Plays by Year & Genre
Shakespeare's plays were labeled as comedies, histories and tragedies in the First Folio, but these genre were not evenly distributed across his career. The color-coded table below reveals how he wrote primarily comedies and histories in his early years and, as he matured, he wrote more tragedies and tragicomedies.
Some tragicomedies are called problem plays. They explore complex psychological, social and moral issues such as greed, revenge, bigotry, infidelity, sexual harassment and incest. They do not necessarily end with happy marriages nor tragic deaths. Romances, which also explore darker issues, also include music, spectacle, magic or mysticism, as well as unusual plot structure. In addition, they may also involve main characters, usually older, who endure adventures, disasters, family separations, often at sea, and finally reunions and redemptions.
Even Henry VIII, generally regarded as his last play and one of his English histories, had an episodic plot structure similar to his romances as well as the visitation of spirits in Katherine's dream just before her death. The visitations of gods, goddesses and divine spirits in romances differ from the visitations of the ghosts of murdered characters in earlier plays, e.g., the ghost of Hamlet's father to Hamlet, Julius Caesar's ghost to Brutus, and the parade of ghosts of murdered characters to Richard III.
Over the centuries, some scholars regarded Shakespeare's later plays as evidence of his decline, while others believed they reveal Shakespeare's maturity and growth as he experimented with form. But even in his earlier years, Shakespeare mixed his genre. Some of his histories, like Richard III, could as easily play as tragedies, and his tragedies always incorporated some humor and even farce.
Opinions differ about these designations, but the following groups are generally accepted:
The Merchant of Venice (1596), Troilus and Cressida (1602), Measure for Measure (1603), All's Well That Ends Well (1604)
Pericles Prince of Tyre (1607), The Winter's Tale (1609), Cymbeline (1610), The Tempest (1611)
In the table below, the tragicomedies are are labeled either Problem or Romance. For more on the events, see Shakespeare's Timelines.
Comedies Histories Tragedies Tragicomedies