Tragedy, Comedy, History?

A List of Shakespeare’s Plays by Tragedy, Comedy and History

Complete works of William SHakespeare

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It is not always easy to categorically say whether a William Shakespeare play is a tragedy, comedy, or history, because Shakespeare blurred the boundaries between these genres, especially as his work developed more complexity in themes and character development. But those are the categories into which the First Folio (the first collection of his works, published in 1623; he died in 1616) was divided, and thus, they are useful to start the discussion. The plays can be generally classified into these three broad categories based on whether the main character dies or is bequeathed a happy ending and whether Shakespeare was writing about a real person. 

This list identifies which plays are generally associated with which genre, but the classification of some plays is open to interpretation and debate and changes over time.

Shakespeare’s Tragedies

In Shakespeare's tragedies, the main protagonist has a flaw that leads to his (and/or her) downfall. There are both internal and external struggles and often a bit of the supernatural thrown in for good measure (and tension). Often there are passages or characters that have the job of lightening the mood (comic relief), but the overall tone of the piece is quite serious. The 10 Shakespeare plays generally classified as tragedy are as follows:

  1. Antony and Cleopatra
  2. Coriolanus
  3. Hamlet
  4. Julius Caesar
  5. King Lear
  6. Macbeth
  7. Othello
  8. Romeo and Juliet
  9. Timon of Athens
  10. Titus Andronicus

Shakespeare’s Comedies

Shakespeare's comedies are sometimes further subdivided into a group called romances, tragicomedies, or "problem plays," which are the dramas that have elements of humor, tragedy, and complex plots. For example, "Much Ado About Nothing" begins like a comedy but soon descends into tragedy—leading some critics to describe the play as a tragicomedy. Others debated or cited as tragicomedies include "The Winter's Tale," "Cymbeline," "The Tempest," and "The Merchant of Venice." 

Four of his plays are often called his "late romances," and they include: "Pericles," "The Winter’s Tale," and "The Tempest." "Problem plays" are so-called because of their tragicomic elements and moral issues, and they don't end perfectly tied up, such as "All's Well That Ends Well," "Measure for Measure" and "Troilus and Cressida." Regardless of all that debate, the 18 plays generally classified as comedy are as follows:

  1. "All's Well That Ends Well"
  2. " As You Like It"
  3. " The Comedy of Errors"
  4. "Cymbeline"
  5. "Love's Labour’s Lost"
  6. "Measure for Measure"
  7. "The Merry Wives of Windsor"
  8. "The Merchant of Venice"
  9. "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
  10. " Much Ado About Nothing"
  11. "Pericles, Prince of Tyre"
  12. "The Taming of the Shrew"
  13. "The Tempest"
  14. " Troilus and Cressida"
  15. "Twelfth Night"
  16. "Two Gentlemen of Verona"
  17. "The Two Noble Kinsmen"
  18. "The Winter's Tale"

Shakespeare’s Histories

Sure, the history plays are all about real figures, but it can also be argued that with the downfall portrayed of the kings in "Richard II" and "Richard III," those history plays could also be classified as tragedies, as they were billed back in Shakespeare's day. They would easily be called tragedy plays were the main character of each fictional. The 10 plays generally classified as history plays are as follows:

  1. "Henry IV, Part I"
  2. "Henry IV, Part II"
  3. "​Henry V"
  4. "Henry VI, Part I"
  5. "Henry VI, Part II"
  6. "Henry VI, Part III"
  7. "​Henry VIII"
  8. "King John"
  9. "Richard II"
  10. "Richard III"