District 186 || District School Sites || Teacher Resources

Elizabethan England

Shakespeare's Comedies

by Adam Dozier, Mayra Izurieta,
Kyle Lazell, and Sarah Viar

 

William Shakespeare's plays come in many forms. There are the histories, tragedies, comedies, and tragicomedies. Among the most popular are the comedies, which are full of laughter, irony, satire, and wordplay.

Many times the question is asked: what makes a play a comedy instead of a tragedy? Comedies treat subjects lightly, meaning they don't treat seriously such things as love. Shakespeare's comedies often use puns, metaphors, and insults to provoke "thoughtful laughter." The action is often strained by artificiality, especially elaborate and contrived endings. Disguises and mistaken identities are often very common.

The plot is very important in Shakespeare's comedies. They are often very convoluted, twisted and confusing, and extremely hard to follow. Another characteristic of Shakespearean comedy is the themes of love and friendship, played within a courtly society. Songs often sung by a jester or a fool parallel the events of the plot. Also, foil and stock characters are often inserted into the plot.

Love provides the main ingredient for the plot. If the lovers are unmarried when the play opens, they either have not met or there is some obstacle in the way of their love. Examples of the obstacles these lovers go through are familiar to every reader of Shakespeare: the slanderous tongues which nearly wreck love in Much Ado About Nothing; the father insistent upon his daughter marrying his choice, as in A Midsummer Nights Dream; or the expulsion of the rightful Duke's daughter in As You Like It.

Shakespeare uses many predictable patterns in his plays. The hero rarely appears in the opening lines; however, we hear about him from other characters. The hero does not normally make an entrance for a few lines, at least, if not a whole scene. The hero is also virtuous and strong, but he always possesses a character flaw.

In the comedy itself, Shakespeare assumes that we know the basic plot, and he jumps right into it with little or no explanation. Foreshadowing and foreboding are put in the play early and can be heard throughout the drama. All Shakespearean comedies have five acts. The climax of the play is always during the third act.

Shakespearean comedies also contain a wide variety of characters. Shakespeare often introduces a character and then discards him, never to be seen again in the balance of the play. Shakespeare's female leads are usually described as petite, and often they assume male disguises. Often, foul weather parallels the emotional state of the characters.The audience is often informed of events before the characters, and when a future meeting is to take place it usually doesn't happen immediately. Character names are often clues to their roles and personalities, such as Malvolio from Twelfth Night, and Bottom in A Midsummer Nights Dream.

Many themes are repeated throughout Shakespearean comedies. One theme is the never-ending struggle between the the forces of good and evil. Another theme is that love has profound effects, and that people often hide behind false faces.

The comedies themselves can be sub-categorized as tragicomedies, romantic comedies, comedies of justice, and simple entertaining comedies with good wholesome fun. Many of these plays remain popular favorites 400 years after they were written.

A Midsummer Night's Dream was written in 1596. It has become one of Shakespeare's most loved comedies. It makes fun of everything from love at first sight to realistic staging. The play refers to "fair vestal throned by the west," which was once thought to have been a polite acknowledgement of the Queen's presence in the audience. The play was first printed in a quarto edition in 1600.

Much Ado About Nothing is a romantic comedy about a love relationship. It has a basic plot that's more orthodox than those of most of Shakespeare's plays. It's about two strong personalities who see each other as combatants, rather than partners. The play exploits games of verbal punning and backchat between two reluctant lovers. Much Ado About Nothing first appeared in a quarto 1599.

Twelfth Night is the most intricate of Shakespeare's great middle-period comedies. Written in 1601, it plays the familiar games of the time with boys playing girls who dress as boy pages. It is also filled with confusions of identity and memorable verbal put-downs. The play was not printed until the First Folio of 1623.

The Winter's Tale is a late tragicomedy, written in 1609-1610. It ranges through sixteen years in time, marked by the choric figure of Time himself, and through a fantastic geographical and range from Sicily to Bohemia. Shakespeare took this story, which shows the healing and restorative power of love, from an old romance. The play was printed originally in the First Folio of 1623.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, written some time between 1597 and 1599, is the only comedy that Shakespeare set in his own time and country. For all the London scenes with Falstaff in the history plays, Shakespeare usually chose to set his comedies in a foreign land. The use of local settings was still very new in the plays of this time. The play is an exciting piece of work, full of eccentric characters and slapstick comedy. The play first appeared in a memorial version, written down largely from memory, in 1602. A better text appeared in the First Folio.

Even though William Shakespeare died many years ago, his works are still remembered and cherished. His plays are popular and are still performed all over the world. Shakespeare's comedies are still loved and looked to as classics.

Works Consulted

* Gurr, Anderew. William Shakespeare: The Extraordinary Life of the Most Successful Writer of all Time. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, LTD., 1995. 6, 161-181.

The book gives an overview of all of Shakespeare's plays. We also used a picture of Nick Bottom with the ass's head from A Midsummer Nights Dream.

Haines, Charles. William Shakespeare and His Plays . New York: Franklin Watts Inc., 1968. 51-66.

This books talks about Shakespeare's comedies and what they're about. It outlines some of his comedies and tells the histories of them.

*Hamlyn, Paul. The Life and Times of Shakespeare. New York: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd. 1968. 53.

The visual from Shakespeare's comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor comes from this source.

Holzknecht, K. The Backgrounds of Shakespeare's Plays. New York: American Book Company, 1950. 268- 292.

The chapter compares the humor of Jonson and Shakespeare. It also talks about the emotional appeal of Shakespeare's comedies. They mixed morality elements with coarse and tasteless fun. The roots of English comedies are in humor rather than in wit, and Shakespeare followed this unacademic tradition, according to the authors.

Hussey, Maurice. The World of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. New York: The Viking Press, 1972. 78-107.

The book gives an overview of the details of two Shakespeare comedies, A Midsummer Nights Dream, and The Winter's Tale. It helps us to better understand Shakespeare's plays.

*Molinari. Theatre Through the Ages. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1972. 219.

The visual from Shakespeare's comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor comes from this source.

"Some of the Predictable Patterns in Shakespeare's Plays." website. http://www.wolfenet.com/~eloewe/ (24 Nov. 1997).

This website gives a basic overview of the many trends in Shakespeare's plays. It tells what is included in a comedy, and it describes the patterns in Shakespeare's plays. It also compares the comedies and the tragedies.

*Source for visual

Historical Figures and Events /Everyday Life /Arts and Architecture /
Shakespeare and His Theatre/About this Site / Links