Notes on Reading All of the Shakespeare Plays

Last year, I completed a project I’d been working on for years – to read the complete works of the Bard, in chronological order. It was a very up and down affair. You have to kiss a lot of frogs (King John, Comedy of Errors) before you find the princes (Hamlet (ha!), Lear, the HIVs).

All in all, I’m glad I did it.  I can now speak with at least a little knowledge now about all the plays, but it was also a bit of a slog.

Anyway, throughout the course of the project, I wrote short review of some, but not all, of the plays for various blogs and websites. I’m transferring those reviews (and much else besides!) over here.

As part of that, here’s some general notes that may be of interest to other undertaking such a project.

What Did you Include?

I went with the maximalist approach in determining what to read. This means I included works such as Timon of Athens and the Noble Kinsman (bad as I think both these plays are) which are not in the first folio, but which modern scholars believe Shakespeare at least had a hand in writing. I did not read the sonnets, yet, as the project was confined to the plays and by the time I was done with that I’d have enough of the Bard for now, thanks.

In What Order Did You Read The Works?

Determining the chronology in which Shakespeare wrote the plays is problematic and scholars argue about it to this day. I simply googled “Shakespeare Plays Chronology” and read them in the order that was given on this website.

Here they are in the order I used. Linked titles lead to my idiosyncratic reviews:

 

First Performed Plays First Printed
1590-91 Henry VI, Part II 1594?
1590-91 Henry VI, Part III 1594?
1591-92 Henry VI, Part I 1623
1592-93 Richard III 1597
1592-93 Comedy of Errors 1623
1593-94 Titus Andronicus 1594
1593-94 Taming of the Shrew 1623
1594-95 Two Gentlemen of Verona 1623
1594-95 Love’s Labour’s Lost 1598?
1594-95 Romeo and Juliet 1597
1595-96 Richard II 1597
1595-96 A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1600
1596-97 King John 1623
1596-97 The Merchant of Venice 1600
1597-98 Henry IV, Part I 1598
1597-98 Henry IV, Part II 1600
1598-99 Much Ado About Nothing 1600
1598-99 Henry V 1600
1599-1600 Julius Caesar 1623
1599-1600 As You Like It 1623
1599-1600 Twelfth Night 1623
1600-01 Hamlet 1603
1600-01 The Merry Wives of Windsor 1602
1601-02 Troilus and Cressida 1609
1602-03 All’s Well That Ends Well 1623
1604-05 Measure for Measure 1623
1604-05 Othello 1622
1605-06 King Lear 1608
1605-06 Macbeth 1623
1606-07 Antony and Cleopatra 1623
1607-08 Coriolanus 1623
1607-08 Timon of Athens 1623
1608-09 Pericles 1609
1609-10 Cymbeline 1623
1610-11 The Winter’s Tale 1623
1611-12 The Tempest 1623
1612-13 Henry VIII 1623
1612-13 The Two Noble Kinsmen* 1634

 

Frankly, I didn’t much care about the precise order. I wanted to read the early works before the later to get a general sense of his development, but really all I needed was a basic organizing principle to the project. This was the one I chose. It was practically random.

In What Editions Did You Read The Works?

Through the project, I read different works in different editions including editions published by Penguin, Arden, Royal Shakespeare Company, and Folger. Arden is the gold standard in Shakespeare. It provides the most scholarly introductions and the most comprehensive notation. However, I found it heavy lifting for an amateur such as myself. As the project went on, I gravitated to the Folger editions with their more approachable modern explanations of the text, helpful glossaries of terms, and scene synopses.

If you, like me, are an amateur interested in digging into the Bard’s work, I’d suggest Arden. If you’re going to seriously look at a single work, I’d go with Arden. Everything else is second fiddle.

Of course, you can just enjoy the good plays, you know. You don’t have to be a fucking freak about it and read the crummy ones. Odds are if you’re familiar with the big dogs, you’ve gotten enough Shakespeare. No one but the pros and the masochists need to read Two Noble Kinsmen.

 

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About seanv2

Scholar, gentleman, jock. I run the website Milo and the Calf. There you will find the Boston Qualifier Questionnaire where runners share their stories of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. You'll also find my thoughts on endurance sports, ancient history, Judaism, and hundreds of book reviews.
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