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Shakespeare's Plays: General Questions

I would like to know more about the categories Shakespeare's works fall into and why.

Shakespeare's works fall into three main categories: the plays, the sonnets, and the poems. The plays are further divided into three (sometimes four) categories: the comedies, the histories, the tragedies, and the romances. I will give you some information on the subdivisions of the plays.

The Comedies

Eighteen of Shakespeare's plays are usually among the comedies: Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love's Labours Lost, The Tempest, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, Pericles, All's Well that End's Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida (sometimes classified as a tragedy), Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Two Noble Kinsmen (which many believe is not a work written totally by Shakespeare). The comedies have common elements: they involve lovers and they almost always have a happy ending.

The Tragedies

Ten plays are considered tragedies: Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens. All the tragedies have a hero (or protagonist) that must overcome external and internal obstacles. Often, the protagonist has a 'tragic flaw' that leads to his ultimate destruction. A good example is Macbeth, whose evil ambition for the throne overtakes him and causes his downfall.

The Histories

Shakespeare wrote ten history plays: Parts 1, 2, and 3 of Henry VI, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Richard II, Richard III, King John, and Henry VIII. He received most of his information and plot ideas from one book, Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The central theme of the history plays is the gain and loss of power, and, in particular, the theme of divine right. Shakespeare spends a lot of time discussing what makes a good, wise, and successful ruler in his history plays.

The Romances

Sometimes Shakespeare's late comedies are grouped together as romances. These are Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, and (rarely, The Two Noble Kinsmen). These plays, at times, seem more like tragedies than comedies, but they have the standard 'happy ending'. Many believe that the romances are Shakespeare's best plays, and represent the poet at his most mature stage of writing.

Have all of Shakespeare's plays been performed?

All of Shakespeare's canonical plays (those that are always included in his collected works) have been performed at some time. However, some of them, as far as we know, were not performed during Shakespeare's lifetime -- like King John. However, we must be careful because even though we have no record of a performance, it does not necessarily mean that there was no performance.

Which plays are considered romances?

Shakespeare's late comedies are considered romances -- The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, Cymbeline, and Pericles. The Two Noble Kinsman is also sometimes mentioned along side these other plays as a romantic comedy.

Did Shakespeare perform in any of his own plays?

We will never know for sure exactly how many roles Shakespeare played himself, although we do have some general information. First, we know that Shakespeare began his career on the stage by 1592, because there is a surviving document by Robert Greene -- there's more about him on my biography page ( Scholars believe that Shakespeare might have played the title role in Edward I (a play by Edward Peele) in 1593. It is also assumed that Shakespeare played smaller roles in a variety of his own plays, including Macbeth (King Duncan), As You Like It (Adam), Henry IV (King Henry), and Hamlet (Hamlet's Father). Nicholas Rowe, Shakespeare's first biographer, mentioned that Shakespeare's role as "the Ghost in his own Hamlet" was "the top of his performance".

How many of Shakespeare's plays are set in Italy?

The plays in which some or all of the action is set in Italy are: All's Well that Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Winter's Tale. Keep in mind that some of these plays are not set exclusively in Italy.

What is the meaning of farce as defined in Shakespeare's plays?

Farce is a form of comedy, with little or no purpose other than to prompt laughter from the audience. Physical humour (slapstick) and ridiculous situations are trademarks of a farce. Shakespeare did not write any plays that would be classified as a farce, although The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew come close. The Taming of the Shrew has been performed several times as a farce, using the particular form of staging a farce -- commedia dell'arte.

Define tragedy as it relates to Shakespeare's plays.

Tragedy, as it relates to Shakespeare's plays, is a drama dealing with a central protagonist, or hero, who has to battle a specific problem or series of problems. Usually the hero overcomes these problems but the outcome is not positive. In almost all Shakespeare's great tragedies, a "tragic flaw" will prevent the hero from emerging completely victorious.

What is the Shakespeare Apocrypha?

The term apocrypha is given to the collection of 12 plays that some scholars believe to be Shakespeare's, but are not officially part of the current canon of works because no real proof of authenticity has ever been brought forth. Here are the names of the 12 apocryphal plays: Locrine; The London Prodigal; The Puritan; Thomas, Lord Cromwell; Sir John Oldcastle; Arden of Feversham; A Yorkshire Tragedy; The Birth of Merlin; Edward III; Fair Em; Mucedorus; and The Merry Devil of Edmonton.


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