Shakespeare's plays are the most famous in the western canon, and are regularly performed both by theatre companies and amateurs. His plays are typically split into three genres: comedies, histories, and tragedies. For many modern audiences, the comedies are the most enduring and enjoyable, but tragedies are widely studied academically, and Hamlet, generally seen as Shakespeare's greatest work, is a tragedy. Histories, dealing often with the lives of kings, are less popular with the public but provide a hugely important historical and historiographical resource, and can often contain both tragic and comedic elements. So, which are the best?
The comedies are the best
Shakespeare's comedies are defined by their playfulness, irony, and wordplay. They feature themes of marriage, mistaken identity, family relationships, and foolishness.
Shakespeare's comedies have been entertaining audiences for generations
Shakespeare's comedies deal with themes such as love, marriage and family relationships. Their universality has made them enduringly popular with audiences around the world. Theatre companies have directed many different versions of them, and televised versions are still regularly broadcasted.
Shakespeare's comedies are the most diverse and complex group of his plays
Many of Shakespeare's comedies defy easy genre classification because they so deftly mix comedy, tragedy and biting social and personal commentary. This huge variety and complexity is distinctive and makes them perhaps the most richly rewarding of Shakespeare's works both to perform and to study.
Shakespeare's histories are dramatized biographies of British medieval kings. They offer insight into Medieval and Renaissance politics and the lives of people at all levels of Medieval, Elizabethan, and Jacobean society.
Shakespeare's histories provide a hugely important resource for historical research
Shakespeare's extensive writing on medieval England provides an important resource both for learning about the period and for understanding how Elizabethans thought of it, even though his depictions are not always accurate.
Shakespeare's histories are important examples of English myth-making
Shakespeare's history plays focus predominantly on the history of medieval England and its kings, with particular emphasis on the Wars of the Roses. Although not completely historically accurate, they have been very important in forming English identity and a national understanding of history.
Shakespeare's histories provide important social commentary
Although they contain many historical inaccuracies, Shakespeare's histories are very important for displaying social attitudes and conventions on issues such as politics and the monarchy, both from people in the medieval era, when the plays were set, and Shakespeare's own time.
Shakespeare's tragedies use Aristotle's theory of tragedy, featuring a tragic hero with a fatal flaw which causes his downfall. They are enduringly popular, with 'Hamlet' and 'Romeo and Juliet' remaining famous worldwide.
Hamlet, Shakespeare's greatest work, is a tragedy
Hamlet, written in 1599, is widely acknowledged as Shakespeare's masterpiece. It is a tragic play about the life of a young prince, but also contains comic elements and provides an excellent demonstration of Shakespeare's skill in character and dialogue.
Shakespeare's understanding of tragedy's structures has changed the way we think of tragic theatre
Before Shakespeare's tragic writing, tragedy was governed by a strict set of Ancient Greek rules regarding place, time and action. His adaptation of those to suit his own needs and his development of multi-layered plots changed the theatrical conventions surrounding tragedy.
Shakespeare expanded the scope of what we consider tragic events
Before Shakespeare's tragic plays, tragedy generally focused on a very specific type of hero and their downfall, but Shakespeare's expansion of tragic themes and roles meant that a large variety of events could be portrayed as tragic.