The Main Characteristics of Shakespearean Plays: Comedy, Tragedy, History
The Plays of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is considered to be the greatest writer in English Literature. He composed over 150 sonnets and wrote some of the most famous plays in the English language. His plays are generally categorised as Comedies, Tragedies and Histories. There is some debate about which category some of the plays should be included in as there are often crossovers between the genres. So, which plays did he write and what are the features of the different genre?
Comedy is not necessarily what a modern audience would expect comedy to be. Whilst there may be some funny moments, a Shakespearean comedy may involve some very dramatic storylines. Usually what defines a Shakespearean play as a comedy is that it has a happy ending, often involving a marriage. The main characteristics in Shakespeare's Comedies are:
- A struggle of young lovers to overcome problems, often the result of the interference of their elders
- There is some element of separation and reunification
- Mistaken identities, often involving disguise
- A clever servant
- Family tensions that are usually resolved in the end
- Complex, interwoven plot-lines
- Frequent use of puns and other styles of comedy
The Shakespearean plays which are usually classed as Comedy are:
The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, All's Well That Ends Well, The Tempest, Taming of the Shrew, The Winter's Tale, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, Love's Labours Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing, Pericles, Prince of Tyre and The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Tragedies may involve comedic moments, but tend towards more serious, dramatic plots with an ending that involves the death of main characters. The main features of a Shakespearean Tragedy are that:
- Characters become isolated or there is social breakdown
- Ends in death
- There is a sense that events are inevitable or inescapable
- There is usually a central figure who is noble but with a character flaw which leads them towards their eventual downfall
The plays which are generally classed as Shakespearean Tragedy are: Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, Coriolanus, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens and Cymbeline (this is debated, with some scholars classifying it as a Comedy)
Shakespeare's Histories focus on English monarchs. They usually play upon Elizebethan propaganda, showing the dangers of civil war and glorifying the queen's Tudor ancestors. The depictions of monarchs including Richard III (an enemy of the Tudors) and Henry V (one of the great Tudor monarchs) have been influential in creating a perception of these kings which has persisted throughout the centuries. Many historians point to inaccuracies in the depictions, but the plays have been very powerful in presenting a particular image which it is hard for many people to see past.
The Histories are: King John, Richard II, Henry IV (parts I and II), Henry V, Henry VI (parts I, II and III), Richard III and Henry VIII.
The plays, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are classified both as Tragedies and as Roman Histories.
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How to Understand Shakespeare gives tips on getting to grips with the language, style and form of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets.