As was common in the period, Shakespeare based many of his plays on the work of other playwrights and recycled older stories and historical material. His dependence on earlier sources was a natural consequence of the speed at which playwrights of his era wrote; in addition, plays based on already popular stories appear to have been seen as more likely to draw large crowds. There were also aesthetic reasons: Renaissance aesthetic theory took seriously the dictum that tragic plots should be grounded in history.
This stricture did not apply to comedy, and those of Shakespeare’s plays for which no clear source has been established, such as Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest, are comedies. Even these plays, however, rely heavily on generic commonplaces. For example, Hamlet (c. 1601) may be a reworking of an older, lost play (the so-called Ur-Hamlet), and King Lear is likely an adaptation of an older play, King Leir. For plays on historical subjects, Shakespeare relied heavily on two principal texts.
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Most of the Roman and Greek plays are based on Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (from the 1579 English translation by Sir Thomas North, and the English history plays are indebted to Raphael Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles. While there is much dispute about the exact Chronology of Shakespeare plays, as well as the Shakespeare Authorship Question, the plays tend to fall into three main stylistic groupings. The first major grouping of his plays begins with his histories and comedies of the 1590s.
Shakespeare’s earliest plays tended to be adaptations of other playwright’s works and employed blank verse and little variation in rhythm. However, after the plague forced Shakespeare and his company of actors to leave London for periods between 1592 and 1594, Shakespeare began to use rhymed couplets in his plays, along with more dramatic dialogue. These elements showed up in The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Almost all of the plays written after the plague hit London are comedies, perhaps reflecting the public’s desire at the time for light-hearted fare. Other comedies from Shakespeare during this period include Much Ado About Nothing, The Merry Wives of Windsor and As You Like It. The middle grouping of Shakespeare’s plays begins in 1599 with Julius Caesar. For the next few years, Shakespeare would produce his most famous dramas, including Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear.
The plays during this period are in many ways the darkest of Shakespeare’s career and address issues such as betrayal, murder, lust, power and egoism. The final grouping of plays, called Shakespeare’s late romances, include Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. The romances are so called because they bear similarities to medieval romance literature. Among the features of these plays are a redemptive plotline with a happy ending, and magic and other fantastic elements