How do you tell Shakespeare’s genres apart? There are a few specific traits each genre has that make them easily identifiable. Still, there’s more overlap than you might think.
When we’re first taught about Shakespeare’s comedies, the usual definition revolves around the ending—specifically, that the play ends in marriage. But there’s more to it than that. As the name suggests, a comedy has a lighter (though not necessarily laugh-out-loud funny) tone than other genres, and we are meant to feel, by the end, that things are as they “should” be, with the status quo somehow improved from where we began.
Comedies often include some of the following tropes:
- Mistaken identity
- Secret lovers
- “Rustic” characters who add ribald humor
- Lies or misunderstandings, specifically about romance
- Tests of worthiness
The catch? Many of those same tropes appear in the tragedies as well. Consider that both Othello and Much Ado About Nothing hang their climactic conflicts on a woman being set up to be falsely accused of adultery by the villain. The requirements of their respective genres are the only reasons that they don’t end the same way. In a comedy, characters get a little more agency; there is no overwhelming sense that they are fated to end horribly, as there is in a tragedy.
In the above example, Much Ado‘s Hero gets some small agency of her own (being given a voice to protest her slander, agreeing to the friar’s plot of her own free will) and those around her (namely, Beatrice and Benedick) make a choice to stand with her. In a tragedy—that is, what happens to Desdemona in Othello—she is prevented, by plot machinations and by the other characters’ flaws, from asserting the truth in time.
For the most part, a Shakespearean tragedy is defined by two easily identifiable elements:
- A protagonist with a major flaw he or she fails to overcome
- Several characters dead or defeated at the end, leaving one behind to bear witness
We spend so much time thinking about the characters’ tragic flaws, though, that we often fail to consider the other elements of the story. Fate plays a massive role in Shakespearean tragedy; the tragic characters are not necessarily victims of their fatal flaws, but of a fundamental mismatch between their selves and the world they live in.
Romeo and Juliet, for instance, are a little foolish, yes, but two teenagers tumbling into first love wouldn’t be fatal if not for the fact that they live in a world where foolish, youthful love cannot exist. Hamlet could be a thoughtful scholar and a wise ruler if he were not thrown into a world where slow contemplation is the very worst possible choice and sets off a chain reaction of increasing deaths and inner deterioration. As Kiernan Ryan writes for the British Library:
Every one of [Shakespeare’s] tragic protagonists is doomed by having been cast in the wrong role in the wrong place in the wrong time. Every one of them becomes a stranger in a world where they had once felt at home, and a stranger to the person that they used to be or thought they were. And in the process, every one of them reveals the potential they possess to be another kind of person in another kind of world, which they will tragically never live to see.
In a tragedy, the same character types that were sympathetic or amusing in a comedy take on a harsher edge. The humorous rustics become mockable fools; the gentle heroines become victims of a cruel world. The bitterness of a tragedy lies in its “almost”: we know how things could have gone, and we mourn for that lost hope.
On the surface, the history plays are the most straightforward: they’re the plays named after and centered on a historical figure. The most recognizable are the ones about English kings: think the Henrys and the Richards. Where classification becomes a little blurry is where history and tragedy overlap: plays about figures of ancient history and legend, such as Antony and Cleopatra or Macbeth, could theoretically be considered history plays but are usually grouped as tragedies instead.
The most famous of Shakespeare’s history plays cover the reign of the Plantaganet kings and the Wars of the Roses. More so than his other plays, the histories can be read as Tudor propaganda: they elevate and valorize the origins of the dynasty while depicting the evils of civil war and unrest. Richard III is the most obvious of these: Shakespeare turns the last York king into one of the English-speaking world’s most despicable villains, and casts his conqueror, Henry Tudor (Henry VII), as a hero. In one case, though, he wrote a history play that was anti-Tudor propaganda: Richard II, which depicts the downfall of a tyrant and which, famously, Elizabeth I reputedly recognized as an indictment of her reign.
Shakespeare’s histories include a broad swath of character types, and perhaps, more realistic characters than the tortured denizens of his tragedies or the heightened worlds of his comedies. They tend to be more epic in scale—fitting, as they deal with the fate of a nation—and concerned with political machinations more than personal ones.
Romance: The Forgotten Genre
Outside of the three primary genres, there are a handful of plays that are tougher to categorize. One group, typically called the “late romances” or just the “romances,” are less popular but more intriguing. The group includes Cymbeline, The Tempest, Pericles, and The Winter’s Tale. These plays exist in a sort of in-between space; one (oversimplified) way to explain them is that they start like tragedies but end like comedies. They might include:
- Romance, but not as the center of the plot
- Family tragedies and reconciliations
- Mystical or magical elements
- Tragedy as a starting point, but not an endpoint
Shakespeare’s romances are, in many ways, near-tragedies that avert a tragedy in the end. They present a more hopeful version of the world, one in which the flaws of the characters and the worlds they live in do not have to lead to such terrible consequences. Young women (and young lovers in general), regretful older men, and mystical beings pop up, often with complex motivations. There are a grandeur and an epic scope that sets them apart from the comedies, and a more serious treatment of the themes (like betrayal, miscommunication, and separation) that can easily be glossed over in comic endings.
Reunion and rejoicing are the hallmarks of a romance’s ending, albeit after near-misses and struggles. Categorizing these plays can be a little trickier than with other genres, but as with those different genres, understanding a play’s archetypes can give the audience a richer experience.