Four Types of Shakespeare’s Plays

The plays of Shakespeare can broadly be put under four categories i.e. the comedies, the tragedies, the romances and the history plays.

Tragedies

Shakespeare’s tragedies are among the most powerful studies of human nature in all literature and appropriately stand as the greatest achievements of his dramatic artistry. Attention understandably has focused on his unforgettable tragic characters, such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. Yet the plays also explore and extend the very nature of tragedy itself by discovering within it a structure that derives meaning precisely from its refusal to offer consolation or compensation for the suffering it traces.

Shakespeare wrote his first tragedies in 1594 and 1595. But he left the field of tragedy untouched for at least five years after finishing Romeo and Juliet,probably in 1595, and turned to comedy and history plays. Julius Caesar,written about 1599, served as a link between the history plays and the mature tragedies that followed.

The earliest tragedy attributed to Shakespeare is Titus Andronicus (published in 1594). In its treatment of murder, mutilation, and bloody revenge, the play is characteristic of many popular tragedies of the Elizabethan period. The structure of a spectacular revenge for earlier heinous and bloody acts, all of which are staged in sensational detail, derives from Roman dramatist Seneca.Romeo and Juliet (1595) is justly famous for its poetic treatment of the ecstasy of youthful love. The play dramatizes the fate of two lovers victimized by the feuds and misunderstandings of their elders and by their own hasty temperaments. Julius Caesar was written about 1599 and first published in1623. Though a serious tragedy of political rivalries, it is less intense in style than the tragic dramas that followed it. Shakespeare based this political tragedy concerning the plot to overthrow Julius Caesar on Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans by 1st-century Greek biographer Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives had first appeared in English in 1579, in a version produced by Thomas North from a French translation of the original. The North translation provide dShakespeare and his contemporaries with a great deal of historical material.Shakespeare followed Plutarch closely in Julius Caesar; little of incident or character appears in the play that is not found in the Lives as well, and he sometimes used North’s wording. Shakespeare’s play centers on the issue of whether the conspirators were justified in killing Caesar. How a production answers that question determines whether the conspirator Brutus is seen as sympathetic or tragically self-deceived.

The tragedies Shakespeare wrote after 1600 are considered the most profound of his works and constitute the pillars upon which his literary reputation rests. Some scholars have tied the darkening of his dramatic imagination in this period to the death of his father in 1601. But in the absence of any compelling biographical information to support this theory, it remains only a speculation.For whatever reason, sometime around 1600 Shakespeare began work on a series of plays that in their power and profundity are arguably unmatched in the achievement of any other writer. Hamlet, written about 1601 and first printed in 1603, is perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous play. It exceeds by far most other tragedies of revenge in the power of its ethical and psychological imagining. Othello was written about 1604, though it was not published until1622. It portrays the growth of unjustified jealousy in the noble protagonist,Othello, a Moor serving as a general in the Venetian army. The innocent object of his jealousy is his wife, Desdemona. In this domestic tragedy, Othello’s evil lieutenant Iago draws him into mistaken jealousy in order to ruin him. Othello is destroyed partly through his gullibility and willingness to trust Iago and partly through the manipulations of this villain, who clearly enjoys the exercise of evildoing just as he hates the spectacle of goodness and happiness around him. King Lear was written about 1605 and first published in 1608. Conceived on a grander emotional and philosophic scale than Othello, it deals with the consequences of the arrogance and misjudgment of Lear, a ruler of early Britain, and the parallel behavior of his councilor, the Duke of Gloucester.Antony and Cleopatra was written about 1606 and first published in 1623.It deals with a different type of love than that in Shakespeare’s earlier tragedies,namely the middle-aged passions of the Roman general Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Their love, which destroys an empire, is glorified by some of Shakespeare’s most sensuous poetry. Macbeth was written about1606 and first published in 1623. In the play Shakespeare depicts the tragedy of a man torn between an amoral will and a powerfully moral intellect.Shakespeare’s last tragedies, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, both set in classical times, were written in 1607 and 1608 and first published in the 1623Folio. Because their protagonists appear to lack the emotional greatness or tragic stature of the protagonists of the major tragedies, the two plays have an austerity that has cost them the popularity they may well merit.

Comedies

The early comedies of Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour Lost and The Two Gentleman of Verona are immature plays of the dramatist,and exhibit the early efforts of a writer who scaled high heights of success in his later dramatic career. The plots of these comedies lack originality. The characters of these plays are less finished and marked with artistic lapses in character portrayal. The style lacks the graces of the matured works of the dramatist. The mature comedies include Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It. In these comedies is to be found the flower of Shakespeare’s comic genius. These plays are full of vitality and vivacity and are marked with enlivening wit and pleasant humour.They are romantic in character and saturated with spirit of love. All’ s W ell that End’ s Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, are considered as comedies and end happily but their general tone is marked with a note of tragedy and somberness.

Romances

Toward the end of his career, Shakespeare created several experimental plays that have become known as tragicomedies or romances. These plays differ considerably from Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, being more radical in their dramatic art and showing greater concern with reconciliation among generations.Yet like the earlier comedies the tragicomedies end happily with reunions or renewal. Typically, virtue is sorely tested in the tragicomedies, but almost miraculously succeeds. Through the intervention of magic and art — or their emotional equivalent, compassion, or their theological equivalent, grace—the spectacular triumph of virtue that marks the ends of these plays suggests redemptive hope for the human condition. In these late plays, the necessity of death and sadness in human existence is recognized but located within larger patterns of harmony that suggest we are “led on by heaven, and crowned with joy at last,” as the epilogue of Pericles proposes.

The romantic tragicomedy Pericles, Prince of Tyre was written in 1607 and1608 and first published in 1609. It concerns the trials and tribulations of the title character, including the painful loss of his wife and the persecution of his daughter. After many exotic adventures, Pericles is reunited with his loved ones; even his supposedly dead wife is discovered to have been magically preserved. The play’s central themes are characteristic of the late plays. Pericles focuses particularly on the relationship between father and daughter, as do The Winter ’s Tale and The Tempest. Its backdrop of the sea also recalls the setting of The Tempest, while its concern with separation and reunion is reminiscent of The Winter’s Tale. Although Pericles, Prince of Tyre was a great success in its own time, the play exists only in a somewhat corrupted text Pericles is based on a medieval legend, Apollonius, Prince of Tyre, which had many English retellings, from Confessio Amantis (Confessions of a Poet) by John Gower in the late 14th century to a prose novella by Laurence Twine written in the 1570s.

Cymbeline was written about 1610 and first published in the 1623 Folio,where it appears as the last of the tragedies. Like the other late plays, Cymbeline responds to the fashion of the time for colorful plots and theatrical display. It is packed with adventure, plot reversals, and dramatic spectacle, and was perhaps intended to exploit the mechanical resources of Blackfriars, the new indoor theater of Shakespeare’s company.

History Plays

The “history plays” written by Shakespeare are generally thought of as a distinct genre: they differ somewhat in tone, form and focus from his other plays (the “comedies,” the “tragedies” and the “romances”). While many ofS hakespeare’s other plays are set in the historical past, and even treat similar themes such as kingship and revolution (for example, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra , Hamlet, or Cymbeline), the eight history plays have several things in common: they form a linked series, they are set in late medieval England, and they deal with the rise and fall of the House of Lancaster— what later historians often referred to as the “War of the Roses.

Shakespeare’s most important history plays were written in two “series” of four plays. The first series, written near the start of his career (around 1589-1593), consists of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 & 3, and Richard III, and covers the fall of the Lancaster dynasty – that is, events in English history between about 1422 and 1485. The second series, written at the height of Shakespeare’s powers (around 1595-1599), moves back in time to examine the rise of the Lancastrians, covering English history from about 1398 to 1420. This series consists of Richard II, Henry IV , Par ts 1 & 2, and Henry V . Although the events he writes about occurred some two centuries before his own time, Shakespeare expected his audience to be familiar with the characters and events he was describing. The battles among houses and the rise and fall of kings were woven closely into the fabric of English culture and formed an integral part of the country’s patriotic legends and national mythology.

It is important to remember, when reading the history plays, the significance to this genre of what we might call the “shadows of history.” One of the questions which preoccupies the characters in the history plays is whether or not the King of England is divinely appointed by the Lord. If so, then the overthrow or murder of a king is tantamount to blasphemy, and may cast along shadow over the reign of the king who gains the throne through such nefarious means. This shadow, which manifests in the form of literal ghosts in plays like Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Richard III, also looms over Richard II and its sequels. The murder of the former King Richard II at the end of Richard II will haunt King Henry IV for the rest of his life, and the curse can only be redeemed by his son, Henry V. Similarly, Richard II himself,in the play which bears his name, is haunted by a politically motivated murder:not of a king, but of his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester.This death occurs long before the beginning of the play, but, as we will see,it haunts Richard, just as his own death will haunt the usurper who is responsible for it.

Sometimes Shakespeare ignored chronology and telescoped the events of years to fit his own dramatic time scheme. Above all, he used the power of his imagination and language to mold vivid and memorable characters out of the historical figures he found in his sources. The overall theme of the history plays is the importance of a stable political order, but also the heavy moral and emotional price that often must be paid for it. Shakespeare dramatized the great social upheaval that followed Henry IV’s usurpation of the throne until the first Tudor king, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, restored peace and stability.In addition to chronicling the often violent careers of England’s great kings,Shakespeare’s history plays explore the extreme pressures of public life, the moral conflicts that kings and queens uniquely face, and the potential tragedy of monarchy.

Although Shakespeare probably did not invent the genre of the history play,only a very few plays on English history had been written before he turned to it for his plots, and no contemporary playwright wrote more histories than his ten. Clearly Shakespeare learned from his few predecessors in English drama,especially Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe had initiated the early greatness of Elizabethan tragedy, placing a single monumental personality at the center of each of his major plays. By studying Marlowe’s style and energetic protagonists,Shakespeare learned in Richard III to construct a play around a complex,dominating personality. But Shakespeare is as interested in the sweep of history itself, as it catches up personalities in rhythms they are unable to predictor control.

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