Genres of Shakespeare

“The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited”

— William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene II

In theory, Shakespeare’s plays are divided up into three genres: Tragedy, Comedy, and History. In reality, there’s a whole lot of gray area. There are plays that blur the lines between comedy and tragedy, between tragedy and history, and even between history and comedy. Not to mention comedies that clash too much with modern values to be funny anymore, a bunch of lesser-known plays that almost nobody reads, and the ultimate dilemma of what to do with Troilus and Cressida. (Personally, I think it’s a sometimes-amusing tragedy, but that’s just me).

So, I made this chart.

Shakespeare Genres

Don’t take it too seriously. Please don’t tell your English teacher that The Taming of the Shrew is a “Comedy Gone Sour” or that Timon of Athens is “The Boring One”. And of course, even within the more serious categories, nothing is absolute. There’s a lot of overlap, for instance, between the Romances and the Problem Plays, and the two genres are sometimes combined into a larger “Tragicomedy” category. But hopefully you’ll enjoy it, and maybe it will even help make sense of the mess that is Shakespearean genre.


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