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What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet

With these words, Juliet suggests the name of a thing does not matter, only what that thing is. She did have a motive for thinking this, of course, as it was Romeo’s family name, Montague, that posed such a barrier to their love.

No matter what they were named, William Shakespeare’s plays would still be great works of art, so it may not matter what we call them. Generally though, Shakespeare wrote three types of plays: Tragedy, Comedy, and History. These names help us understand the archetypes of a play and better analyze its events. After all, The Comedy of Romeo and Juliet would be a very different play from The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps it would be a farce about two star-crossed lovers, doomed to suffer humorous mistakes of identity and bumbling servants. It wouldn’t be the story of woe we are all so familiar with.

Common Themes in Shakespearean Plays

Despite their categorical differences, all of Shakespeare’s plays have a few things in common.


Time itself becomes a character in most of Shakespeare’s plays. It is the “Character You Never See”, but arguably, like the role it takes in our own lives, Time is the most important.

  • In Comedies: Time works with the characters
  • In Tragedies: Time works against the characters
  • In Comedies: You know a Shakespearean play is a comedy if everything works out with enough time in a pleasing manner
  • In Tragedies: You know a Shakespearean play is a tragedy when time always runs out for the characters

When Shakespeare wants to control Time, he uses the length of the scenes in an Act:

  • Long scene: time slows down
  • Short scene: rapid movement of time
    • Effect on the audience: confusion, disorientation

Why? Chaos and confusion of the times are reflected in the structure of the play.


All of Shakespeare’s plays move toward unity. There is either unity in the plot, in the characters, or in the ruling class. Often this is shown through a marriage, an ascent to power after the overthrow of a corrupt monarch, or an agreement of peace.


Women in Shakespeare’s Plays always know the truth. They are not easily fooled, nor are they always listened to by the men in the play. They are wiser than those around them, though, and they are often the most correct in their warnings to the heroes of Shakespeare’s plays.

The Monarchy

All of Shakespeare’s plays did not paint monarchs in a favorable light; however, he always made sure that beloved monarchs and the current Tudor dynasty were always treated as heroes. To this end, Shakespeare would often set his plays in another place, such as Italy or Scotland, to avoid seeming like he might be trying to point the finger at the current monarchy’s flaws. For instance, Queen Elizabeth I had no heirs, and there was very real fear about what kind of destabilization would occur in England upon her death. Shakespeare acknowledged and focused on these fears by writing The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, a story about another ruler with no heirs who, upon his death, sent the Roman empire into chaos. But, because it took place in Rome, and not London... Shakespeare had some plausible deniability that he might be criticizing the monarchy, and was able to keep his head firmly attached to his shoulders.

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Fun Facts about Shakespeare’s Plays

  • His plays were not published until 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death.
  • A lot of the transcriptions of Shakespeare’s plays were done by a theater-enthusiast, who would go to see the play and try to write down the dialogue – often, these enthusiasts were drunk and there were many errors attributed to their intoxication for many years.
  • One of the first dramatists to work extensively in blank verse (iambic pentameter, usually un-rhymed except at the parts he wanted the audience to pay close attention to).
  • He often threw in base comedy/humor to keep the peasants entertained.
  • His plays were written exclusively with the intent that they would be performed in the Globe Theatre.
  • Men always played female roles, and were usually teen-aged boys whose voices had not yet fully changed.

Shakespeare Tragedies

Shakespeare’s tragedies are typically the easiest to identify because they contain a heroic figure, a man of noble descent, with a fatal flaw. His weakness precipitates his downfall and the demise of those around him. Other elements of tragedy are a serious theme and ending with the death of someone important. In his tragedies, Shakespeare often includes a reversal of fortune. Shakespeare’s Tragedies contained the following important characteristics:

  • Shows stakes are high for the characters
  • Shows how they fall short of their ambitions
  • The hero must always be inherently good, but he goes astray
  • Always involves a terrible error in judgement
  • Predicated on notion of rationality which is lost in the hero’s flaw
  • Supernatural soothsayers (truth-tellers, prophets, fortune tellers), ghosts, and witches typically predict the hero’s downfall
  • Tragedy does not always result in death
  • Resides with intelligent beings:
    • Intelligence and bad decisions is tragic compared with choices made by fools
    • Raises our aspirations and respect for men and women (it elevates the audience)
  • Supposed to invoke pity and fear: “What if the character had made a different choice?”... “What if I had made a different choice?”

Famous Shakespeare Tragedies

Shakespeare Histories

Shakespeare’s histories also have common features, the most prevalent being a historical monarch as a main character. Shakespeare’s histories mostly dramatize the Hundred Years’ War, between France and England, though not always in a historically accurate manner. Histories were not documentaries, but social propaganda. Henry V, for instance, was written to promote English patriotism. These plays also display the class system of the time, containing members of each social status: from beggars to kings, the audience views dynamic characters from all walks of life.

Shakespeare’s Histories contained the following important characteristics:

  • Historical facts don’t really matter – accuracy is not key. Shakespeare is not an historian; he’s a dramatist who is interested in people, and a good story
  • Shakespeare was selective, and reluctant to include any information that makes the Tudor monarchy look bad. In fact, he was careful to ensure that the Tudor monarchy always came through as the heroes at the end of the day.
  • Shakespeare’s histories document the fall of great leaders
    • This is known as a de casibus drama, from the Latin word meaning to fall down; the fall of something
  • In Shakespeare’s histories, the fall of one person necessitates the rise of another
    • This becomes the de ascendibus, from the Latin word meaning to rise
  • The de casibus drama was a paean to England. Paean is Greek for “hymn of praise.” Therefore, the histories were hymns of praise to England’s greatness, and this is why they are often seen as works of propaganda.

Shakespeare’s Histories were broken into two tetralogies, or groups of four plays:

Tetralogy Including Henry VI

  1. The First Part of Henry VI
  2. The Second Part of Henry VI
  3. The Third Part of Henry VI
  4. The Tragedy of Richard III*

Lancastrian Tetralogy

  1. The Tragedy of King Richard II
  2. The First Part of Henry IV
  3. The Second Part of Henry IV
  4. The Life of Henry V

Shakespeare also wrote two additional histories:

  • The Life and Death of King John
  • The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII

These two plays were the only two histories that were not concerned with the rise and fall of the House of Lancaster. The Life and Death of King John dealt with Shakespeare’s personal interest in a Machiavellian approach to politics. The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII continued the propaganda purpose of Shakespeare’s histories, celebrating the Tudor dynasty and Queen Elizabeth I’s father.

Shakespeare began to write The Reign of Edward III, but he did not finish it. Likely he decided to write about King Edward III because of his importance in sparking the Hundred Years’ War with his claim to the French throne in 1337. Edward’s descendants also forked off into the Houses of Lancaster and York, which led to the War of the Roses and, ultimately, the Tudor dynasty after Richard III’s death.

*While Richard III is often billed as a tragedy, and is seen in some circles as interchangeable, the play does lack one critical characteristic of a tragedy: Richard III is never an inherently good character who has an error in judgment. Richard is evil from the very beginning, as evidenced by his physical deformity (physiognomy) and his plans to destroy everyone, even his young nephews, in order to reach the throne.

Shakespeare Comedies

Shakespeare’s comedies usually contain playful elements like satiric language, puns, and metaphors. Comedies also contain elements of love or lust, with obstacles that the lovers must overcome throughout the play. Mistaken identities and disguises are often used in both intentional and unintentional ways for comic effect. A staple of the Shakespearean comedy is ending the play with some type of reunion or marriage(s). Comedies also contain complex plots, with extensive plot twists, to keep the audience guessing what will happen next. They were often looked down upon in regards to their artistic merits; tragedies and epics were elevated above most other genres of plays in Shakespeare’s time.

Shakespeare’s Comedies contained the following important characteristics:

  • Comedies often led to the conclusion that we, as humans, are fools
  • The subject matter never leaves the ground; it always reduces to the lowest common denominator
  • Incongruous plot; often confusing
  • Subject matter of comedy is usually not all that serious

Two of Shakespeare’s comedies were Farce. They went further in their base comedy than his other comedies, and were considered the more controversial comedies for their time. Characteristics of Farce include:

  • Plot doesn’t have a lot of substance
  • Clown figure “stuffs in” ad-libs. "Farce" comes from the Latin farcire, meaning “to stick in, or stuff”.
  • There’s always physical comedy that the plot line doesn’t demand
  • Contains gross or unrefined humor
  • Shakespeare’s two Farce plays are The Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor

For 200 years, Shakespeare’s Comedies were thought to total 18 plays; however, in the late 1800s, Irish critic Edward Dowden considered Shakespeare’s later five plays to have the qualities of Medieval Romances. Many scholars agreed with Dowden, and so these plays are sometimes categorized as Romances instead of Comedies.

Shakespeare Romances

For those who agree with Edward Dowden, Shakespeare actually only wrote 13 Comedies; his later five plays contain characteristics that align them more with Medieval Romances. In fact, at the time they were thought to be “tragicomedies” rather than pure Comedies. These five plays include: The Two Noble Kinsmen, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Pericles, Prince of Tyre. In fact, the most popular comprehensive publication of Shakespeare’s works, The Riverside Shakespeare categorizes the plays in this way, so it may be worth addressing with students, or presenting these works as Romances rather than Comedies.

Shakespeare’s Romances contained the following important characteristics:

  • Jealousy, conflict, war, rebellion, and other such potentially tragic situations open the play, and are resolved by the end of it
  • Plots move quickly and often include improbable situations
  • There is always a love interest, although it may not be central to the play
  • The prominent male figures are typically older than in other Shakespearean plays
  • Elements of the supernatural help direct the plot
  • Characters are usually of the nobility, and are painted in the extremes of their virtues or corruption
  • Focused on themes on a grander scale, like the impact on people as a whole, rather than on individual character’s triumphs and failures

Classroom Applications and Uses

Example Exercises:

  • Students identify genres of Shakespeare’s plays, with a character likeness on their storyboard to show the elements of the genre they have chosen.
  • Students create storyboards that show and explain each genre of Shakespeare’s plays, using specific quotes from the text that highlight elements of the category.

Teachers can customize the level of detail and number of cells required for projects based on available class time and resources.

Common Core Standards

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9: Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare)
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.10: By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 9-10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

    By the end of grade 10, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, at the high end of the grades 9-10 text complexity band independently and proficiently
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7: Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus)
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9: Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.10: By the end of grade 11, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 11-CCR text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

    By the end of grade 12, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, at the high end of the grades 11-CCR text complexity band independently and proficiently
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7: Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)

Check out all of our Shakespeare Resources

How to Teach Historical and Political Context in Shakespearean Plays


Establish Historical Background

Introduce the historical period in which Shakespeare wrote his plays, such as the Elizabethan or Jacobean era. Provide an overview of the key events, social structures, and cultural norms of the time, including the monarchy, religious tensions, and the role of theater in society.


Introduce Political Influences

Explore the political climate during Shakespeare's time, including the influence of monarchs like Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. Discuss the power dynamics, court politics, and the role of patronage in shaping Shakespeare's work.


Connect Historical Context to the Plays

Analyze specific plays in relation to their historical and political context. Discuss how societal beliefs, cultural practices, and political events of the time influenced the themes, characters, and plot of the plays.


Use Primary Sources

Incorporate primary sources such as historical documents, letters, and speeches to deepen students' understanding of the historical context. Engage students in analyzing and interpreting these sources to gain insights into the perspectives and concerns of Shakespeare's contemporaries.


Explore Social Issues and Cultural Values

Discuss the social issues and cultural values prevalent during Shakespeare's time, such as gender roles, class divisions, and religious tensions. Analyze how these issues are reflected in the plays and how they relate to contemporary issues and societal debates.


Foster Critical Thinking and Discussion

Encourage students to critically examine the plays in light of the historical and political context, prompting them to consider the intended audience, the playwright's motivations, and the potential messages embedded within the texts. Facilitate class discussions and debates that allow students to explore different interpretations and perspectives related to the historical and political context of the plays.

Frequently Asked Questions about Types of Shakespeare Plays

How can worksheets be used to enhance learning of Shakespeare's plays in the classroom?

Worksheets can be used to enhance learning of Shakespeare's plays by providing students with activities that encourage them to analyze the language and themes of the plays. For example, a worksheet might ask students to identify examples of metaphor or symbolism in a particular scene or to write a short analysis of a character's motivations.

How can studying Shakespeare's plays help students develop critical thinking skills?

Studying Shakespeare's plays can help students develop critical thinking skills by encouraging them to analyze complex characters, explore nuanced themes, and understand the social and historical context of the plays. By engaging with the material in this way, students can develop their ability to think critically, make connections, and communicate their ideas effectively.

How can teachers incorporate Shakespeare's plays into the classroom curriculum for different age groups or learning levels?

Teachers can incorporate Shakespeare's plays into their curriculum by assigning readings, organizing class discussions, and staging productions. By encouraging students to analyze the language and themes of the plays, teachers can help students develop critical thinking skills and enhance their reading comprehension. Shakespeare's plays can be adapted for different age groups or learning levels by selecting appropriate plays, providing simplified language versions, or breaking down the plays into smaller, more manageable sections. Teachers can also adjust the level of analysis required of students depending on their learning level.

Find more activities like this in our 6-12 ELA Category!
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