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Book Review

People like to put things into categories. Movie critics do so with films:

slasher,buddy,western, war, and more. You can do the same with books: science fiction,

gothic romance and so on. Shakespeare’s plays also have categories: tragedies, comedies,

and histories. But these terms don’t mean exactly what you may think they mean.

Shakespeare’s most famous plays are his tragedies, such as Hamlet. These plays

follow the standard rules for tragedies: The hero has a basic human failure that brings

about his downfall and death, but before he dies, he learns an important lesson about his

failure and how it destroyed his life (and usually the lives of those he loved). Shakespeare

didn’t write these plays to deliver a moral message, butthat doesn’t stop us from learning

from his plays. He fills his plays with ordinary people, and we can see ourselves in their

situations. When the heroes face their tragic ends, we can learn from their mistakes

and ordinary problems, and we can see ourselves with the same problems. At the same

time, we can watch a play that is fun and entertaining, full of action, intrigue, and


Hamlet, for example, is clearly an honest, decent person who is wrongly cheated out

of the throne of Denmark by his conniving uncle, Claudius. We root for Hamlet, cheer his

triumphs, and pity his failures. The protagonist is not always a hero, though. Sometimes he is

his own worst enemy. Coriolanus, for example, is too proud. He is a great Roman general

the best, and he knows it. His arrogance and conceit affect all around him and drive away

those who would be his friends. In the end, you almost cheer when they conspire against him

and he gets his due. In other words, Shakespeare felt free to break the rules whenever he felt

like it. After all, his audience didn’t care whether the plays followed the rules, and

Shakespeare wrote to make his audience happy, not writers and authors

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