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Shakespearean plays are of three main types: tragedy, comedy, and history. Shakespearean tragedies are meant to express one of the greatest paradoxes of human life, i.e. the paradox of frustration. Although such notions as death, defeat, shattered beliefs and hopes are inherent to human existence, people feel that they intrude on their lives and are afraid of them. Tragic plays and literature make humans confront with negative and sad experiences, which significantly contribute to catharsis or purgation through sympathizing with characters.

The Paradox of Frustration in Shakespearean Tragedies

The first essential feature of Shakespearean tragedies is their focus on one protagonist, who possesses a “tragic flaw” that eventually makes him or her die. For instance, Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello are the protagonists of the corresponding plays. A “tragic flaw” is either a character trait that causes the protagonist’s downfall or a protagonist’s wrong action that ruins him or her as well. To illustrate, Macbeth’s tragic flaw is his lust for power, Othello’s – jealousy, King Lear’s – vanity, and Hamlet’s – indecisiveness. Macbeth’s tragic flaw makes him feel dissatisfied with what he already has and murder Duncan; his boundless ambitions lead to his destruction. Therefore, the majority of Shakespearean tragedies typically revolve around ambitions and revenge.

Protagonist’s death is the second essential feature of Elizabethan plays since the paradox of frustration is based exactly on the notion of death. From a religious perspective, death implies final disappointment and fade of every hope; in other words, it infers human defeat, weakness, and inability to change or withstand the natural flow of things. In the abovementioned tragedies, death does not intensify human suffering but symbolically emphasizes the defeat and frustration accompanying it. Othello’s suicide is a bright example of death as a symbol. His suicide is caused not by Iago’s treachery but his own despair. Likewise, Hamlet’s death embodies the vanity of unjustified bloodshed and general miscalculation. What makes the matters worse is that Shakespeare does not offer a solution to this paradox but presents is as crucial to human existence. His tragedies neither teach us that life is still meaningful despite frustration and despair nor assert the vanity of our hopes.      

Furthermore, supernatural elements are also typical of Shakespearean tragedies. Supernatural significantly contributes to the protagonist’s fate but is not the single factor predetermining it. The ghost of Hamlet’s father, for instance, urges his son on the revenge, but Hamlet’s indecisiveness only complicates the matter and makes him fail. In some cases, supernatural elements are used to reflect social beliefs. When Macbeth meets the witches, he does not question their existence but takes for granted what they say. This is explained by the fact that in ancient times witches (or the evil powers) were believed to affect the protagonist though evil ceremonies. Spiritual forces can also work against the protagonist; in this case, we speak about the internal conflict, i.e. the conflict that represents one’s mental struggles. Quite often, the protagonist’s inward struggle results in his insanity (as King Lear). Apart from the internal conflicts, the tragic hero can experience external ones, which usually result in the favour of the good party.   

Four Parts of Shakespearean Tragedy  

Shakespearean tragedy consists of four parts: exposition, rising action, falling action, and resolution. Exposition highlights the background of the story, characters and their typical traits, the major conflict, and the tragic flaw of the protagonist. Usually, exposition ends in the first act; nevertheless, some characters may appear in the story later. Rising action occurs from the beginning of the second act up to the third and the fourth act. The tension increases and the plot reaches the climax, which implies that the hero makes an irrevocable fatal decision. When the rising action ends, the protagonist is deprived of any support and left alone for a struggle. Falling action develops in the fourth act where the antagonist begins to withstand the hero. As a result of this, the protagonist’s power declines. Resolution that takes place in the final act presents a defeated protagonist who realizes his mistakes and fault but cannot change or correct anything.

Shakespearean Comedies

As far as Shakespearean comedies are concerned, they are characterized by the following features: a happy ending (usually a marriage), young lovers’ struggle for happiness, mistaken identity, use of puns, twisted plot lines, and stock characters. Here belong the following plays: All’s Well That Ends Well, The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, etc. A Winter’s Tale, for example, can be classified as a tragicomedy since it combines a happy ending with a tragic climax.

Typically, the protagonists of comedies are young lovers who cannot be together due to numerous obstacles brought about either by their guardians or parents. That is why the heroes are kept apart and should fight for their happiness that becomes possible at the end of the play. Since the Bard’s comedies involve a complex plot with cleverly interwoven twists, the audience is constantly kept guessing, which increases the audience’s interest. Another remarkable feature of Shakespearean comedies is witty wordplay or pun. Being a master of pun, he imbued his comedies with clever (although sometimes bawdy or silly) plays on words. That is why it not easy to understand all Shakespearean jokes if one is not fluent in his or her Elizabethan English (Cheever).

One of Shakespearean favorite and most frequently used plot devices was mistaken identity. This may infer gender mix-ups, mixed-up twins, and a witty disguise. Very often, the Bard’s characters masqueraded as the opposite sex, which led to confusion and funny situations. Masquerading as the opposite sex was also predetermined by the fact that in Elizabethan plays all the roles were performed exclusively by men. Finally, Shakespeare made a profound use of stock characters that kept appearing in his plays. Such stock characters as the drunkard, the young couple, the fool, or the clever servant were widely popular with Elizabethan audiences.

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It is common knowledge that Shakespeare lived under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. That is why his historical plays portraying the dangers of the civil war and celebrating the founders of the Tudor dynasty are often referred to as Tudor propaganda. For instance, Richard III characterizes the last member of the York house in the following way: “that bottled spider, that foul bunchback’d toad!” (Inthesky) Many Bard’s plays focus on the lives of English kings; these are such historical plays as Henry IV Parts I and II, Richard II, Henry V, Henry VI Parts I, II and III, Henry VIII, and Richard III. They depict medieval struggles for power, predominantly the Hundred Years War with France and the war between Lancaster and York – the Wars of the Roses (

It is believed that Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle of English History served as a source for the Bard’s historical plays. However, it should be born in mind that Shakespearean representation of the abovementioned historical figures is not objective enough. The point is that the Bard appreciated history keenly and was in a constant search for the dramatic influence of historical events and figures. That is why, regardless of the fact that Shakespearean historical plays are extremely appealing because they highlight life of every level of society (the nobility, the court, brothels, tavern life, beggars, etc.), one should discern behind the medieval images his subjective depiction of the Jacobean and Elizabethan society.

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