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 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
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