The original classification of Shakespeare’s plays – ‘Comedies’, ‘Tragedies’, ‘Histories’ and ‘Roman plays‘ – don’t adequately describe all of Shakespeare’s plays, and scholars have come up with more names to do so. The most widely used categories are ‘Romance Plays’, ‘Problem Plays’, and Shakespeare’s ‘Tragicomedy Plays’. The plays in those categories have much in common, but there are enough differences to prevent some of them to fall into all three. The Winter’s Tale, for example is a play that does have the features of all three, however.
A tragicomedy is a play that is neither a comedy nor a tragedy, although it has the features of both. Tragedies are usually focused almost exclusively on the central character, the tragic hero (although Shakespeare’s tragedies can sometimes be a double tragedy, with two tragic heroes, like Romeo and Juliet). The audience has insights into his mind and goes deeply in, as he does in Macbeth or Hamlet.
Comic plays, on the other hand, remove that focus and the concerns are diversified so that the action is made up of the stories of several characters, particularly pairs of lovers. The shadows in human emotions are usually minor in the comedies: they are such things as misunderstandings, playful deceptions and so on.
Plays that fall between the two stools of tragedy and comedy are sometimes referred to as ‘Problem Plays.’ so the whole area of classification is a very difficult one. It shouldn’t be necessary to classify them but scholars need a language in which to talk about the plays.
The Merchant of Venice can be seen as a tragicomedy. It has a comic structure but one of the central characters, Shylock, looks very much like a tragic character. The play has a comedy ending with the lovers pairing off but we are left with taste in the mouth of the ordeal of Shylock, destroyed by a combination of his own faults and the persecution of the lovers who enjoy that happy ending. The feeling at the end of the play is neither joy nor misery. The play has a decidedly comic structure but there is also a powerful tragic story. It can therefore be called a tragicomedy.
Shakespeare’ tragicomedies usually have improbable and complex plots; characters of high social class; contrasts between villainy and virtue; love of different kinds at their centre; a hero who is saved at the last minute after a touch-and- go experience; surprises and treachery. The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline are two plays that fit that tragicomical pattern.
Shakespeare’s plays generally accepted as tragicomedy plays are: