What Types of Plays Did Shakespeare Write?

Shakespearean Tragedies, Comedies, Histories, and Problem Plays

William Shakespeare

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The English Medieval playwright William Shakespeare wrote 38 (or so) plays during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) and her successor, James I (ruled 1603–1625). The plays are important works still today, insightfully exploring the human condition in prose, poetry, and song. His understanding of human nature led him to blend elements of human behavior—great goodness and great evil—in the same play and sometimes even in the same character.

Shakespeare heavily influenced literature, theater, poetry, and even the English language. Many English words used in today's lexicon are attributed to Shakespeare's pen. For example, "swagger," "bedroom," "lackluster," and "puppy dog" were all coined by the Bard of Avon.

Shakespeare's Innovation

Shakespeare is known for using literary devices such as genre, plot, and characterization in revolutionary ways to expand on their dramatic potential. He used soliloquies—long speeches by characters spoken to the audience—not only to push along the plot of a play but also to display a character's secret life, such as in "Hamlet" and "Othello."

He also blended genres, which was not traditionally done at the time. For instance, "Romeo and Juliet" is both a romance and a tragedy, and "Much Ado About Nothing" can be called a tragi-comedy.

Shakespearean critics have broken the plays into four categories: tragedies, comedies, histories, and "problem plays." This list contains some of the plays that fall into each category. However, you will find that different lists place some plays into different categories. For example, "The Merchant of Venice" has important elements of both tragedy and comedy, and it is up to the individual reader to decide which outweighs the other.

Tragedies

Shakespearean tragedies are plays with somber themes and dark endings. Tragic conventions used by Shakespeare feature the death and destruction of well-meaning people brought down by either their own fatal flaws or the political machinations of others. Flawed heroes, the fall of a noble person, and the triumph of external pressures such as fate, spirits, or other characters over the hero are featured.

  • "Antony and Cleopatra:" Love between the famous Egyptian queen and her Roman soldier lover ends in suicide.
  • "Coriolanus:" A successful Roman general tries his hand at politics and fails miserably.
  • "Hamlet:" A Danish prince is driven insane by his father's ghost demanding retribution for his murder.
  • "Julius Caesar:" A Roman emperor is brought down by his inner circle.
  • "King Lear:" A British king decides to test which of his daughters loves him most in order to decide who gets his realm.
  • "Macbeth:" A Scottish king's ambition turns him to murder.
  • "Othello:" A general in the Moorish army of Venice is influenced by one of his courtiers into murdering his wife.
  • "Romeo and Juliet:" The family politics of two young lovers doom them.
  • "Timon of Athens:" A wealthy man in Athens gives away all of his money, then plots to attack the city in revenge.
  • "Titus Andronicus:" A Roman general conducts a truly bloody war of revenge against Tamora, Queen of the Goths.

Comedies

Shakespearean comedies are, on the whole, more light-hearted pieces. The point of these plays may not necessarily be to make the audience laugh, but to think. Comedies feature the clever use of language to create wordplay, metaphors, and smart insults. Love, mistaken identities, and convoluted plots with twisted outcomes are also integral aspects of a Shakespearean comedy.

  • "As You Like It:" The daughter of an ousted French ruler falls in love with the wrong man and must flee and disguise herself as a man.
  • "The Comedy of Errors:" Two sets of twin brothers, enslaved brothers and noblemen are mixed up at birth, leading to all kinds of trouble later on.
  • "Love's Labour's Lost:" The king of Navarre and his three courtiers swear off women for three years and promptly fall in love.
  • "The Merchant of Venice:" A spendthrift noble Venetian borrows money to impress his beloved but finds himself unable to repay his loan—in cash, anyway.
  • "The Merry Wives of Windsor:" The British nobleman John Falstaff (featured in the Henriad history plays) has adventures with a pair of women who trick and tease him.
  • "A Midsummer Night's Dream:" A wager between the king and queen of the fairies has hilarious effects on the hapless humans wandering in their forest.
  • "Much Ado About Nothing:" Beatrice and Benedick, a pair of Venetian adversaries, are conned by their friends into falling in love with one another.
  • "The Taming of the Shrew:" A boorish man agrees to marry the wealthy but obnoxious elder daughter of a Paduan lord.
  • "The Tempest:" Stranded on a remote island, a duke-turned-sorcerer uses magic to take his revenge.
  • "Twelfth Night:" Twins Viola and Sebastian are separated during a shipwreck. The girl disguises herself as a man and then falls in love with a local Count.

Histories

Despite their category's name, Shakespearean histories are not historically accurate. While the histories are set in Medieval England and explored class systems of that time, Shakespeare was not trying to depict the past authentically. He used historical events as a base but developed his own plot based on prejudices and social commentaries of his time.

Shakespeare's histories are only about English monarchs. Four of his plays: "Richard II, the two plays of "Henry IV," and "Henry V" are called the Henriad, a tetralogy that contains events during the 100 Years War (1377–1453). Meanwhile, "Richard III" and three plays of "Henry VI" explore events during the War of the Roses (1422–1485).

  • "King John:" the reign of John Lackland, King of England from 1199–1219
  • "Edward III:" ruled England from 1327–1377
  • "Richard II:" ruled England from 1377–1399,
  • "Henry IV" (parts 1 and 2): ruled England from 1399–1413
  • "Henry V:" ruled England from 1413–1422
  • "Henry VI" (parts 1, 2, and 3): ruled England from 1422–1461 and 1470–1641
  • "Richard III:" ruled England 1483-1485
  • "Henry VIII:" ruled England from 1509-1547

Problem Plays

Shakespeare's so-called "problem plays" are plays that do not fit into any of these three categories. Although most of his tragedies contain comic elements, and most of his comedies have bits of tragedy, the problem plays shift rapidly between truly dark events and comic material.

  • "All's Well That Ends Well:" A lowborn French woman convinces a countess's son that she is worthy of his love.
  • "Measure for Measure:" A Venetian duke tells everyone he is leaving the city but stays in town disguised to find out who his true friends are.
  • "Troilus and Cressida:" During the Trojan war, kings and lovers battle out their difficult stories.