Unlike other writers, Shakespeare wrote many different types of plays in varying styles. He was a master of multiple forms, capable of writing everything from side-splitting comedy, to bloody tragedy, heady romance, magic and mischief, historical epics, and more.
Today we divide theatre and film into many categories, such as action, drama, comedy, horror, romance, film noir, and family. Yet Shakespeare did not apply categories to his plays, it was actually editors who classified his plays much later, when they were published. Shakespeare’s works were originally divided into three main styles or genres: Comedies, Tragedies and Histories.
The wonderful thing about Shakespeare’s works is that no play sticks entirely to its genre. Shakespeare fills the comedies with moments of loss, fear, truth and sadness, whilst the tragedies are often interspersed with very human moments of mishap and comic relief. Each genre may have a particular way of ending, but each play is a different and complex web of real moments, decisions, consequences, love, hate, fear and more.
Shakespeare’s comedies are often extremely funny stories, involving romances, mistaken identity, magic, love potions, grand adventures, shipwrecks, long lost twins, clowns and comic hijinks. As a device, Shakespeare often has the characters in his comedies travel to new lands and explore distant and mysterious places, away from the structure of city or courtly life. This allows for much play, confusion and personal discovery for the characters. However, some of the stories classed as comedies are quite serious. What they all have in common, is that they all end well (that is, no characters die), and most end happily with some kind of resolution. Most comedies end with a wedding or two (or three). Any characters who tried to derail the happy story, always get their comeuppance.
Plays include: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest
Shakespeare’s tragedies are often based around a main character, or several characters, who are either faced with external pressures by family or society that they struggle to solve, or, these characters bring about their own downfall due to personal flaws. In other words, they have a weakness or fatal flaw, such as pride, jealousy or ambition, that brings about their downfall or death. Tragedies are often epic stories, and can involve romance, war, family disputes, figures from history, kings and queens, power struggles, disillusionment with society, and much more. Tragedies do not end well and often feature death, and lots of it. Interestingly, as a whole, Shakespeare’s tragedies are often his most famous plays, and regarded as his greatest works.
Plays include: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus (in every one of these plays, the title characters die)
Shakespeare wrote many plays about real people – mostly kings and queens from English history. However, he didn’t always stick to the historical facts, and liked to adjust events and characterisations to make a good story. While this was for dramatic purposes, some people didn’t like that he did this. For instance, to this day, people still challenge Shakespeare’s villainous portrayal of King Richard III, believing that the play was so powerful it changed this King’s reputation and legacy to something far more negative than the reality. Shakespeare also wrote about historical figures from Rome and Egypt such as Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, however those plays are classed as tragedies.
Plays include: Henry V, Richard III, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Richard II, and Henry VI Parts 1 – 3.
Some scholars also apply a fourth genre to Shakespeare’s plays, the ‘Problem Play.’ This classification has long been controversial, and scholars do not even agree which plays fit within this genre. Generally, the term ‘Problem Play’ refers to the difficulty classifying some of Shakespeare’s plays into a particular category. It can also refer to plays which deal with contentious or social problems, that characters in the play have differing views on. The critic Frederick Samuel Boas was the first to apply this idea to classifying Shakespeare’s plays.
Plays include: The Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice