This is “William Shakespeare (1564–1616)—The Plays”, section 3.7 from the book British Literature Through History (v. 0.1). For details on it (including licensing), click here.

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3.7 William Shakespeare (1564–1616)—The Plays

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

  1. Comprehend the significance of Renaissance drama in the history of the theater.
  2. Understand Elizabethan era printing.

Just as the Elizabethan period is called a Golden Age in British history, the time period in which Shakespeare wrote, acted, and produced plays is a Golden Age of British, and even world, drama. Ironically, hard on the heels of this flowering of Elizabethan drama, the Puritans shut down the theatres in England during the English Civil War. Thus, a dearth of drama quickly followed the wealth of Shakespeare’s time period.

None of Shakespeare’s plays exists in manuscript format. Instead, Shakespeare’s plays have come to us through early published copies, some of which were inaccurately recorded by actors or others who thought to profit by publishing their own copies of the popular plays. During the 16th century, copyrights as we know them didn’t exist. The Stationers’ Company, a city guild for printers and book sellers, controlled what was printed, thus providing a means of government censorship. The Folger Shakespeare Library provides a video explaining Renaissance printing techniques.

Many of the early publications were in quartoa sheet of paper folded into quarters, creating 4 leaves (8 pages), a sheet of paper folded into quarters, creating 4 leaves (8 pages). The British Library and The Shakespeare Quartos Archive provide digital images of all the plays published in quarto.

A folioa sheet of paper folded in half, forming a larger sized book was the same piece of paper folded in half, forming a larger sized book. In 1623, the First Foliothe first complete collection of Shakespeare’s plays, the first complete collection of Shakespeare’s plays, was compiled and published by John Hemminge and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors. Digital images of Shakespeare’s First Folio are available from the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Perseus Digital Library, and from the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image, Furness Collection.

Shakespeare’s plays are generally divided into three categories: tragedies, comedies, and history plays, a division first seen in the First Folio. George Mason University’s Open Source Shakespeare lists the plays by genre.


Key Takeaways

  • Renaissance drama is a highlight in the history of the English theatre.
  • The First Folio, compiled after Shakespeare’s death, is the first complete collection of Shakespeare’s plays.


  1. What are some ways in which the limitations of a 16th-century theatre, such as the Globe, would have affected the production of Shakespeare’s plays?
  2. What purposes did the Stationers’ Company serve? How does it differ from modern copyright laws?
  3. What difficulties would you imagine are encountered by modern editors because Shakespeare’s original manuscripts do not exist?




First Folio and Quartos

Background Information on the Plays