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William Shakespeare Plays

Comedies, Tragedies, & Histories

By Rebecca Ray and Kristy Littlehale

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What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet


With these words, Juliet suggests the name of a thing does not matter, only what that thing is. She did have a motive for thinking this, of course, as it was Romeo’s family name, Montague, that posed such a barrier to their love.

No matter what they were named, William Shakespeare’s plays would still be great works of art, so it may not matter what we call them. Generally though, Shakespeare wrote three types of plays: Tragedy, Comedy, and History. These names help us understand the archetypes of a play and better analyze its events. After all, The Comedy of Romeo and Juliet would be a very different play from The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps it would be a farce about two star-crossed lovers, doomed to suffer humorous mistakes of identity and bumbling servants. It wouldn’t be the story of woe we are all so familiar with.

Shakespearean Play Genres

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Despite their categorical differences, all of Shakespeare’s plays have a few things in common.

Time

Time itself becomes a character in most of Shakespeare’s plays. It is the “Character You Never See”, but arguably, like the role it takes in our own lives, Time is the most important.


When Shakespeare wants to control Time, he uses the length of the scenes in an Act:


Why? Chaos and confusion of the times are reflected in the structure of the play.


Unity

All of Shakespeare’s plays move toward unity. There is either unity in the plot, in the characters, or in the ruling class. Often times this is shown through a marriage, an ascent to power after the overthrow of a corrupt monarch, or an agreement of peace.


Women

Women in Shakespeare’s Plays always know the truth. They are not easily fooled, nor are they always listened to by the men in the play. They are wiser than those around them, though, and they are often the most correct in their warnings to the heroes of Shakespeare’s plays.


The Monarchy

All of Shakespeare’s plays did not paint monarchs in a favorable light; however, he always made sure that beloved monarchs and the current Tudor dynasty were always treated as heroes. To this end, Shakespeare would often set his plays in another place, such as Italy or Scotland, to avoid seeming like he might be trying to point the finger at the current monarchy’s flaws. For instance, Queen Elizabeth I had no heirs, and there was very real fear about what kind of destabilization would occur in England upon her death. Shakespeare acknowledged and focused on these fears by writing The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, a story about another ruler with no heirs who, upon his death, sent the Roman empire into chaos. But, because it took place in Rome, and not London... Shakespeare had some plausible deniability that he might be criticizing the monarchy, and was able to keep his head firmly attached to his shoulders.


Fun Facts about Shakespeare’s Plays


Shakespeare Tragedies

Romeo and Juliet Tragic Hero

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Shakespeare’s tragedies are typically the easiest to identify because they contain a heroic figure, a man of noble descent, with a fatal flaw. His weakness precipitates his downfall and the demise of those around him. Other elements of tragedy are a serious theme and ending with the death of someone important. In his tragedies, Shakespeare often includes a reversal of fortune. Shakespeare’s Tragedies contained the following important characteristics:

  • Shows stakes are high for the characters
  • Shows how they fall short of their ambitions
  • The hero must always be inherently good, but he goes astray
  • Always involves a terrible error in judgement
  • Predicated on notion of rationality which is lost in the hero’s flaw
  • Supernatural soothsayers (truth-tellers, prophets, fortune tellers), ghosts, and witches typically predict the hero’s downfall
  • Tragedy does not always result in death
  • Resides with intelligent beings:
    • Intelligence and bad decisions is tragic compared with choices made by fools
    • Raises our aspirations and respect for men and women (it elevates the audience)
  • Supposed to invoke pity and fear: “What if the character had made a different choice?”... “What if I had made a different choice?”

Famous Shakespeare Tragedies


Shakespeare Histories

Henry V Shakespeare's History

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Shakespeare’s histories also have common features, the most prevalent being a historical monarch as a main character. Shakespeare’s histories mostly dramatize the Hundred Years’ War, between France and England, though not always in a historically accurate manner. Histories were not documentaries, but social propaganda. Henry V, for instance, was written to promote English patriotism. These plays also display the class system of the time, containing members of each social status: from beggars to kings, the audience views dynamic characters from all walks of life.

Shakespeare’s Histories contained the following important characteristics:


Shakespeare’s Histories were broken into two tetralogies, or groups of four plays:

Tetrology including Henry VI

  1. The First Part of Henry VI
  2. The Second Part of Henry VI
  3. The Third Part of Henry VI
  4. The Tragedy of Richard III*

Lancastrian Tetralogy

  1. The Tragedy of King Richard II
  2. The First Part of Henry IV
  3. The Second Part of Henry IV
  4. The Life of Henry V

Shakespeare also wrote two additional histories:

These two plays were the only two histories that were not concerned with the rise and fall of the House of Lancaster. The Life and Death of King John dealt with Shakespeare’s personal interest in a Machiavellian approach to politics. The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII continued the propaganda purpose of Shakespeare’s histories, celebrating the Tudor dynasty and Queen Elizabeth I’s father.

Shakespeare began to write The Reign of Edward III, but he did not finish it. Likely he decided to write about King Edward III because of his importance in sparking the Hundred Years’ War with his claim to the French throne in 1337. Edward’s descendants also forked off into the Houses of Lancaster and York, which led to the War of the Roses and, ultimately, the Tudor dynasty after Richard III’s death.

*While Richard III is often billed as a tragedy, and is seen in some circles as interchangeable, the play does lack one critical characteristic of a tragedy: Richard III is never an inherently good character who has an error in judgment. Richard is evil from the very beginning, as evidenced by his physical deformity (physiognomy) and his plans to destroy everyone, even his young nephews, in order to reach the throne.


Shakespeare Comedies

Elements of Shakespeare Comedies - Twelfth Night

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Shakespeare’s comedies usually contain playful elements like satiric language, puns, and metaphors. Comedies also contain elements of love or lust, with obstacles that the lovers must overcome throughout the play. Mistaken identities and disguises are often used in both intentional and unintentional ways for comic effect. A staple of the Shakespearean comedy is ending the play with some type of reunion or marriage(s). Comedies also contain complex plots, with extensive plot twists, to keep the audience guessing what will happen next. They were often looked down upon in regards to their artistic merits; tragedies and epics were elevated above most other genres of plays in Shakespeare’s time.

Shakespeare’s Comedies contained the following important characteristics:

  • Comedies often led to the conclusion that we, as humans, are fools
  • The subject matter never leaves the ground; it always reduces to the lowest common denominator
  • Incongruous plot; often confusing
  • Subject matter of comedy is usually not all that serious

Two of Shakespeare’s comedies were Farce. They went further in their base comedy than his other comedies, and were considered the more controversial comedies for their time. Characteristics of Farce include:

  • Plot doesn’t have a lot of substance
  • Clown figure “stuffs in” ad-libs. "Farce" comes from the Latin farcire, meaning “to stick in, or stuff”.
  • There’s always physical comedy that the plot line doesn’t demand
  • Contains gross or unrefined humor
  • Shakespeare’s two Farce plays are The Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor

For 200 years, Shakespeare’s Comedies were thought to total 18 plays; however, in the late 1800s, Irish critic Edward Dowden considered Shakespeare’s later five plays to have the qualities of Medieval Romances. Many scholars agreed with Dowden, and so these plays are often categorized as Romances instead of Comedies.


Shakespeare Romances

Shakespeare's Romances

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For those who agree with Edward Dowden, Shakespeare actually only wrote 13 Comedies; his later five plays contain characteristics that align them more with Medieval Romances. In fact, at the time they were thought to be “tragicomedies” rather than pure Comedies. These five plays include: The Two Noble Kinsmen, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Pericles, Prince of Tyre. In fact, the most popular comprehensive publication of Shakespeare’s works, The Riverside Shakespeare categorizes the plays in this way, so it may be worth addressing with students, or presenting these works as Romances rather than Comedies.

Shakespeare’s Romances contained the following important characteristics:

  • Jealousy, conflict, war, rebellion, and other such potentially tragic situations open the play, and are resolved by the end of it
  • Plots move quickly and often include improbable situations
  • There is always a love interest, although it may not be central to the play
  • The prominent male figures are typically older than in other Shakespearean plays
  • Elements of the supernatural help direct the plot
  • Characters are usually of the nobility, and are painted in the extremes of their virtues or corruption
  • Focused on themes on a grander scale, like the impact on people as a whole, rather than on individual character’s triumphs and failures
Elements of Shakespeare Romances

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Classroom Applications and Uses

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