Oxford Wells Shakespeare Lecture 2: Shakespeare's Timeline

For almost two centuries, Shakespeare had no biography. Neither did he have the structure of a biography (a chronology), nor the materials for one (an archive). And his canon did not include the Sonnets (his only work written in the first person). In sum, the mainstays of modern Shakespeare criticism were simply not there. Does this mean that Shakespeare was not valued or understood until after 1800? Each of these four lectures will focus on one of those critical absences, not as an empty place holder for what eventually is to come, but as evidence that other viable priorities were once at work.

How is it possible to make sense of Shakespeare’s canon without the chronology? How could we interrelate his works with his life and times without knowing when he wrote them? How could we track his development through the course of his writing life? Yet no chronology for the plays was attempted until the late eighteenth century, and it was not standard to follow that order in either Complete Works editions or in Shakespeare criticism until the mid-twentieth century. Before that, from the publication of the First Folio, the presiding category had been genre, even when the plays were found intractable to it. Yet, in time, genre itself was brought under the sway of the order in which Shakespeare was thought to have written his plays, so that it could be said that genre, from early comedy to late romance, was made to follow the developing course of biography.