Mnemonics · Shakespeare · Trivia

Shakespeare Mnemonics

This weekend of events commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is drawing to a close. There are 37 plays in the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Can you name them all? If so, how do you remember them? If not, and you would like some suggestions, my mnemonics are given below. [Digressions appear in square brackets.]

(I posted something similar earlier this month, also in my “Trivia” Category, mnemonics for the 50 States of the USA and their capitals, here.)

By Category: 10 Histories, 10 Tragedies, 17 other

This is one way to remember them, by categorizing the plays.

10 Histories

The 10 Histories are the easiest to list: 7 Henrys, 2 Richards and a John.

The Henry plays are: “Henry IV” Parts 1 and 2 (two plays), “Henry V”, “Henry VI” parts 1, 2 and 3 (three plays) and “Henry VIII”.

The Richards are: “Richard II”, “Richard III”.

And finally there’s “King John”.

10 Tragedies

The Tragedies fall into two lots of 5.

The Big 5: “Hamlet”, “Macbeth”, “King Lear”, “Othello”, “Romeo and Juliet”.

The other 5, all set in the ancient world: “Julius Caesar”, “Antony and Cleopatra”, “Coriolanus”, “Titus Andronicus”, “Timon of Athens”.

[There’s a simple way to categorize a Shakespearean Tragedy: the play contains the death, or deaths, of the title character, or characters, and the title character(s) never ruled as King of England. By the same token, knowing that a play is categorized as a Tragedy tells you that the title character(s) will not make it to the end of the play. Is Hamlet alive at the end of the play? No. Macbeth? No. Antony? No. Cleopatra? No. You get the general idea.]

17 Other

The other 17 plays, loosely termed “Comedies” are harder to divide up. I do it as follows: 4 Late Plays, 4 Problem Plays, 9 other

The 4 Late Plays: “Pericles”, “Cymbeline”, “The Winter’s Tale”, “The Tempest”.

The 4 Problem Plays: “All’s Well That Ends Well”, “Measure for Measure”, “The Merchant of Venice”, “Troilus and Cressida”.

[They are Problem Plays because they don’t really have a happy ending. The main protagonists are still alive, but you don’t leave the theatre punching the air thinking, “Yes, I’m glad that worked out so well”. You’re more likely to think, looking at those four plays in order, “What does she see in him?”, “What does she see in him?”, “I’m not happy about how things ended up for Shylock, and I wasn’t really into Antonio all through the play” and “Blimey; anyone fancy a pint?”]

That leaves 9 other plays, which you can define more safely as comedies: “As You Like It”, “Comedy of Errors”, “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, “Merry Wives of Windsor”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Much Ado About Nothing”, “Taming of the Shrew”, “Twelfth Night” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona”.

Lists containing 9 items are too big for most of us to remember: 7 is usually our limit. [Can you name the 7 Dwarfs, or the actors who made up the Magnificent 7? It may not surprise you to find that I can. I’ll leave that till the end of this piece.]

So, how do you divide up these 9 Shakespeare plays? There isn’t a clear way of doing so (nothing as clear-cut as the Four Late Plays for instance) but you could separate out the three “women dressing as men” comedies (“As You Like It”, “Twelfth Night” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona”) and leave the other 6. But then you might get confused with “Cymbeline” (a Late Play) and “The Merchant of Venice” (a Problem Play) which also feature women dressing up as men.

Faced with this, you might prefer the alphabetical way of remembering the 37 plays: remember how many plays begin with each letter of the alphabet.

Alphabetically: 3 A’s, 3 C’s, 8 H’s, 1 J, 2 K’s, 1 L, 6 M’s, 1 O, 1 P, 3 R’s, 7 T’s, 1 W

Using the alphabetical list in the heading above, and before reading any further, you might like to test yourself; see how many of the 6 M’s or 7 T’s you can name, or go right through the list, from the 3 A’s onwards.


Here they all are, listed alphabetically.

A: “All’s well that ends well”, “Antony and Cleopatra”, “As You Like It”

C: “Comedy of Errors”, “Coriolanus”, “Cymbeline”

H: “Hamlet”, and those 7 Henry’s (“Henry IV” parts 1 and 2, “Henry V”, “Henry VI” parts 1, 2 and 3, “Henry VIII”)

J: “Julius Caesar”

K: “King John”, “King Lear”

L: “Love’s Labour’s Lost”

M: “Macbeth”, “Measure for Measure”, “The Merchant of Venice”, “Merry Wives of Windsor”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Much Ado About Nothing”

O: “Othello”

P: “Pericles”

R: “Richard II”, “Richard III”, “Romeo and Juliet”

T: “Taming of the Shrew”, “The Tempest”, “Timon of Athens”, “Titus Andronicus”, “Troilus and Cressida”, “Twelfth Night”, “Two Gentlemen of Verona”

W: “The Winter’s Tale”

Three more plays to confuse things

There are three other plays attributed at least in part to Shakespeare. They would take us to a nice round 40 if added to the Complete Works.

“Two Noble Kinsmen” is a co-write (Shakespeare and John Fletcher), and it appears in some (but not all) Complete Works volumes, which confuses things a little.

“Edward III” is attributed to Shakespeare by some scholars who have spent a lot more of their time studying these things than I ever will.

“Thomas More” is a play which Shakespeare is known to have contributed to. (It was staged at Stratford-on-Avon in 2005, to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot.)

And finally

And finally, those 7s, as promised: Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy and Doc are the Seven Dwarfs; Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Horst Buchholz, Robert Vaughn and Brad Dexter were the actors who played “The Magnificent Seven”. Those lists came from memory. Yes I know I could have used a search engine for them, just as you could, on that screen you’re using right now, but where’s the fun in that?



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