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What are the Lost Plays of Shakespeare?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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William Shakespeare, the famous English playwright, wrote 36 plays that have survived to modern day. Many experts consider Shakespeare’s work to be the best in all of theater, and performances of his plays are well-known staples of the live theater community. Yet experts believe the canon of Shakespeare is incomplete, with at least two texts not surviving past Shakespeare’s day. The lost plays, as they are commonly called, are objects of great interest to the theater community and historians alike.

Love’s Labor’s Won is the more often cited of the lost plays, as textual accounts of the time suggest it existed. In a 1598 book by English author Francis Meres, he lists several of the plays including Love’s Labor’s Won. Experts believed for many years that the title was an alternate name for Taming of the Shrew, which had been left out of Meres’ list. In 1953, a record was discovered of a 1603 collection of Shakespeare’s work that includes both Taming of the Shrew and Love’s Labor’s Won.

The plot of the first of the lost plays is merely speculative, but many critics believe it to be a sequel to Love’s Labor’s Lost. The symmetry of the titles is obviously noted. Experts also cite the text of the first play, which seemingly ends in the middle of the story, as the heroes are set a difficult task. Other experts remain unconvinced, suggesting that the play is an alternate name for another work, possibly All’s Well that Ends Well or Much Ado About Nothing.

The History of Cardenio, the second of the lost plays, has a complicated history. It is believed to be taken from Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote, in which Cardenio is a major character. The play is known to have been performed in 1613 by a London theater troupe called The King’s Men. In 1653, a bookseller named Henry Moseley attributed the play to Shakespeare and a second author, John Fletcher. Moseley is considered by experts to be unreliable, however, as he frequently attributed plays to Shakespeare that were not his.

In 1727, an English author named Lewis Theobald released an edited text he claimed to have taken from three manuscripts of an unknown play by Shakespeare. Renamed Double Falsehood, the play is considered by some experts to be Cardenio, as it contains the episode of the character. Experts are divided on this subject, and the truth of Cardenio may be lost to history.

The Two Noble Kinsman is now generally accepted as a Shakespearean work, but for many years was a subject of debate over authorship and whether the text existing was original. The play might be called one of the lost plays, as it was not included in the first folio or any collection of plays in Shakespeare’s day, and was not published until 1634, twenty years after Shakespeare’s death. It has since been considered among the apocrypha, but now is believed by experts to be authentically Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Apocrypha are a set of 11 plays believed to be written by Shakespeare, but are not accepted in the typical cannon. These plays are not considered lost plays, as text does exist. Instead, the confusion concerns the authorship of the plays, as no clear record states who wrote them. Many of the Shakespeare Apocrypha are believed to be collaborations between Shakespeare and other writers.

The lost plays of Shakespeare are a romantic topic among scholars hoping to find rare and priceless manuscripts. Discovery of the texts would further complete history’s picture of Shakespeare, a notoriously shadowy figure. Many experts believe that the manuscripts of Cardenio and Love’s Labor’s Won will never be found, but that does not halt the scholarly debate or interest in the tantalizing lost plays.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Language & Humanities. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By geronimo8 — On Feb 11, 2011

I think it's kind of silly that people think these lost plays are just another name for plays that we know exist. Why is it so hard to believe that Shakespeare may have written plays that we don't have our hands on today? Anything could have happened to those plays.

By reader888 — On Feb 08, 2011

It just occurred to me that someone could make a great movie about this. It could be all about a person who is determined to find all of Shakespeare's lost plays. If it was made well, I think a lot of Shakespeare fans would love to see it.

By jlmk — On Feb 08, 2011

Can you imagine how exciting it would be to actually find the manuscripts of Shakespeare's lost plays?

I wonder whatever happened to them? I suppose anything is possible, but it's fun to imagine exciting and romantic reasons for the disappearance of the manuscripts.

By anon39615 — On Aug 03, 2009

I believe Shakespeare penned two plays about about Adam and Eve and The Joshua and the Whale

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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