dramas styled after Seneca. They tend to have a youthful protagonist, unrealistic female characters, are enthusiastic about honor acquired on the battlefield through war and killing, and were originally written for Paul’s Boys, the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, or the students from one of the local prep schools.

Those written between his return from Italy and his two-year banishment from Court (1576-1584), mostly under the patronage of Lord Chamberlain Sussex, generally take place in Italy or some other location in the Mediterranean, involve characters and events from ancient Roman history and more interesting female characters. Most of these were written for his own company of adult actors variously identified as Lane’s Men, Clinton’s Men, or Warwick’s Men, with one or another of the Dutton brothers as lead actor.

Those written during the 1580s under the patronage of Secretary of State Walsingham are the first aimed as much at the public as the Court or the Inns of Court. Many of these are based on incidents in English history, often with slapstick turns for a comedy duo.

Those written between 1590 and 1598 for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, chiefly under the patronage of Lord Henry Hunsdon, were written (or revised) with all three audiences in mind, the Court, the Inns of Court, and the public, with at least two aimed specifically at the Parliament of 1597-98 (Richard II and Richard III). From 1603 through 1609, he wrote or revised earlier plays for the same company, now under the patronage of King James and known from then on as the King’s Men. These were aimed at a broad-based London audience, while some of his older plays continued to be performed by the Lord Admiral’s Men at the Rose and by Worcester’s Men at the Boar’s Head in Whitechapel.

Taking them in what seems as the most likely moments when first produced:

Titus Andronicus
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Two Noble Kinsmen
As You Like It

Mid-70s to 1580
Two Gentlemen of Verona
A Comedy of Errors
Much Ado about Nothing
Taming of the Shrew
A Winter’s Tale
Twelfth Night

Timon of Athens
Troilus and Cressida

For Burbage’s Men
Romeo and Juliet
Tne Spanish Tragedy
Julius Caesar

For the Queen’s Men
King John
Richard II
Henry V

For the Court audience
All’s Well that Ends Well

for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men
Edward III
Henry VI Part One
Henry VI Part Two
Henry VI Part Three
Antony and Cleopatra
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Tempest
The Merchant of Venice
Henry IV Part One
Henry IV Part Two
The Merry Wives of Windsor

Measure for Measure
Henry VIII
King Lear


10 thoughts on “Dating the Plays

  1. The reference to de Vere writing and revising plays from 1603 (Elizabeth’s death) to 1609 must be a typo since he died 1604.

      1. Thank you for the link. To my utter amazement it never occurred to me to question the 1604 death date. And i have been an ‘Oxfordian’ since at least 1985. In the future I will think a bit longer before satisfying my impulse to be snarky.

  2. Aw! Nothing snarky about that! That Oxford might have lived beyond 1604 is universally ignored by both Stratfordians and Oxfordians, because it’s based on the kind of evidence that most pay no attention to, but that was very meaningful to platonists like Oxford.

  3. Stephanie, I followed your links to the scholarly article by Christopher Paul on Oxford and his hereditary interest in the Forest of Waltham and the evidence of Oxford’s living on after June 24, 1604. Oxford’s stewardship would have required him to protect the the Forest from poachers. Is it not ironic that he became nominally the prosecutor of poachers in contrast to the apocryphal story of the Stratford lad’s escaping to London to avoid prosecution for deer poaching?

  4. Well, okay, if you put any stock at all in the poaching story. Poaching was an issue wherever there remained enough woods to allow deer, rabbits, even the occasional boar to breed, but as I show in the book I’m hoping to get published at some point, there really were no woods left anywhere near enough to Stratford to make such a claim worth more than a snicker. Just one more falsehood piled on so many others, made up by academics who saw no advantage in digging any deeper than the mythology.

    Actually, as I believe I recall that Chris Paul mentioned, Oxford did complain to the King that Lord Grey, whom James had given some jurisdiction in the Forest shortly before he gave Oxford his, was abusing his rights by allowing his supporters to poach the deer he was supposed to protect. So Oxford did take his role as protector seriously. There’s a great deal more to this story that remains to be told, in particular what may have occurred in the Forest on Midsummer Night’s Eve, 1604, the moment when he supposedly died. But if there was ever any evidence of this it has long since been erased from the record.

  5. When I read C. Paul’s account of Oxford’s charges against Lord Grey, it sounded as though Oxford was trying to attack a rival claimant to the stewardship of the Forest. But maybe there was substance to the charge as well.

    1. Lord Grey was no friend of Oxford’s. I believe he was the same Lord Grey who attacked Essex and Southampton on the road when they were rushing to Court to get to the Queen before their enemies could stop them. Of course Oxford felt he had the better claim, since his stewardship was something that had been an Oxford perquisite for centuries. The King’s mistake in granting two such overlapping claims can be seen as his lack of awareness of Court relationships and his willingness to grant his new constituents anything they asked. Oxford’s request must have come from the Pembroke brothers, in particular the younger, to whom James had taken a fancy.

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