What is Shakespearean comedy?
Shakespearean comedy does not hold the same definition as contemporary comedy. In Elizabethan theatre, a comedy is simply a play with a happy ending, which means that not all comedies have a mirthful or humorous tone throughout the play. In fact, some of Shakespeare’s comedies have pronounced tragic or dramatic elements such as “The Merchant of Venice,” “Measure for Measure” and “All’s Well That Ends Well,” and are sometimes referred to as problem plays for their use of tragicomedy. However, most of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies are humorous in tone, such as “Twelfth Night,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “As You Like It.”
In Shakespeare’s day satire was considered the highest intellectual and moral form of comedy, so Shakespeare stood out from many of his contemporaries in his conception of non-satirical comedies that appealed to the upper classes and intellectuals, including Elizabeth I and James I.
Most common elements
Like tragedies, the heroes of comedies tend to be upper class or aristocratic. Unlike tragedies, comedies always include well-fated romance, including lovers who must defy authority figures to be together or unrequited lovers who must gain or regain the affection of their beloved, and comedies always end with at least one happy marriage. Comedies include other stock characters as well, such as the fool, the drunk and the saucy wench. Along the way, the lovers and other characters get caught in the struggle between Apollonian forces of reason and Dionysian forces of wildness and, after a sequence of humorous events, must put an end to the chaos.
Shakespeare competed with taverns and bear-baiting pits for his audience’s attention, so he had to be bawdy and appeal to the lowest common denominator. Just as in his tragedies, Shakespeare uses a plethora of double entendre in his comedies, most of which are difficult to catch onto today, which is why you should use a fully annotated edition that will help you understand the euphemisms (see our list of Shakespeare editions here).
Twins were often used for comic effect in Elizabethan comedy, and Shakespeare may have had a double interest in twins, being the father of twins himself. In any Shakespearean comedy involving twins, expect for them to be mistaken for each other at some point and for this to have comical consequences. Other instances of mistaken identity include cross-dressing (see below), the bed-trick and other tricks involving appearances, all of which get resolved by the end of the play.
In hand with mistaken identity, characters in Shakespearean comedy often suffer from miscommunication. Letters fall into the wrong hands, characters wrongly believe their spouses to be unfaithful and sprites administer love potions to the wrong person. Miscommunication is a common element in tragedies as well, although with tragic consequences, as opposed to the comedic implications of miscommunication and happy resolutions in the comedies.
Considering that his casts were all-male and that young boys played the female characters, Shakespeare found it especially funny to have a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy. This also allows for a lot of comedic romantic mishaps, including both men and women unwittingly falling for pretty boys who are actually women.
Gender in Shakespearean comedy gets complicated. In his tragedies, Shakespeare’s women are often ignored or abused by men, and have very little power. There are a few exceptions, like Lady Macbeth, but generally women in tragedies suffer from powerlessness and oppression.
Comedy is usually the opposite. Women wield a great deal of power and are frequently cleverer and more likable or three-dimensional than their male counterparts, like Rosalind (“As You Like It”), Viola (“Twelfth Night”), and Helena and Hermia (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). “The Taming of the Shrew” often baffles critics due to its sexist overtones, although some critics theorize that it is meant as satire, and Kate’s concluding monologue in which she bids women to submit to their husbands is often played with a wink. It’s a good rule of thumb that in tragedies the action tends to be male-dominated while in comedies action is female-dominated.
Battle of wits
The cleverest characters in the play often attempt to one-up each other in a battle of wits, with the most most famous instance being the interactions between Benedick and Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing.” This allows for Shakespeare to display his own wit and endless supply of puns and wordplay.
Suspension of disbelief
The comedic effects in Shakespearean comedies tend to be ludicrous. Siblings fail to recognize each other (“Twelfth Night”), men offer their beloved to a friend (“Two Gentlemen of Verona”) and lions attack in France (“As You Like It”). Although “The Winter’s Tale” possibly wins for the most infamous bizarre event: “Antigonus exits, pursued by a bear.” Shakespeare expects his audience to go along, especially since he makes many both subtle and overt references throughout almost all of his plays to the fact that the audience is watching a play, such as when Jacques famously declares in “As You Like It”: “All the world’s a stage/ and all the men and women merely players…”