Although the precise date of many of Shakespeare’s plays is in doubt, his dramatic career is generally divided into four periods: (1) the period up to 1594, (2) the years from 1594 to 1600, (3) the years from 1600 to 1608, and (4) the period after 1608. Because of the difficulty of dating Shakespeare’s plays and the lack of conclusive facts about his writings, these dates are approximate and can be used only as a convenient framework in which to discuss his development. In all periods, the plots of his plays were frequently drawn from chronicles, histories, or earlier fiction, as were the plays of other contemporary dramatists.
Shakespeare’s first period was one of experimentation. His early plays, unlike his more mature work, are characterized to a degree by formal and rather obvious construction and by stylized verse.
Chronicle history plays were a popular genre of the time, and four plays dramatizing the English civil strife of the 15th century are possibly Shakespeare’s earliest dramatic works (see England: The Lancastrian and Yorkist Kings). These plays, Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III (1590?-1592?) and Richard III (1593?), deal with evil resulting from weak leadership and from national disunity fostered for selfish ends. The four-play cycle closes with the death of Richard III and the ascent to the throne of Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, to which Elizabeth belonged. In style and structure, these plays are related partly to medieval drama and partly to the works of earlier Elizabethan dramatists, especially Christopher Marlowe. Either indirectly (through such dramatists) or directly, the influence of the classical Roman dramatist Seneca is also reflected in the organization of these four plays, especially in the bloodiness of many of their scenes and in their highly colored, bombastic language. The influence of Seneca, exerted by way of the earlier English dramatist Thomas Kyd, is particularly obvious in Titus Andronicus (1594?), a tragedy of righteous revenge for heinous and bloody acts, which are staged in sensational detail.
Shakespeare’s comedies of the first period represent a wide range. The Comedy of Errors (1592?), a farce in imitation of classical Roman comedy, depends for its appeal on mistaken identities in two sets of twins involved in romance and war. Farce is not as strongly emphasized in The Taming of the Shrew (1593?), a comedy of character. The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594?) concerns romantic love. Love’s ...