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:

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.

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.)

Here are Shakespeare’s 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
Twelfth Night
Two Gentlemen of Verona

Read more about Shakespeare’s Comedy 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.

Henry IV Part 1
Henry IV Part 2
Henry V
Henry VI Part 1
Henry VI Part 2
Henry VI Part 3
Henry VIII
King John
Richard II
Richard III

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.

Antony and Cleopatra
Julius Caesar
Titus Andronicus

Read more about Shakespeare’s Roman 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.

Antony and Cleopatra
King Lear
Titus Andronicus

Read more about Shakespeare’s Tragedy 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.

Other people have also placed the Bard’s plays into other categories, such as ‘Lost plays‘, ‘Roman plays‘, ‘Romance plays“, ‘Tragicomedy plays‘, ‘Problem plays‘ and ‘Masque plays‘.

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’.

Love’s Labour Won

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.

Henry VIII
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Romeo and Juliet
The Tempest

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.

All’s Well That Ends Well
Measure for Measure
Troilus and Cressida
The Winter’s Tale

Read more about Shakespeare’s Problem plays

Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Shakespeare’s later plays had elements of comedy and tragedy as well as having a wider view of life. They have become a new classification, named Romance plays by scholars.

The Winter’s TaleThe Tempest

Read more about Shakespeare’s Romance 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.

The Merchant of Venice
The Winter’s Tale

Read more about Shakespeare’s Tragicomedy plays

romeo woos juliet leaning back against a tree

Romeo & Juliet – a comedy, history or problem play?

18 replies
  1. sarah ashby
    sarah ashby says:

    we are a school named baginton fields i am saff and this week as well as doing this weeks school things we are doing about shak every dinner time we do story`s and at the end of the day we have the 12th night on and on firday we are having a big party for shak.

    from all saff and kids


    HATE SHAKESPEARE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Lou
    Lou says:

    So many of them can go either way. For instance, in Much Ado About Nothing, what if Benedick and Claudio kill each other in a duel. Then Hero kills herself in earnest when she finds out, and Beatrice goes into a nunnery when it’s discovered that Hero was was innocent. Or, in Romeo and Juliet, Tybalt is nothing more than a big blowhard that Romeo and Mercutio decide to take down a notch by faking Mercutio’s death to get Tybalt in trouble with the count. The joke goes sour when they are found out, Romeo has to leave town for a while, but sneaks back and goes to old man Montague with Juliet, his (surprise!) wife, in hand. The adults see the foolishness of their feud and every one kisses and makes up for a happy ending. Except that Tybalt is still an asshole, ha ha.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *