Shakespeare's Four Writing Periods
Early, Balanced, Overflowing, and Final
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Bard's Style Evolved Over Time

William Shakespeare altered his writing style significantly between his first play (1590-92) and his last (1613). For example, the Shakespeare style of 1590 was somewhat rigid in its adherence to established rules, though it did contain flashes of brilliance that astounded and delighted audiences. The style of the early 1600's, on the other hand, was more creative and free because Shakespeare had learned to listen more to his inner voice and less to the dictates of literary convention. In his later years—in particular when he wrote The Tempest—Shakespeare achieved a writing mastery that confirmed what earlier masterpieces such as Hamlet and King Lear suggested: that he was one of the greatest writers in history.

Scholars generally assign each of his plays to one of four periods, depending on the quality and maturity of the writing and characterization. Textbooks classify these as the Early Period, the Balanced Period, the Overflowing Period, and the Final Period. Not everyone agrees on which plays belong to which period. For example, some scholars place Hamlet in the Balanced Period while others place it in the Overflowing Period. Scholars also differ on the period to which The Merchant of Venice belongs. Some place it in the Early Period and others in the Balanced Period. Plays of questionable authorship, such as Edward III and The Two Noble Kinsmen, generally are omitted from placement in any of the four periods.

Following is a listing of the plays according to their periods, as well as a description of the characteristics of the four periods. 

Early Period 

Plays with boldfaced titles are listed in more than one period, reflecting the disagreement among scholars on the period to which they belong.

Plays: The Comedy of Errors, Henry VI Part I, Henry VI Part II, Henry VI Part III, King John, Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Richard II, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice 
Style in General: Technically rigid; somewhat immature. The plots generally are well organized.
Characterization: Often superficial or shallow compared with the characterization in later plays. Romeo and Juliet, in which characterization is strong, is an exception.
Dialogue: Sometimes stilted, unnatural. Shakespeare tries hardmaybe too hardto be consistent in the structure of his lines, making his words fit established conventions rather than making them express the mercurial, inner voice that guided him in later plays. Puns and other rhetorical devices abound, making the wording clever but not always profound. In Richard II, John of Gaunt makes puns even as he is dying. When the king asks how he is, Gaunt uses his name (the same as the adjective gaunt, meaning thin, bony and haggard) in a "punny" reply:

    Oh, how that name befits my composition!
    Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old,
    With me grief hath kept a tedious fast,
    And who abstains from meat that is not gaunt? (2.1.76-79)
Balanced Period

Boldfaced plays are listed in more than one period, reflecting the disagreement among scholars on the period to which they belong.

Plays: All's Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, Hamlet, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, Henry V, Julius Caesar, Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Troilus and Cressida, Twelfth Night.
Style in General: Less technically rigid; more creative. The plots are generally well designed. Shakespeare demonstrates his range by writing outstanding works in three genres: comedy (As You Like It, Twelfth Night), tragedy (Hamlet, Julius Caesar) and history (Henry IV Part I, Henry V). In addition, he presents a highly tragic character, Shylock, in a comedy (The Merchant of Venice). 
Characterization: Strong and rounded, reflecting deep insight into human nature. Among the magnificent character portrayals of this period are those of Hamlet, Macbeth, Shylock, Othello, Iago, and Brutus. In Henry IV Parts I and II, Shakespeare achieves a wonderful balance between the comic (represented by Sir John Falstaff) and the serious (represented by Hotspur and others). 
Dialogue: A mixture of verse and prose. Shakespeare also uses the soliloquy as more than a device to disclose the direction of the plot, to present pretty poetry, or to deliver long-winded asides. In Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar, for example, soliloquies plumb the depths of the characters' souls, revealing doubt, indecision, fear, and ambition. The "To be or not to be" soliloquy in Hamlet, perhaps the most famous passage in English literature, reveals all of these emotions.

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Overflowing Period

Plays: King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens.
Style in General: Highly creative; bursting with insight. Shakespeare ignores many rules to allow his genius to "overflow." The plots of this period sometimes twist and turn, challenging the reader with their complexity. 
Characterization: Superb, deeply insightful.
Dialogue: Often highly suggestive of the speaker's state of mind and suffused with memorable metaphors, similes and other figures of speech. Many passages are in prose. The following prose passage in the storm scene in King Lear reveals all of these characteristics. Lear is addressing Edgar in the presence of the Fool. After speaking the lines, Lear tears off his clothes.

    Why, thou wert better in thy grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies. Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here's three on 's are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself:  unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! Come unbutton here. (3.4.74)
The Fool then rejoins in prose with a surprising touch of humor and more of the same type of imagery:
    Prithee, nuncle [Lear], be contented; 'tis a naughty night to swim in. Now a little fire in a wild field were like an old lecher's heart; a small spark, all the rest on 's body cold. Look, here comes a walking fire. [Gloucester enters with a torch.] (3.4.75)
Final Period

Plays: Cymbeline, Henry VIII, Pericles, The Tempest, The Winter's Tale.
Style in General: Masterly. Shakespeare has just the right mix of technical skill, creativity, and wisdom while exhibiting hope for flawed humanity. Shakespeare tends to prefer times and places far removed from Elizabethan Englandas in The Tempest, Pericles, and Cymbelinealthough Henry VIII is certainly an exception here.
Characterization: Superb, deeply insightful. Several plays of this periodincluding Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and Cymbelineintroduce characters who suffer loss, then regain what they have lost. 
Dialogue: Highly creative, with many memorable passages in both verse and prose. The following passages, the first in verse and the second in prose, are from The Tempest:

Ariel's Song

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell (1.2.457)

Prospero Speaking to Ferdinand and Miranda, Act IV, Scene I

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. (4.1.160-168)..