Shakespeare’s Canon

We believe that there is something worth discovering in all of Shakespeare’s plays, and we also know that our methods of performance and staging can bring this “something” to an audience in effective and surprising ways. Thom White, for example, commented in his review of the 2015 Prenzie production of Timon of Athens, “I’m not sure why Timon of Athens is a lesser-known work by Shakespeare, as I find the story to be rich with emotional truth and ripe with memorable lines.” Similarly, Catie Osborn (who played Lavinia in the Prenzie Titus Andronicus) said in an interview about the production, “Shakespeare can always be accessible, regardless of the show — if you do it right, and it’s handled properly.”

But if our goal is to “complete the canon,” we must consider which works should be included.

What Is Included in the Canon?

There are 36 plays printed in the famous First Folio (1623). A 37th play, Pericles, Prince of Tyre (first published in quarto in 1609), is also universally included among Shakespeare’s works. Thus, the traditional Shakespearean canon consists of these 37 plays. Three further works, however, have been included more and more often lately in discussion and consideration of the Shakespeare canon (and sometimes, but rarely, even performed): The Two Noble Kinsmen, Edward III, and Double Falsehood. We have included all three as part of Prenzie Players’ ALL THE WORKS project. (See more details on these plays after the chart.)


Green = Past Prenzie production (Click title for production archive)

For schedule of future productions, see Seasons

All’s Well That Ends Well Antony & Cleopatra As You Like It
The Comedy of Errors Coriolanus Cymbeline
Hamlet Henry IV (1 & 2) Henry V
Henry VI (1 2 & 3) Henry VIII Julius Caesar
King John King Lear Love’s Labour’s Lost
Macbeth Measure for Measure The Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor A Midsummer Night’s Dream Much Ado about Nothing
Othello Pericles Richard II
Richard III Romeo & Juliet The Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest Timon of Athens Titus Andronicus
Troilus & Cressida Twelfth Night The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Winter’s Tale
The Two Noble Kinsmen Edward III Double Falsehood

Beyond the Traditional Canon

The Two Noble Kinsmen was first published in 1634, attributed on the title page to John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. Probably, however, it was originally staged in the winter of 1613-14. The story is an adaptation of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale. The current general consensus is that the play really does go back in part to Shakespeare. For some, the fact that it has two authors listed rather than one might lessen its right to belong to the “canon”—but for decades now, scholars have been coming to understand collaborative writing as quite common in Shakespeare’s time. There is a strong case that a number of plays in the traditional Shakespearean canon were actually co-written; for example, Titus Andronicus, Timon of Athens, Henry VIII, Pericles, and Henry VI Part 1. (This consensus on co-authorship is a very different matter from the more conspiratorial and fringe theories, such as that “Shakespeare’s” works were really written by Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford.) In any case, The Two Noble Kinsmen has as good a right to be included in the canon as any of these, and a significant number of Shakespeare companies have begun to include it in their programming. Included on the Folger Shakespeare Library website, it has been called “a neglected masterpiece of the Jacobean stage.”

Edward III, a play about the grandfather and immediate predecessor of Richard II, and the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, was first published in 1596. The specifics of authorship, co-authorship, and the revision process, are quite difficult to unravel, but it is very likely that Shakespeare had a significant hand in it. In the 2017 Arden edition of the play, editors Richard Proudfoot and Nicola Bennett say, “The circumstantial case for Shakespeare has sufficient dimensions to be persuasive, especially the relation of Edward III to Shakespeare’s early non-dramatic and dramatic writings. This places Shakespeare’s participation in the latter part of 1593 or the early part of 1594″ (p. 89). The 2nd edition of the Oxford Shakespeare includes the play. Some Shakespeare companies have staged it. Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s 2016 production, Tug of War: Foreign Fire, adapted Edward III, Henry V, and 1 Henry VI, into a single show.

Double Falsehood was staged in 1727 (and published in 1728) by Lewis Theobald, who claimed that he was revising and adapting manuscripts of a lost Shakespeare play, Cardenio. It is based on a story from Cervantes’ Don Quixote. While some dismiss Double Falsehood as a forgery, foisted upon the public by an unscrupulous Theobald, many take seriously the idea that at its core it does preserve the lost drama from 1612-13 by Shakespeare (probably co-written by John Fletcher, like The Two Noble Kinsmen). In 2011, the Royal Shakespeare Company staged a Cardenio reconstructed by Gregory Doran partly based on Double Falsehood. The question of the play’s status remains very controversial, but the 2010 Arden edition on the whole cautiously argues a case “for Shakespeare’s participation in the genesis of the play—a case that could be substantiated beyond all doubt only by the discovery of an authenticable manuscript or altogether disproved by other equally convincing forms of external evidence” (p. xvi).

Further speculation revolves around other lost plays (for example, Love’s Labour’s Won) and extant plays of highly debatable attribution (for example, Arden of Faversham). The New Oxford Shakespeare (2016) espouses some novelties of attribution that at this point are far from mainstream. One more example, however, does deserve to be mentioned here, at least in passing. Sir Thomas More (or The Book of Sir Thomas More) is a play on the famous Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII. It is known from a manuscript now in the British Library. Most of the play has no claim to be Shakespearean, but many scholars think that one scene in particular (written out by “Hand D”) is probably Shakespeare’s, and that the handwriting is thus the sole surviving example of an autograph manuscript of any of Shakespeare’s dramatic writings—a most intriguing possibility. The 2nd edition of the Oxford Shakespeare includes the full text of this play.

BIBLIOGRAPHY / FURTHER READING

COLLABORATIVE AUTHORSHIP

Vickers, Brian. Shakespeare Co-Author: A Historical Study of Five Collaborative Plays. Oxford, 2004.

Holland, Peter (ed.). Shakespeare Survey 67: Shakespeare’s Collaborative Work. Cambridge, 2014.

THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN

The Two Noble Kinsmen: text and resources at the Folger Shakespeare Library. [https://www.folger.edu/two-noble-kinsmen]

Frey, Charles H. (ed.) Shakespeare, Fletcher and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Columbia, MO, 1989.

Gossett, Suzanne. “The Two Noble Kinsmen and King Henry VIII: The Last Last Plays.” In The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Last Plays, ed. Catherine M. S. Alexander. Cambridge, 2009.

Potter, Lois (ed.). John Fletcher and William Shakespeare: The Two Noble Kinsmen. Revised ed. The Arden Shakespeare. London, 2015.

EDWARD III

Sams, Eric (ed.). Shakespeare’s Edward III: An Early Play Restored to the Canon. New Haven, 1996.

Proudfoot, Richard, and Nicola Bennett (eds.). King Edward the Third. The Arden Shakespeare. London, 2017.

DOUBLE FALSEHOOD / CARDENIO

Freehafer, John. “Cardenio, by Shakespeare and Fletcher.” Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 84.3 (1969): 501-13.

Kahan, Jeffrey (ed.). The Double Falsehood. In Shakespeare Imitations, Parodies and Forgeries, 1710-1820, vol. 1, pp. 159-242. London, 2004.

Hammond, Brean (ed.). Double Falsehood or The Distressed Lovers. The Arden Shakespeare. London, 2010.

Doran, Gregory. Shakespeare’s Lost Play: In Search of Cardenio. London, 2012.

SIR THOMAS MORE

Gabrieli, Vittorio, and Giorgio Melchiori (eds.). Sir Thomas More. Manchester, 1990.

Jowett, John (ed.). Sir Thomas More. The Arden Shakespeare. London, 2011.

Dickson, Andrew, and British Library curators. “The Book of Sir Thomas More: Shakespeare’s only surviving literary manuscript.” British Library, n.d. [https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/shakespeares-handwriting-in-the-book-of-sir-thomas-more]