The genres of Shakespeare’s plays are generally split into three main categories: Comedy, History, and Tragedy. Though some students may be confused when trying to classify a play, the different Shakespearian genres have certain things in common. Though some Shakespearian critics include a subcategory of “Romance”, the lines can get blurry with this classification. Therefore, for our purposes today we will focus only on the commonly held genres of Comedy, History, and Tragedy. Comedy
Comedies in Shakespearian Theater generally end with a wedding and can include elements of cross-dressing, drunkenness, people being confused for each other, and general tom-foolery. A good example of this type of play is A Midsummer Night’s dream. In the play, the fairy king, Oberon, has one of his servants, Robbin Goodfellow, attempt to straighten out a love triangle. Unfortunately, this leads to everyone falling in love with the wrong person for a time resulting in a lot of humorous mix-ups. In a sub-plot of the play, Oberon and his queen are in an argument. In order to get back at her, he has her fall in love with a fool named “Bottom” who he magically gives the head of an ass. Shakespearian comedy at its finest. The play ends with the correct pairs of lovers getting married and the King and Queen of the fairies settling their differences.
How to make sure you’ve classified correctly? If it ends with a wedding; if few or no people die; if people get mistaken for each other or act like more than one character; and if characters are constantly making jokes about sex, cross-dressing, drunkenness, or a guy named “Bottom” who now literally has the head of an ass; it’s a comedy. History
Shakespearian histories are biased on events that actually happened, especially those involving the English monarchy and major points in British history. They are often sequential, such as in the case of Henry IV Part one, Henry IV part 2, and Henry V. They frequently involve war and always involve politics. Unfortunately, this can make them somewhat dull. They do, however, often have the benefit of amazing language. Examples of this can be seen in Henry V’s “Saint Crispin’s Day” speech, as well as in the “Now is the Winter of our Discontent” soliloquy in Richard III.
How to make sure you’ve classified correctly? If it happened in English history to English monarchs, or if there is a “Henry” in the title, it’s a history.
Tragedy plays have lots of, well, tragedy in them. By the end of the play, almost everyone is usually either dead or crazy and no one really has what they wanted. An example of this is the tragedy Hamlet where, at the end, almost the entire cast has been killed off, including even the minor characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In tragedies, someone almost always inevitably unintentionally or mistakenly kills someone else leading to a whole lot of mess. Examples of this include: Romeo killing Paris in Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet killing Polonius in Hamlet, Edmund killing Cordila in King Lear, and Othello killing Desdemona in Othello. There is also, unsurprisingly, quite a bit of suicide in this genre.
How to make sure you’ve classified correctly? If the majority of the characters have killed each other off or committed suicide, and if there is no wedding at the end and no one really gets what they were after, it’s a tragedy.
Shakespeare truly was the master playwright and the different genres of Shakespeare’s plays can help us to dissect underlying themes, understand the human condition, and feel deeply with the characters portrayed. Learning where a play fits with the rest of Shakespeare’s work can also help us to understand why characters behave the way they do and what the moral and premise of the play is. Hopefully this will help you not only muddle through the different Shakespearean genres, but also learn to love them.