Categorizing Shakespeare's Plays

The simplest and most common way to categorize the plays of William Shakespeare is using the designations "Comedies," "Histories," and "Tragedies." This is how the plays were categorized when they were first published as a group in 1623 (about seven years after Shakespeare's death) in the collection that is referred to as the "First Folio."

The comedies, such as Twelfth Night, or What You Will, As You Like It, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, were written mainly in the earlier part of Shakespeare's career. These plays have a lighter tone and usually concern love, almost always ending with a marriage. The tragedies include some of Shakespeare's most famous plays, such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear. These plays mostly came later in Shakespeare's career and end unhappily, usually with the deaths of many or all of the main characters. The histories, such the Henry IV, Part I, Henry IV, Part 2, and Richard III, are Shakespeare's fictionalized accounts of the lives and travails of actual English rulers. These plays are often longer and more complex than the other types of plays.

In additon to the three designations from the "First Folio," there are other, later categorizations for some of Shakespeare's plays. Some scholars use a designation that they call "Romances," (or "Late Romances") for several of Shakespeare's later plays such as The Tempest and The Winter's Tale. Finally, "Problem Plays" is a designation coined by scholars in the late 1800s for six plays (including All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure) that combine comic and tragic elements.

The "First Folio" lists Love's Labour's Lost among the comedies. It is not considered to be either a Late Romance or Problem Play.