In some ways these are intellectual plays. Each comedy has a multiple plot and moves from one set of characters to another, between whom Shakespeare invites his audience to seek connections and explanations. Despite very different classes of people (or immortals) in different strands of the narrative, the plays are unified by Shakespeare's idealistic vision and by an implicit judgment of human relationships, and all their characters are brought together--with certain significant exceptions--at, or near, the end.
The great tragedies.
It is a usual and reasonable opinion that Shakespeare's greatness is nowhere more visible than in the series of tragedies-- Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. Julius Caesar, which was written before these, and Antony and Cleopatraand Coriolanus, which were written after, have many links with the four. But, because of their rather strict relationship with the historical materials, they are best dealt with in a group by themselves. Timon of Athens, probably written after the above-named seven plays, shows signs of having been unfinished or abandoned by Shakespeare. It has its own splendours but has rarely been considered equal in achievement to the other tragedies of Shakespeare's maturity.
The "dark" comedies.
Before the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 the country was ill at ease: the House of Commons became more outspoken about monopolies and royal prerogative, and uncertainty about the succession to the throne made the future of the realm unsettled. In 1603 the Plague again struck London, closing the theatres. In 1601 Shakespeare's patron, the Earl of Southampton, was arrested on charges of treason; he was subsequently released, but such scares did not betoken confidence in the new reign. About Shakespeare's private reaction to these events there can be only speculation, but three of the five plays usually assigned to these years-- Troilus and Cressida,All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure--have become known as "dark" comedies for their distempered vision of the world. Only during the 20th century have these plays been frequently performed in anything like Shakespeare's texts, an indication that their questioning, satiric, intense, and shifting comedy could not please earlier audiences.
The late plays.
Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and Henry VIII, written between 1608 and 1612, are commonly known as Shakespeare's "late plays," or his "last plays," and sometimes, with reference to their tragicomic form, they are called his "romances." Works written by an author in his 40s hardly deserve to be classified as "late" in any critical sense, yet these plays are often discussed as if they had been written by a venerable old author, tottering on the edge of a well-earned grave. On the contrary, Shakespeare must have believed that plenty of writing years lay before him, and indeed the theatrical effectiveness and experimental nature of Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest in particular make them very unlike the fatigued work of a writer about to break his staff and drown his book.
The contribution of textual criticism.
The early editors of Shakespeare saw their task chiefly as one of correction and regularization of the faulty printing and imperfect texts of the original editions or their reprints. Many changes in the text of the quartos and folios that are now accepted derive from Nicholas Rowe (1709) and Alexander Pope (1723-25), but these editors also introduced many thousands of small changes that have since been rejected. Later in the 18th century, editors compiled collations of alternative and rejected readings. Samuel Johnson (1765), Edward Capell (1767-68), and Edmund Malone (1790) were notable pioneers. Their work reached its most comprehensive form in the Cambridge edition in nine volumes by W.G. Clark, J. Glover, and W.A. Wright, published in 1863-66. A famous one-volume Globe edition of 1864 was based on this Cambridge text.
Romeo and Juliet,
play by William Shakespeare, performed about 1594-95 and first published in a "bad" quarto in 1597. The characters of Romeo and Juliet have been depicted in literature, music, dance, and theatre. The appeal of the young hero and heroine--whose families, the Montagues and Capulets, respectively, are implacable enemies--is such that they have become, in the popular imagination, the representative type of star-crossed lovers.
Shakespeare's principal source for the plot was The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562), a long narrative poem by the English poet Arthur Broke (d. 1563). Broke had based his poem on a French translation of a tale by the Italian Matteo Bandello (1485-1561).
Shakespeare set the scene in Verona, Italy, during July. Juliet and Romeo meet and fall instantly in love at a masked ball of the Capulets and profess their love when Romeo later visits her at her private balcony in her family's home. Because the two noble families are enemies, the couple is married secretly by Friar Laurence. When Tybalt, a Capulet, kills Romeo's friend Mercutio in a quarrel, Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished to Mantua. Juliet's father insists on her marrying Count Paris, and Juliet goes to consult the friar. He gives her a potion that will make her appear to be dead and proposes that she take it and that Romeo rescue her; she complies. Unaware of the friar's scheme, Romeo returns to Verona on hearing of Juliet's apparent death. He encounters Paris, kills him, and finds Juliet in the burial vault. There he gives her a last kiss and kills himself with poison. Juliet awakens, sees the dead Romeo, and kills herself. The families learn what has happened and end their feud.
The most complex of Shakespeare's early plays, Romeo and Juliet is far more than "a play of young love" or "the world's typical love-tragedy." Weaving together a large number of related impressions and judgments, it is as much about hate as love. It tells of a family and its home as well as a feud and a tragic marriage. The public life of Verona and the private lives of the Veronese make up the setting for the love of Juliet and Romeo and provide the background against which their love can be assessed. It is not the deaths of the lovers that conclude the play but the public revelation of what has happened, with the admonitions of the Prince and the reconciliation of the two families.
Shakespeare enriched an already old story by surrounding the guileless mutual passion of Romeo and Juliet with the mature bawdry of the other characters--the Capulet servants Sampson and Gregory open the play with their fantasies of exploits with the Montague women; the tongues of the Nurse and Mercutio are seldom free from sexual matters--but the innocence of the lovers is unimpaired.
Romeo and Juliet made a strong impression on contemporary audiences. It was also one of Shakespeare's first plays to be pirated; a very bad text appeared in 1597. Detestable though it is, this version does derive from a performance of the play, and a good deal of what was seen on stage was recorded. Two years later another version of the play appeared, issued by a different, more respectable publisher, and this is essentially the play known today, for the printer was working from a manuscript fairly close to Shakespeare's own. Yet in neither edition did Shakespeare's name appear on the title page, and it was only with the publication of Love's Labour's Lost in 1598 that publishers had come to feel that the name of Shakespeare as a dramatist, as well as the public esteem of the company of actors to which he belonged, could make an impression on potential purchasers of playbooks.
WALTER EBISCH and LEVIN L. SCHCKING, A Shakespeare Bibliography (1931, reprinted 1968), and a supplement for the years 1930-35 (1937, reissued 1968), are comprehensive. They are updated by GORDON ROSS SMITH, A Classified Shakespeare Bibliography, 1936-1958 (1963). JAMES G. McMANAWAY, A Selective Bibliography of Shakespeare: Editions, Textual Studies, Commentary (1975), covers more than 4,500 items published between 1930 and 1970, mainly in English. LARRY S. CHAMPION, The Essential Shakespeare: An Annotated Bibliography of Major Modern Studies, 2nd ed. (1993), includes works in English published from 1900 through 1984. STANLEY WELLS (ed.), Shakespeare, new ed. (1990), provides bibliographies on topics ranging from the poet to the text to the performances. Shakespeare Quarterly publishes an annual classified bibliography. Shakespeare Survey (quarterly) publishes annual accounts of "Contributions to Shakespearian Study," as well as retrospective articles on work done on particular aspects. A selection of important scholarly essays published during the previous year is collected in Shakespearean Criticism (annual).