What types of plays did Shakespeare write?
There have been many attempts to classify Shakespeare’s play types, using labels to place them into categories to define or restrict the ways in which we think about each play. Traditionally Shakespeare play types are defined as:
with a number of additional categories proposed over the years:
Here are the types of Shakespeare plays grouped by the standard comedy, history and tragedy classifications:
Shakespeare’s Comedy Plays
Shakespeare’s comedies are generally identifiable as plays full of fun, irony and dazzling wordplay. They also abound in disguises and mistaken identities, with very convoluted plots that are difficult to follow with very contrived endings.
All’s Well That Ends Well
As You Like It
The Comedy of Errors
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Measure for Measure
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Merchant of Venice
A Midsummer Nights’ Dream
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Read more about Shakespeare’s Comedy plays
Shakespeare’s Tragedy Plays
The plays grouped as Shakespeare tragedies follow the Aristotelian model of a noble, flawed protagonist who makes a mistake and suffers a fall from his position, before the normal order is somehow resumed.
When it comes to Shakespeare tragedies and Shakespeare comedies there are 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.
- 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.
- 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,
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its forbidden love, threatens to fall into a dark chasm of unhappiness for the characters but survives that danger amidst hilarity and joy.
- Much Ado About Nothing teeters on the brink of darkness but then comes out of it and proceeds towards a felicitous climax.
- 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. (Read about more Romeo and Juliet themes.)
Read more about Shakespeare’s Tragedy plays
Shakespeare’s History Plays
The history plays normally refer to the ten plays that cover English history from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and the 1399-1485 period in particular. Each play is named after, and focuses on, the reigning monarch of the period.
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 within and between the plays.
Read more about Shakespeare’s History plays
Shakespeare’s Roman Plays
The category of Shakespeare’s ‘Roman plays’ is simply a convenient description that scholars and critics have given to the four plays that Shakespeare set in ancient Rome – although Shakespeare experts don’t always agree on this.
Read more about Shakespeare’s Roman plays
Additional Shakespeare Play Categories
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. 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 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. The Winter’s Tale is usually put into the ‘problem play’ category as well.
Here you can see the generally accepted categorization of these play types, along with further information:
Shakespeare’s Lost Plays
Shortly after Shakepeare’s death what is known as the First Folio was printed. We know, now, that he wrote several plays that were not included in that volume – plays that are often referred to as Shakespeare’s ‘lost plays’.
Read more about Shakespeare’s Lost plays
Shakespeare’s Masque Plays
A masque is a form of courtly entertainment containing music, dancing, singing and acting out a story. It was popular in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although it originated in Italy.
Read more about Shakespeare’s Masque plays
Shakespeare’s Problem Plays
In the problem plays the journey we take when we watch them we take on a dark road. While most of the protagonists end up in a reasonable place they are almost irretrievably scarred by the experience we have watched them endure.
Read more about Shakespeare’s Problem plays
Shakespeare’s Tragicomedy Plays
A tragicomedy is a play that is neither a comedy nor a tragedy, although it has the features of both. Whilst plays that fall between these two stools of tragedy and comedy are generally referred to as Shakespeare’s tragedies, they are sometimes referred to as ‘Problem plays’, making the whole area of play classification something of a grey area.
Read more about Shakespeare’s Tragicomedy plays