Dating of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry:

Changes made to the Chronology of Shakespeare’s Plays

Having supposedly contracted the plague, Edward de Vere died in July 2nd 1604 leaving a number of plays and poems which are in need of re-assessment in terms of their original date of completion, publishing and first performance. The general consensus among Stratfordians is that William Shakespeare began writing plays in 1597 beginning with Henry VIth Part One, followed by Henry VIth Part Two and Henry VIth Part Three (1587-92) then Richard III (1592-3). These early history plays were followed by the Comedy of Errors (1591-2). As a result, we now have a pyramid of errors which is far from amusing yet in the final analysis extremely comic. Whenever these conventional dates are challenged by academics who align themselves to the Stratfordian view they tend to reject the Earl of Oxford’s authorship on three grounds namely; that he was dead by 1604 and that numerous plays were still being released for performance and publication. The second objection is that his early attempts at literary excellence do not compare admirably to those attributed to William Shakespeare’s (eg: Venus & Adonis, Lucrece, The Passionate Pilgrim, Phoenix & the Turtle, etc). The third objection is that the Earl’s character and status does not reflect or comply with the assumed character profile drawn and elucidated by those academics of the Bard of Avon. Admittedly, the Earl’s early attempts at poetry were composed when he was in his early twenties, some perhaps even earlier probably when he was in his experimental teens. That does not pre-empt the assertion that either his style of execution or the quality of his verse did not improve with age and experience, for example when he was in his thirties and forties. The same argument could in actual fact be applied to the supposition that William Shagspere had been dead and buried before at least seven of his plays had been first performed anyway, that is according to the available records of the time. Therefore,  William Shagspere’s authorship of the 1623 Folio could very easily be rejected on the same grounds. Firstly, we should bear in mind that the theatrical records as well as those from the Stationer’s Office were for a short period (1570-1587) interrupted or totally absent. On examination theatrical records from 1579-1621 kept by Sir Edmund Tilney and Sir George Buc have been lost or destroyed. Records at Gray’s Inn were unreliable if not concocted when the Countess of Southampton, whose son was Shakespeare’s patron, was managing the accounts and entries for her husband Sir Thomas Heneage; it seems these fabrications of payments were used to offset a long-standing debt to the Crown.  That means there are few irrefutable records on which to build an accurate chronology of completion, first performance and publication of plays. In this regard chroniclers are faced with the awesome task of reassembling a 10,000 piece jig-saw with 90% of the pieces missing. Academics that have relied on theatrical or other records could not have authenticated the precise date of composition, performance or publication. Those assertions are fraught with numerable errors so great or anomalous as to render them useless in any serious study or accurate chronology of Shakespeare’s work. It was not until the 1590’s that lists and records resume some normality that we can base any degree of accuracy towards the chronology of plays or poetry in Elizabethan England. Furthermore, records were scarce primarily because performance of plays in the mansions, Inn Yards and provincial halls and theatres were not readily recorded until they became obvious to the Office of the Revels or the Stationer’s Office which was based in London and they dealt largely with court plays, Inner Temple or major theatres such as the Curtain, the Rose, the Globe, or Blackfriars etc. The difficulty of relying on the record of first performance is that the majority of these plays had already been circulating either privately or in the provinces for several years before they were finally performed in London. On top of which the text and manuscripts of Elizabethan plays were regularly revised and changed to suit a particular audience while others were altered or redacted in part to suit the political or religious climate circulating in different regions and counties of England.

Conventional dates of Shakespeare’s Plays

Among those identified by Stratfordian academics are 11 Shakespeare plays that were released after the death of the Earl of Oxford which are as follows:

1. Othello (1604), 2. King Lear (1605), 3. Macbeth (1606), 4. Anthony & Cleopatra (1606-7), 5. Timon of Athens (1607), 6. Coriolanus (1607-8), 7. Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1607-8), 8. Cymbeline (1609-10), 9. A Winter’s Tale (1609-10), 9. The Tempest (1611-12), 10. Henry VIIIth (1612-13), 11. Two Noble Kinsmen (1612-13).

(See also Book Dedicated to Edward de Vere)

Only half of Shakespeare’s plays were actually officially registered at the Stationer’s Office, others were simply copied from surviving promptbooks and existing manuscripts of the time. Why this occurred is uncertain it may be that either the time or opportunity was not forthcoming or that the royal court sanctioned plays to be performed without registration or that some playwrights were given carte blanche permission to print and perform without having to register the play. In any case it was the Master of the Revels who personally decided whether the play was fit for performance or not. It also may have been a consequence of the predominance of the plague or some other social and political circumstances. However, we can now confirm that Sir Francis Bacon was secretly charged by the Pembroke circle with the task of examining the plays of William Shakespeare for any seditious or encrypted material which might reveal the real author’s name and redacting anything controversial in them with the help of several scribes (ref: The Northumberland Manuscript).

The following is a summary of those plays unregistered and controversial in terms of correct dating:

The fact that Shakespeare’s history play, Henry VIth Part One was never registered at the Stationer’s Office is partially overlooked by academics. A good deal of Act 1 was actually written by the playwright Thomas Nashe and Shakespeare’s contribution occurs at Act 2, scene 4 (the Temple Garden) and in other parts of the play. We also note that Shakespeare was the only playwright who expressed an enthusiasm for writing plays about earlier English history in particular The Wars of the Roses (Richard II to Henry VII). The play was probably composed during 1587-90 just after the failed Spanish invasion so must have been the consequence of celebrating England’s past, its heroes and their conquests over other rival nations such as the French. However, it is evident from the text that historical accuracy was sacrificed in favour of a sense of superior nationalism and dramatic effect in uniting the nation. In this sense these histories are really the work of a propagandist or “spin-doctor” working for the Crown and other noble families. A total of 8 plays were written during this rather patriotic period drawn from Edward Hall’s “Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster & York” (1548) and Raphael Hollinshed’s “Chronicles of England, Scotland & Ireland” (1587). The only recording of its first performance was by Lord Strange’s Men on 3rd of March 1592 and was subsequently repeated fifteen times within a period of 10 months (recorded in Thomas Nashe’s Piers Penniless 1592).

The first anonymously recorded performance of A Comedy of Errors was at Gray’s Inn on the 28th December 1594 so the play must have been written earlier but never registered at the Stationer’s Office. From the irregularities naming the dramatis personae it must have been copied from William Shakespeare’s manuscript who must have worked from the Latin original and not William Warner’s English translation (1595) as often quoted by biographers. It was probably written around the same time as the poem Venus & Adonis (1590) and composited by Ralph Crane.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is possibly the earliest of Shakespeare’s plays although not entered into the Stationer’s Office it was probably written in 1590-1. Scribed by Ralph Crane.

The Taming of the Shrew is similar in style and narrative to “Taming of a Shrew” which was anonymously registered at the Stationer’s Office on the 2nd of May 1594. The former being the original and must have been written much earlier (1591-2).

The history play King John originated from an early manuscript or foul papers dated from 1596 and then copied by two different scribes from 1609-1623. However, topical allusions to the Armada have dated its original or re-worked composition to 1588 or a little later perhaps because it is a plagiarised copy of The Troublesome Reigne of John, King of England (anon, published 1591). The subject of illegitimate accession to the English throne would have been controversial enough at the time for a sanitised Protestant audience or gatekeeper to intervene in its official registration.

One of Shakespeare’s early Roman Plays, Julius Caesar was partly derived from an anonymous: The Tragedy of Caesar and Pompey, or Caesar’s Revenge (c. 1595). The precision and quality of the text suggests a theatre promptbook for its original source. The Folio version omits the last four words in the phrase “Know Caesar doth not wrong but with just cause”.

The play “All’s Well that Ends Well” was prepared from original manuscripts or “foul papers” with questionable changes made by the theatre bookkeeper of the newly formed King’s Men. It was adapted from Boccacio’s Decameron and a subject of ancient folkloric tradition it also draws from William Painter’s, The Palace of Pleasure (1566-7).

From the British library the only original manuscript to survive of Shakespeare’s is “Sir Thomas More” generally ascribed to Anthony Munday but on closer examination the work of several collaborators. However, it would appear that the Master of the Revels, Sir Edmund Tilney found a large proportion of the text to be politically controversial and the required revisions attempted did not meet his expectations so consequently it was never licensed for printing or performance until after the death of Queen Elizabeth Ist (circa 1603). Probably drawn up from Hollinshed’s Chronicles and William Roper’s “Life of More”. Other sources include Nicholas Harpsfield’s Life & Death of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Stapleton’s Latin biography; Vita Thomae Mori.

It actually features examples of “Shakespeare’s” handwriting style although it was largely transcribed by an anonymous penman. Alterations and contributions to the text are ascribed to Henry Chettle, Thomas Decker and Thomas Heywood and date back to the 1590’s. From the evidence later discovered in the Northumberland manuscript it appears that Sir Francis Bacon was charged by the Pembroke circle with the task of restoring and amending Shakespeare’s manuscripts and he employed several scribes for this purpose. Several examples of Shakespeare’s signatures had been practised by these scribes on the Northumberland manuscript to give the impression that the author was still alive and able to confirm his permission and ownership of the work.

The reference by the half-drunk porter to an equivocator knocking at the door suggests the Scottish play Macbeth was written shortly after the execution of Henry Garnet (3rd May 1606). However, the Folio Macbeth seems to be a revision or shortened version of the original with additional songs by Thomas Middleton (3.5 & 4.1) namely “Come Away” and “Blacke Spirits” taken from his play “The Witch” especially those parts played by Hecate. Another source for the play would have been the report “Newes From Scotland” (1591) which recounts the attempt of witchcraft against James IVth of Scotland on his way by sea to Scotland. Any revisions made were probably done to give the impression that the play was written much later after James had acceded to the English throne. Other changes were made to  make the play more palatable to the Scottish King since he was believed to be afraid of witchcraft and assassination. The idea that the play was written as a tribute to James Ist is pure nonsense as it was recorded that James did not find the play in any way appealing or flattering.

The inclusion of the play Timon of Athens was made quite late in the compilation of the 1623 Folio and was intended to replace in order a space reserved for Troillus & Cressida which the printer had at that time not procured the copyright. It is presumed to be a collaboration with Thomas Middleton and in need of revision. Like Anthony & Cleopatra, All’s Well That Ends Well, Troillus & Cressida, and As You Like It there is also no evidence or record of its actual performance. Its literary sources include Plutarch‘s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans translated by Sir Thomas North (1579), the Greek satirist Lucian‘s; Timon Misanthropus, which was translated into French by Amyot and later into English by Sir Thomas North (1579), John Lyly’s  Campaspe (c. 1584) and an anonymous play entitled Timon (c. 1602).

The original promptbook with elaborate stage directions could easily have been the source for the compositor of Coriolanus which would most likely have been an intimate theatrical arena such as the Blackfriar’s. Among the sources for the play are  Plutarch’s Lives (The Thomas North‘s English translation in 1579) and Titus or Livy Livius (59BC-AD17): Ab Urbe Condita Libri (Philemon Holland‘s English translation as The Romane Historie published in 1600). Also William Camden’s, “Remaines of Greater Worke Concerning Britain” (1605) and William Averell, “A Marvaillous Combat of Contrarieties”. The last of the “Roman Plays” it was probably modelled on the Earl of Essex shortly after his London Rebellion went pear-shaped (1600-1).

Although Simon Forman records attending a performance of this play, Cymbeline in the April of 1611 it must have been conceived much earlier than 1609-10, the date conventional biographers have assumed. In fact it might have been an early play revised for the investiture of Prince Henry, King James’s son as Prince of Wales. It resembles a play by Beaumont and Fletcher, “Philaster” composed in 1609. However, the style and form places it as a late play which utilised elaborate and stunning stage production.

The astrologer and theatre goer Simon Forman records seeing a performance of A Winter’s Tale in May 15th 1611 at the Globe Theatre (Revels Accounts 5th November 1611). We know the potential sources for the story are from Plutarch, as well as Robert Greene’s Pandosto (c.1558-92) and of course Ovid’s Metamorphoses (43 BC- AD18) from Arthur Golding‘s English translation published in 1567. “The Shepherd’s Dance” (Act 4, Sc 4) might have been added at a later date and yet academics still assume that it was probably written before or just after Cymbeline around 1609. However, we know that Francis Bacon was amending and releasing plays for registration and collation on behalf of the Pembroke circle, so perhaps this play was written much earlier than assumed. Having consulted the original promptbook or foul papers, Ralph Crane transcribed and arranged the text for its first ever publication in the 1623 Folio.

The Tempest is probably the last and possibly unfinished play written by Shakespeare. It has echoes of Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia” and though assumed to be set in the Mediterranean there are more references to transatlantic voyages to the newly found British colony of Virginia. The Sonnet’s dedication has similar resonances to the phrase “Wisheth the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth” (published 1609) to someone in the aristocratic court who might consider establishing an independent colony in the Americas. Perhaps that was Thomas Hariot and Sir Walter Raleigh’s failed attempt to establish a colony (A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia 1590) in Virginia in 1584. Academics have attempted to place the play much later suggesting that the printed report of the shipwreck of the Sea Venture (1625) in the Bermudas (1609) was the inspiration for the Tempest even though William Shakespeare had retired from London by then. Or more likely it was inspired by another failed expedition financed by the Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare’s patron) in 1602 and captained by Bartholomew Gosnold (Elizabeth Islands). The Revels Accounts list the play performed 1st of November 1611.

Finally, would such a complimentary play such as Henry the VIIIth have been composed and performed after the death of Queen Elizabeth? I think not although many Stratfordians still assert this was written after the death of Queen Elizabeth Ist (1611-12). Presumed to be a collaborative work with John Fletcher and written around the same time as the play “Cardenio”, “The London Maid” and “The White Devil”.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,