The Quarto editions of some single plays have the words ‘comedy’, ‘history’ or ‘tragedy’ in their titles. The title page of the Folio (please look at Illustration 2, p. 4) puts history between comedy and tragedy, and the Folio orders the plays by genre, not, as modern editions usually do, in chronological order of composition. The placing of the histories between the received classical genres reflects Shakespeare’s less polarised practice. The simplification of genre had worked for him in his early plays, The Comedy of Errors and Titus Andronicus, and also in the unclassical romance comedies, which invite smiles rather than laughter. Genre then weakens. History becomes less tragic in Henry IV, and comedy appears in tragedy: Juliet’s Nurse complicates the tragic effect. Shakespeare began with genre, then reverted to the habit of native English tradition, in which plays did not have generic purity. But he also addressed insoluble and existential problems not raised in medieval drama, though foreshadowed in William Langland’s Piers Plowman - problems which defy the simplification of genre.
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