Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Seven Basic Plots and Shakespeare

How do Shakespeare's plays fit
into the 'seven basic plots'?

According to Christopher Booker, there are only seven types of story that exist in the whole of literature, theatre and film. On the face of it, Shakespeare’s plays should all slot into either one of just two of these categories, but do they?

Let’s start at the very beginning, what are the seven basic plots:

  1. Overcoming the monster
  2. Rags to riches
  3. The quest
  4. Voyage and return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

If you’d like to find out more about those and see examples in well-known plays, novels and films, have a quick look here.

Should it be Shakespeare and The Two Basic Plots?

How does Shakespeare’s work fit into those seven basic plots? It’s fairly simple, isn’t it? After all, Shakespeare’s plays were divided into three categories: tragedy, comedy and history, so the vast majority of his works would fall into either the ‘tragic’ or ‘comic’ story arcs.

But I’m not so sure it’s as easy as that. I think that many of the plays fit into more than one of those categories, especially if you look at them from different characters' points of view.

For instance, Macbeth is undoubtedly a tragedy…if we’re looking at the play through Macbeth’s eyes. But from Macduff’s angle, it’s looking very much like an ‘overcoming the monster’ story, isn’t it?

Can Shakespeare’s Plays be Placed into The Seven Basic Plots?

Good question! And, I realise, of course, that I’m congratulating myself there. But, if you were thinking it, then bravo to you too.

I think Shakespeare’s plays are so complex and multi-layered that most of them can easily fit into two or more of the categories Booker lists.

Now, I was going to go right ahead and trawl through all thirty seven plays, but I’m not sure that would make for very entertaining reading, so I’ve chosen just seven plays with which to illustrate my point.

Is The Comedy of Errors more than a comedy?
The Comedy of Errors - Okay, ostensibly, it’s a comedy; it has all the traditional elements, such as confusion and disguise.

However, I’d say The Comedy of Errors also fits into the ‘voyage and return’ category, because the boys from Syracuse find themselves in a very strange world (or so it seems to them), not dissimilar to one of the most famous examples of a ‘voyage and return’ story: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream - Again, very strong elements of the ‘voyage and return’, and here that holds even more true - with the young lovers finding themselves in the, quite literally, magical world of the Athenian forest.

The Merchant of Venice - Most people would agree that The Merchant of Venice doesn’t even fit comfortably in its original pigeon hole: comedy. I’d argue, from Bassanio’s perspective, it could be seen as a ‘rags to riches’ story. Of course, it could also be branded a ‘rebirth’ story for Shylock, although that’s rather distasteful to our modern perceptions.

Does Katharina experience a 'rebirth' in
The Taming of The Shrew?
The Taming of The Shrew - This battle of the sexes is another plot that can seem uncomfortably classed as ‘comedy’ to us. Perhaps we could call it a ‘rebirth’ plot, though.

Whether Katharina has been truly tamed, or whether she’s being sarcastic in her final soliloquy, it can’t be denied that she’s no longer the, frankly, quite monstrous character she was at the beginning of the play.

King Lear - For Lear (if you cut out all the nasty death at the end), this is could be deemed a ‘voyage and return’ or ‘rebirth’ story; his journey into the untamed landscape sends him mad, but, ultimately, offers clarity.

Is As You Like It a 'voyage and return' story for
the boys and girls in the forest of Arden?
As You Like It - Could be said to be another example of a ‘voyage and return’ in terms of the story of Duke Senior, his followers and the young gang that ends up in the forest of Arden.

From the perspective of Oliver and the Younger Duke, of course, it may be deemed a ‘rebirth’.

Julius Caesar - Just as Macbeth could be said to be an ‘overcoming the monster’ story if seen through the eyes of Macduff and Malcolm, Julius Caesar might be called an ‘overcoming the monster’ story if we’re focusing on the play through Marc Antony’s eyes.

What does this all prove? Well…nothing much, except that perhaps some stories are far too complex to slot neatly into pigeon holes.

If you’d like to learn more about Shakespeare, check out What’s It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.


  1. First of all, thank you for your simple and brief explanations. I've found here of the info. I need more than I've found in any other site. I am a Jordanian student of English Language in KAU in KSA. I like the way you think. It is rare to find people looking through perspectives other than those of the main characters. I have a question about Twelfth Night. It is a comedy, but what other categories can it fit in?

    1. Hello Keyoke,

      Thanks for your kind words. I'm really pleased that you've found this helpful.

      Twelfth Night (or bits of it at least), like all of Shakespeare's plays, can belong to various genres. I'd say, you could call it a voyage and return story - there's a literal voyage, but there's also the voyage into a crazy world of confusion from which they do all return. You might also argue it's a rags to riches story. Sebastian and Viola may not have been paupers before, but they're certainly a lot richer (in more ways than just money) after the events of the play.

      Feste, Toby and the gang are overcoming the monster of Malvolio, although whether what they do is 'right' or 'fair' can be debated.

      What do you think? Do you agree/disagree; are there other 'basic plots' that you think the play strays into? I'd love to read your thoughts.