Shakespeare set the tone for the future of culture and literature, inspiring the subject and themes of Western literature for centuries. But which Shakespeare are you reading? His works have been passed down in various records and editions throughout the centuries—leaving open-ended the question of which is closest to the original. Textual studies on some of the oldest versions have distinguished between the various Quartos (Qq) texts and the collection put together by his colleagues, called the First Folio (F), both surprisingly different in content and language.
In this completely free and comprehensive Shakespeare collection produced by Folger Digital Texts, textual differences are marked clearly in the body of the text. You’ll not only get all of Shakespeare’s works—again, for free—but be able to see on the page how different each masterwork would have been.
Synopsis: In All’s Well That Ends Well, a woman is given in marriage to the man she longs for, but, because she is of lower rank, he refuses to accept the marriage. It becomes her challenge to win his acceptance.
Synopsis: Antony and Cleopatra tells the story of a romance between two powerful lovers: Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, and Mark Antony, who rules the Roman Empire with Octavius Caesar and Lepidus.
Synopsis: In As You Like It, witty words and romance play out against the disputes of divided pairs of brothers. Orlando’s older brother, Oliver, treats him badly and refuses him his small inheritance from their father’s estate; Oliver schemes instead to have Orlando die in a wrestling match. Meanwhile, Duke Frederick has forced his older brother, Duke Senior, into exile in the Forest of Arden.
Synopsis: Set in the city of Ephesus, The Comedy of Errors concerns the farcical misadventures of two sets of identical twins. Many years earlier, the Syracusan merchant Egeon had twin sons, both named Antipholus. At their birth, he bought another pair of newborn twins, both named Dromio, as their servants. In a shipwreck, Egeon lost his wife, one of his sons, and one of the Dromios.
Synopsis: As Coriolanus begins, two Roman patricians, Menenius and Martius, calm a revolt by the city’s famished plebians. Martius, who despises the plebians, announces that their petition to be represented by tribunes has been granted. When Volscian invaders attack Roman territories, Martius helps lead the Roman forces, and almost single-handedly conquers the Volscian city of Corioles, winning the name “Coriolanus.” The Volscian leader, Aufidius, swears revenge.
Synopsis: Cymbeline, which takes place in ancient Britain, is filled with hidden identities, extraordinary schemes, and violent acts. Long ago, the two sons of King Cymbeline were abducted, leaving Cymbeline with a daughter, Imogen. Cymbeline’s stepson, Cloten, is now his heir, and Cymbeline expects Imogen to marry him. She secretly marries Posthumus Leonatus instead.
Synopsis: Henry IV, Part 1, culminates in the battle of Shrewsbury between the king’s army and rebels seeking his crown. The dispute begins when Hotspur, the son of Northumberland, breaks with the king over the fate of his brother-in-law, Mortimer, a Welsh prisoner. Hotspur, Northumberland, and Hotspur’s uncle Worcester plan to take the throne, later allying with Mortimer and a Welsh leader, Glendower.
Synopsis: With a weak, unworldly king on the throne, the English nobility heightens its struggle for power in Henry IV, Part 2, leading to the brink of civil war.
Synopsis: With an underage boy now king of England, Henry VI, Part 1, depicts the collapse of England’s role in France, as English nobles fight each other instead of the French and as Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) brings military strength to the French army. The English hero Lord Talbot attacks Orleans, but is defeated by Joan.
Synopsis: With a weak, unworldly king on the throne, the English nobility heightens its struggle for power in Henry VI, Part 2, leading to the brink of civil war.
Synopsis: The English crown changes hands often in Henry VI, Part 3. At first, Richard, Duke of York, is allied with Warwick. York invades the throne-room of Henry VI with Warwick’s army, but allows Henry to remain king if he makes York his heir—thus disinheriting Henry’s son, Prince Edward.
Synopsis: Two stories dominate Henry VIII: the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s powerful advisor, and Henry’s quest to divorce Queen Katherine, who has not borne him a male heir, and marry Anne Bullen (Boleyn).
Synopsis: The events in King John take place in the thirteenth century, well before Shakespeare’s other English history plays. After the death of John’s brother, Richard I, John rules England.
Synopsis: Henry V begins at the English court, where the young king is persuaded that he has a claim to the throne of France. When the French dauphin, or heir apparent, insults him by sending him tennis balls, Henry launches his military expedition to France.
Synopsis: In this narrative poem, Tarquin, son of the king of Rome, lusts for the wife of Collatium—the chaste and beautiful Lucrece. Tarquin ultimately violates Lucrece. In her despair, she takes her own life. Her tragic death inspires a rebellion against the monarchy, leading to the establishment of the Roman Republic.
Synopsis: In Love’s Labor’s Lost, the comedy centers on four young men who fall in love against their wills. The men, one of them the king of Navarre, pledge to study for three years, avoiding all contact with women. When the Princess of France arrives on a state visit, the king insists she and her ladies camp outside the court. Even so, each young man falls in love with one of the ladies.
Synopsis: The primary plot of Much Ado About Nothing turns on the courtship and scandal involving young Hero and her suitor, Claudio, but the witty war of words between Claudio’s friend Benedick and Hero’s cousin Beatrice often takes center stage.
Synopsis: In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, residents of Athens mix with fairies from a local forest, with comic results. In the city, Theseus, Duke of Athens, is to marry Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. Bottom the weaver and his friends rehearse in the woods a play they hope to stage for the wedding celebrations.
Synopsis: Antonio, the merchant in The Merchant of Venice, secures a loan from Shylock for his friend Bassanio, who seeks to court Portia. Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, recalls past insults from Antonio and, instead of asking interest on the loan, asks instead—in what he calls a “merry sport”—that if the loan is not repaid, Antonio will owe a pound of his own flesh.
Synopsis: In The Merry Wives of Windsor, fat, disreputable Sir John Falstaff pursues two housewives, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, who outwit and humiliate him instead. Meanwhile, three suitors seek the hand of Anne Page, Mistress Page’s daughter.
Synopsis: Human nature and the law often collide in Measure for Measure. As the play begins, the Duke of Vienna announces he is going away and puts his deputy Angelo in charge of the state. Angelo immediately enforces a law prohibiting sex outside of marriage, sentencing Claudio to death for sleeping with Juliet, Claudio’s now-pregnant fiancée.
Synopsis: In this allegorical poem, Shakespeare depicts a funeral arranged for a phoenix and turtledove. The two birds are portrayed as emblems of devotion. The poem describes their ideal love, and how with their deaths, this ideal also dies.
Synopsis: The nautical tale of a wandering prince, Pericles is narrated by John Gower, a poet from the English past. Gower explains that Pericles, Prince of Tyre, hopes to win the hand of a princess in Antioch. When Pericles learns that she and the king, her father, are lovers, he flees for his life.
Synopsis: Sonnets 1–126 address a young man, praising his beauty and urging him to marry so his beauty may last for generations. In sonnets 127–154, the poet writes of his relationship with a woman, who he refers to as the Dark Lady. The poems fluctuate between feelings of love, hate, jealousy, and contempt.
Synopsis: A story of shipwreck and magic, The Tempest begins on a ship caught in a violent storm with Alonso, the king of Naples, on board. On a nearby island, the exiled Duke of Milan, Prospero, tells his daughter, Miranda, that he has caused the storm with his magical powers. Prospero had been banished twelve years earlier when Prospero’s brother, Antonio—also on the doomed ship—conspired with Alonso to become the duke instead. Prospero and Miranda are served by a spirit named Ariel and by Caliban, son of the island’s previous inhabitant, the witch Sycorax.
Synopsis: The Taming of the Shrew begins with an “induction” in which a nobleman plays a trick on a beggar, Christopher Sly, treating Sly as if he is a nobleman who has lost his memory. A play is staged for Sly—the play that we know as The Taming of the Shrew. In the play, set in Padua, Lucentio and other suitors pursue Bianca, but are told by her father, Baptista, that her bad-tempered older sister, Katherine, must marry first. They encourage Petruchio, who has come to Padua to find a wealthy wife, to court Katherine and free Bianca to marry.
Synopsis: In Timon of Athens, Lord Timon discovers the limits of wealth and friendship. He spends freely on others and hosts banquets for many guests. Despite his servants’ warnings, he spends so excessively that his money runs out—and the philosopher Apemantus condemns his flatterers as insincere.
Synopsis: Events before the start of Hamlet set the stage for tragedy. When the king of Denmark, Prince Hamlet’s father, suddenly dies, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, marries his uncle Claudius, who becomes the new king.
Synopsis: Caesar’s assassination is just the halfway point of Julius Caesar. The first part of the play leads to his death; the second portrays the consequences. As the action begins, Rome prepares for Caesar’s triumphal entrance. Brutus, Caesar’s friend and ally, fears that Caesar will become king, destroying the republic. Cassius and others convince Brutus to join a conspiracy to kill Caesar.
Synopsis: King Lear dramatizes the story of an aged king of ancient Britain, whose plan to divide his kingdom among his three daughters ends tragically. When he tests each by asking how much she loves him, the older daughters, Goneril and Regan, flatter him. The youngest, Cordelia, does not, and Lear disowns and banishes her. She marries the king of France. Goneril and Regan turn on Lear, leaving him to wander madly in a furious storm.
Synopsis: Macbeth, set primarily in Scotland, mixes witchcraft, prophecy, and murder. Three “Weïrd Sisters” appear to Macbeth and his comrade Banquo after a battle and prophesy that Macbeth will be king and that the descendants of Banquo will also reign. When Macbeth arrives at his castle, he and Lady Macbeth plot to assassinate King Duncan, soon to be their guest, so that Macbeth can become king.
Synopsis: In Venice, at the start of Othello, the soldier Iago announces his hatred for his commander, Othello, a Moor. Othello has promoted Cassio, not Iago, to be his lieutenant.
Synopsis: In Richard II, anger at a king’s arbitrary rule leads to his downfall—and sets in motion a decades-long struggle for the crown that continues in several more history plays.
Synopsis: As Richard III opens, Richard is Duke of Gloucester and his brother, Edward IV, is king. Richard is eager to clear his way to the crown. He manipulates Edward into imprisoning their brother, Clarence, and then has Clarence murdered in the Tower. Meanwhile, Richard succeeds in marrying Lady Anne, even though he killed her father-in-law, Henry VI, and her husband.
Synopsis: The prologue of Romeo and Juliet calls the title characters “star-crossed lovers”—and the stars do seem to conspire against these young lovers. Romeo is a Montague, and Juliet a Capulet. Their families are enmeshed in a feud, but the moment they meet—when Romeo and his friends attend a party at Juliet’s house in disguise—the two fall in love and quickly decide that they want to be married.
Synopsis: Set during the Trojan War, Troilus and Cressida recounts the love affair of its title characters. Inside the besieged city of Troy, the Trojan prince Troilus is lovesick for Cressida. Cressida is drawn to Troilus, too, and her uncle, Pandarus, brings them together.
Synopsis: Titus Andronicus overflows with death and violence. Twenty-one sons of the Roman general Titus Andronicus have died in battle, leaving four alive. After defeating the Goths, Titus permits the sacrifice of the oldest son of their queen, Tamora.
Synopsis: Twelfth Night—an allusion to the night of festivity preceding the Christian celebration of the Epiphany—combines love, confusion, mistaken identities, and joyful discovery.
Synopsis: The Two Gentlemen of Verona tells the story of two devoted friends, Valentine and Proteus. Valentine leaves their home city of Verona for Milan, but Proteus, in love with Julia, stays behind. Then Proteus’s father sends him to Milan, too. Before leaving, Proteus pledges his love to Julia.
Synopsis: The Two Noble Kinsmen, derived from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, begins as Athens defeats Thebes in war. Arcite and Palamon, Theban knights and devoted cousins, are imprisoned in Athens. From their cell, they see Emilia, the sister-in-law of Theseus, Duke of Athens. Both fall in love with her, becoming bitter rivals.
Synopsis: Based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this poem tells of Venus, the goddess of love, and her affection for Adonis, a mortal man of incomparable beauty.
Synopsis: The “tale” of The Winter’s Tale unfolds in scenes set sixteen years apart. In the first part of the play, Leontes, king of Sicilia, plays host to his friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia. Suddenly, Leontes becomes unreasonably jealous of Polixenes and Leontes’s pregnant wife, Hermione. Leontes calls for Polixenes to be killed, but he escapes.
William Shakespeare (1564–1616) remains one of the most (if not, the single most) influential English writers. His works exist in every major world language and are still incredibly popular in theater, film, and literature. Some of his major works include Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet. Over the last 400 years, but especially the last 200, his works have been reproduced countless times.