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Main Characteristics of Shakespearean Plays: Comedy, Tragedy, History

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Shakespeare's Plays

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is considered to be the greatest writer in English Literature. He composed over 150 sonnets and wrote some of the most famous plays in the English language. His plays are generally categorized as Comedies, Tragedies, and Histories. There is some debate about which category some of the plays should be included in as there are often crossovers between the genres. So, which plays did he write, and what are the features of the different genres?

Shakespeare's Comedy

Comedy is not necessarily what a modern audience would expect comedy to be. Whilst there may be some funny moments, a Shakespearean comedy may involve some very dramatic storylines. Usually what defines a Shakespearean play as a comedy is that it has a happy ending, often involving a marriage. The main characteristics of Shakespeare's comedies are:

  • A struggle of young lovers to overcome problems, often the result of the interference of their elders
  • There is some element of separation and reunification
  • Mistaken identities, often involving disguise
  • A clever servant
  • Family tensions that are usually resolved in the end
  • Complex, interwoven plot-lines
  • Frequent use of puns and other styles of comedy

The Shakespearean plays which are usually classed as comedy are:

The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, All's Well That Ends Well, The Tempest, Taming of the Shrew, The Winter's Tale, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, Love's Labours Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing, Pericles, Prince of Tyre and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Shakespearean Tragedy

Tragedies may involve comedic moments, but tend towards more serious, dramatic plots with an ending that involves the death of main characters. The main features of a Shakespearean tragedy are that:

  • Characters become isolated or there is social breakdown
  • Ends in death
  • There is a sense that events are inevitable or inescapable
  • There is usually a central figure who is noble but with a character flaw which leads them towards their eventual downfall

The plays which are generally classed as Shakespearean tragedy are: Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, Coriolanus, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, and Cymbeline (this is debated, with some scholars classifying it as a comedy)

Shakespeare's Histories

Shakespeare's histories focus on English monarchs. They usually play upon Elizabethan propaganda, showing the dangers of civil war and glorifying the queen's Tudor ancestors. The depictions of monarchs including Richard III (an enemy of the Tudors) and Henry V (one of the great Tudor monarchs) have been influential in creating a perception of these kings which has persisted throughout the centuries. Many historians point to inaccuracies in the depictions, but the plays have been very powerful in presenting a particular image that is hard for many people to see past.

The histories are King John, Richard II, Henry IV (parts I and II), Henry V, Henry VI (parts I, II and III), Richard III and Henry VIII.

The plays, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra are classified both as Tragedies and as Roman Histories.


belleart from Ireland on August 07, 2012:

Great hub, definitely helpful for anyone studying Shakespeare. :)

alliemacb (author) from Scotland on May 11, 2012:

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Hi chef-du-jour. I saw him in that role too and thought it was wonderful. You're right about the way a 400 year old role can still be magical. I think that's what's great about Shakespeare. Thanks for stopping by and for the comment.

Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on May 11, 2012:

We saw Mr Tennant in Hamlet at the Courtyard the year before last and good he was too in the lead role, adding his own little bit of controversy and bringing that modern feel to the role. Clever performance. Isn't it magical the way a 400 year old role still offers a 21st century (t.v.) actor the chance to excel? Tennant ought to do some comedy, if he hasn't already.

Thanks for a concisely written hub.

alliemacb (author) from Scotland on April 19, 2012:

Hi, yes you're right. Some people are classifying a few of the plays as Romance. I think that's one of the interesting things about genre - it can be a very fluid concept. Might re-visit this at some point.

Sid Kemp from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on April 19, 2012:

Wonderfully clear - but I think you missed a category. Some see five of Shakespeare's late plays as a whole new genre: The Romance. This includes: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and, my favorite, the Tempest. Per the Riverside Shakespeare, the Romances partake of the Continental romance, and also include journeys to distant places. They also blend elements of tragedy and comedy. I'd love to hear more about them!

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on March 15, 2012:

I love plays by Shakespeare. You give a great overview of his different types of plays. I also like the photos! Great hub!

Der Meister on March 15, 2012:

Cool hub. The hard to categorize plays known as his problem plays.

alliemacb (author) from Scotland on March 15, 2012:

Thanks for the encouraging comments

Mary Craig from New York on March 15, 2012:

Good explanation of the types of Shakespearean plays. So many are unaware of which play is which. Voted up.

Lisa from WA on March 15, 2012:

I never realized how Shakespeare's historical plays affect how people even today view famous historical figures. Very interesting how much his work overall still influences people. Great hub!

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