There have always been attempts to classify Shakespeare’s play types, using labels to place them in categories that could restrict the ways in which we might think about them. Certainly, we can justify calling the Henry plays, the Richard plays and King John Shakespeare’s ‘history plays’ although that would be the most superficial kind of description, given the variety of action, mood, feeling, tone and structure among them and within the texts individually.
The so-called Shakespeare tragedies and Shakespeare comedies have more similarities than differences and what they have in common is a recognizability that comes from their all being the work of the same writer whose genius makes him the best plot constructor, character-maker, story-teller and poet of his time. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, with its forbidden love, threatens to fall into a dark chasm of unhappiness for the characters but survives that danger amidst hilarity and joy, while Romeo and Juliet with the same theme of forbidden love seems to be developing towards a joyful conclusion but suddenly and unexpectedly falls into the deepest darkness. Much Ado About Nothing teeters on the brink of darkness but then comes out of it and proceeds towards a felicitous climax.
A nineteenth century critic, F.S. Boas, desperate to classify everything, coined the term ‘problem plays’ for some of them because of the difficulty he had squeezing them into any of the conventional slots. The plays Shakespeare wrote between 1601 and 1603 – All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida – seemed confusing to him as they lurch back and forth between dark drama and a light comic tone. The Winter’s Tale is usually put into the ‘problem play’ category as well.
When it comes to the two main divisions, ‘comedy’ and ‘tragedy’, there is a broad range of dramatic types in each and, whatever those two terms may mean, none of the plays fits comfortably into either of them. The Merchant of Venice, for example, traditionally a comedy, features Shylock, a tragic figure in every way, while the comic elements are only there to frame and heighten the tragic feeling. On the other hand, one of the ‘great’ tragic plays, Antony and Cleopatra, shows the ultimate genius of a mind that doesn’t respect classification boxes in that it produces a real tragic feeling from a completely comic structure. That play alone confounds the efforts of all the scholars bent on classifying Shakespeare’s dramas.
Here are the more or less standard classifications:
The three main categories of Shakespeare’s plays are “Comedy”, “Tragedy” and “History”. However, people have also places the Bard’s plays into other categories, such as “Lost plays“, “Roman plays“, “Romance plays“, “Tragicomedy plays“, “Problem plays” and “Masque plays”. Below you can find the generally accepted categorization of these play types, along with further information: