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.

Shakespeare · teaching literature

Sixth Grade Shakespeare

The sixth graders at the school where I work are studying Shakespeare, and of course, being a huge Shakespeare fan, I love it.

For most of them, this is their first introduction to Shakespeare. It’s a pretty light introduction: they’re not reading the actual plays, just summarized kids’ versions of them, and they’re not really expected to get the nuances. They’re kids. It’s the first time they’ve seen this stuff. But I think it’s great that they are seeing it now. I will often credit going to see a college production of As You Like It when I was in fifth grade as one of the things that sparked my love of Shakespeare’s work, and it makes me happy to think that these kids will also have the chance to experience Shakespeare in a fun and low-stress way before they get to middle school and are expected to analyze the original language.

Being the Shakespeare nerd that I am, I’m in charge of making sure they’ve done their reading and helping them to understand it. I think the kids are always a little surprised by how many things I’ve read. Just in this one week, I recognized a Harry Potter reference from one of the kids, shocked some of them with the knowledge that I read Percy Jackson when I was their age, and then to top it all off, revealed that I’ve read not one, not two, but thirteen plays by Shakespeare. I could blame my English minor, but really, my book nerd tendencies have more to do with it.


Spring Break Reading: Much Ado About Nothing

One of the most interesting things about reading Shakespeare is that you never know quite what to expect when you pick up a play. There are certain things that are just so typical of Shakespeare – the wise fool, the clever heroine, the soliloquizing tragic hero – but each play has a distinct “feel” to it. Hamlet is a character-driven contemplation on mortality. Romeo and Juliet is a passionate story of doomed love. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is so bizarre and fanciful that it does feel like a dream, whereas Twelfth Night is whimsical and humorous, but much less far-fetched. And Much Ado About Nothing can only be described as a romantic comedy.

I’m not a big romantic comedy person. I don’t mind romance in my reading material, but I’ve always felt like romance on its own makes for a pretty boring story. I like it better as a subplot than as the main plot. So you can probably guess that Much Ado About Nothing isn’t my favorite Shakespeare play I’ve ever read.

That being said, it’s not my least favorite, either. I liked it. I wouldn’t have committed a big chunk of my Spring Break to reading something I didn’t enjoy. Beatrice and Benedick, with their odd courtship and constant bickering, were delightful. Unlike in The Taming of the Shrew, here a clever and sharp-tongued woman is not put in her place, but allowed to be the hero of the story. Her growing love for Benedick softens her, but he is likewise softened, and he isn’t trying to break her spirit as Petruchio does to Kate. It’s the manipulative Don John who creates the play’s conflict, and the two lovers end up working together to clear the name of Beatrice’s cousin Hero, who he falsely accuses of cheating on her fiancé. If anything, Much Ado About Nothing has a Beauty and the Beast sort of storyline, but instead of learning to see past an unpleasant appearance, the two have to overcome their own pride and their habit of being argumentative with each other.

No, not Beauty and the Beast. What it reminds me of is Pride and Prejudice. Just like Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, the two leads of Much Ado About Nothing bicker and resent each other, but fall in love by the end of the story. You could even compare Claudio and Hero to Jane and Mr. Bingley, in love but torn apart by false suspicions, or Lydia and Wickham, the relative in danger of disgrace and the man our male lead confronts in order to save her reputation. There’s certainly a feeling in both works that the two leads have no other equal and could only end up together, regardless of their disdain for each other at the beginning. And in both, they do fall in love, after setting aside that disdain and learning to see each other as they really are.

I didn’t love Pride and Prejudice when I read it. I didn’t love Much Ado About Nothing. They’re just not my type of story. But what I’ve learned through years as an avid reader, a student of literature, and now a teacher, is that you don’t have to love a book or have it come from your preferred genre for it to be worth reading. There’s something fascinating going on in the pages of Much Ado About Nothing that I’m glad I gave myself the chance to experience.

Classics · My Poetry · Shakespeare

Two Answers

I didn’t realize until I’d already written both of these poems how well they mirror each other, and believe it or not, it wasn’t intentional. But it makes sense, in a way, because they both relate to Hamlet’s infamous question and tell the stories of two characters who represent very different answers. Anyway, I decided they work better together than apart. The first one is written from Ophelia’s point of view in Act IV of Hamlet, and the second from Horatio’s viewpoint at the end of Act V.

Not to Be

Remember me with rosemary
And daisies in my hair
Their petals wilted, innocence
Now lost beyond repair

Remember me with rosemary
I’ll give you columbines
And fennel, too, some rue for you
But this one must be mine

Remember me with rosemary
And let me slip away
I’ll live on in your memory
Remember, love, I pray

Remember me with rosemary
And keep me in your thoughts
My violets all have shriveled up
And in the earth they’ll rot

Remember me with rosemary
I’m choosing not to be
Let others ask the questions now
Remind them, love, of me

To Be

You asked a question
A question I will answer
Your last command still echoes in my mind
In life I served you faithfully
In death – your death – I do the same
My prince
Among the bodies buried here today
Why was it I who lived?
No, that’s not the question

You asked a question
In the depths of grief
When reason fled and left you craving some release
My prince, goodnight
After the war you waged within your soul
In sleep of death may you at last find peace

You asked a question
I think you found the answer in the end
When words like yours came spilling from my lips
You stayed my hand and took the poisoned cup
My friend, I shall obey thy final wish
I’ll live
While yet I breathe, thy memory I keep
Thy story shall I carry far and wide
And unto all who lend their hearts and ears
I’ll tell thy fate

You asked a question
I’m living out the answer day by day
I choose to be, I choose to carry on
Let life’s outrageous whims do what they may
And words preserve forever what I say
So we may be remembered when we’re gone

Classics · From Page to Screen · Shakespeare

From Stage to Screen: Hamlet (2009)

Here’s a question to think about: what makes a good adaptation of Shakespeare? Is it one that’s completely faithful to the source, or one that provides a new perspective? Watching the 2009 Hamlet movie with David Tennant, this is a question I found myself asking again and again. Aside from clips of Romeo + Juliet in eighth grade, I’ve never really watched a modern dress version of Shakespeare, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I wasn’t even sure that modern dress could work without taking away from the play. But if anything, it makes it more accessible.

Don’t get me wrong, not everything fits perfectly. Denmark is no longer at war with Norway, for one thing. And what about the fact that Hamlet uses a camcorder during the play-within-a-play? When he hesitates to kill Claudius only moments later, why not record his confession instead and press charges in court? On a different note, the updated setting allows the actress playing Ophelia to emphasize the character’s subtle defiance, but takes her descent into madness out of its original context. In fact, it takes the entire play out of its original context. In light of that, it’s actually surprising how well it works, and how few things seem out-of-place in the modern day. It’s done well, and generally seems natural rather than forced – as well as being more of an alternate present day than simply a historical play with guns and blue jeans. Updating it certainly shows better than any historical-costume production could how relevant the themes of greed, vengeance, mental illness, and death still are in the present day.

The acting is excellent. Hamlet is wonderfully complicated and human, and I found myself feeling far more sympathy for him than I did when I was simply reading the script. He comes across as vulnerable but dangerous, hesitant but determined, and more and more unhinged as the play goes on, before seeming to find some degree of peace in the final scene. Claudius comes across as conflicted and almost – almost – sympathetic in the early scenes, before forgetting his guilt and growing more vicious near the end. Gertrude shows more genuine regret than I imagined, even early on. She seems to realize the cup is poisoned when Claudius warns her not to drink, which is very much how I saw it as I read. Ophelia is probably the character most affected by the updating, because the expectations of young women in Shakespeare’s day and today are quite different. But good acting largely makes up for it, and in my opinion anyone who can say “Woe is me!” not just with a straight face but in a tearful whisper is a very good actress.

The movie was emotionally draining, but it wouldn’t have been a good adaptation of Hamlet if it wasn’t. This is a story that confronts death and evil in a no-holds-bared kind of way, and if one could simply get up from it without feeling the need to contemplate those things, what’s the point?

That’s not to say I had no criticisms. The play-within-a-play relied too much on crude humor, and it seems ridiculous for a modern-day acting troupe to be all men, as they would have been in Shakespeare’s day. The character of Horatio was somewhat ignored, which is a shame because he’s actually pretty important, and his choice to live – one of the few bits of hope in the ending – could have been more powerful than it was. Hamlet himself was perhaps too violent in his scene with Gertrude. While he’s obviously angry with his mother, I was shocked to see him manhandle her the way he does. After all, what’s the point in “I will speak daggers to her but use none” if he then goes on to more-or-less physically attack her?

However, even the best movies are not perfect, and with plays many things are just a matter of interpretation. Overall, the acting choices were excellent, the sets minimal but used well, and the modern update very well-done. I particularly loved the use of security camera footage: the way the ghost doesn’t appear on it, the movement of one alerting Hamlet to the fact that he’s being watched, and the way he later tears down a camera before saying “now I am alone”. Laertes pulling a gun on Claudius is far more chilling than him drawing a sword could possibly be for an audience that has likely never seen one outside of movies and museums. The characters watching through one-way mirrors instead of hiding behind curtains and such is also a fitting change, and the overarching story sadly fits as well in today’s world as in Shakespeare’s. I wouldn’t recommend the movie for everyone, but depending on what exactly you’re looking for, it’s an excellent adaptation that emphasizes the story’s continued relevance.

Book Reviews · Shakespeare · Young Adult

Book Review: Ophelia

I love a good retelling of a classic story, especially when it provides a new perspective instead of just repeating the plot. When I saw that the play I’ve just finished (Hamlet) had been retold as a YA novel, I just couldn’t resist. After all, Shakespeare didn’t come up with the plots of his plays on his own – they come from history, mythology, and other writers’ work – but he gave them the language and the form that we know today. It seems fitting that we continue to reexamine these stories and tell them again.

The novel is Ophelia, by Lisa M. Klein, and as you can probably guess from the title, it’s told from Ophelia’s point of view. Its plot takes quite a few liberties with Shakespeare, which I don’t want to get into too much and spoil the twists. But I will tell you Ophelia survives this version, which is hardly a spoiler since it’s revealed on page 1. This is actually one of my biggest criticisms of the book. I would rather have assumed it would keep the tragic ending and been surprised by the bittersweet one than know from the start it would be changed.

The part of the play dealing with Hamlet and his uncle is only about a third of the story, which is divided into three parts. The first of these deals with Ophelia’s childhood and family, as well as the beginning of her relationship with Hamlet. It’s a bit chilling to see things like young Hamlet and Laertes sparring with wooden swords, knowing what’s to come. This section does a good job of fleshing out Ophelia’s character, making her a bit of a rebel who was allowed to run around with the boys and encouraged to study as a child, before suddenly being expected to act like a proper lady. The flowers from her final scene are woven in throughout the story, so that by the time she hands them out, the reader understands just how significant they are.

The second part retells Hamlet – the play – focusing entirely on Ophelia’s perspective as she watches Hamlet’s transformation and falls into despair herself. However, here, she is able to save herself. The book then follows her as she finds a new path. Ophelia’s identity develops over the course of the story: she grows from an unruly child; to a dutiful lady-in-waiting; to a naïve, lovesick young woman; to someone who has suffered and forced herself to survive. It’s a joy to watch her grow up and find her place in the world. What happens in the epilogue might be unexpected to some, but I thought it was sweet and fitting.

Elements from others of Shakespeare’s plays are woven into the story. Like Juliet, this version of Ophelia fakes her death and subsequently loses her lover; like Viola and Rosalind, she travels disguised as a man. However, it also bears elements of today’s fiction. It takes the point of view of a teenage girl exploring romance and independence for the first time, like much of the Young Adult genre.  It’s impossible to classify as a tragedy or a comedy; Ophelia loses much along the way, but the ending offers hope. The language is updated to be easy for the modern reader to understand, and an anonymous guard is developed into a menacing villain. Not all the changes are good ones (the death of Ophelia’s father, for one – I’m still not sure how he got from where we last saw him to where he was killed. I’m also not sure about inserting Ophelia into “to be or not to be?”). However, these are minor complaints. Overall, the story was great.

I found Ophelia to be a good blend of old and new, its lead character well-developed beyond who she was in the play, and the section following her faked death a realistic hopeful alternative to her tragic fate in Shakespeare. I would definitely recommend it!