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Shakespeare Comedy

How to Identify a Shakespeare Comedy

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Shakespeare Comedy: Benedick from 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Shakespeare Comedy: Benedick from 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Photo © Lee Jamieson

The Shakespeare comedy plays have stood the test of time. Today, Shakespeare comedy plays like The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing continue to enthrall and entertain audiences worldwide – but these plays are not comedies in the modern sense of the word.

Indeed, the comedy of Shakespeare’s time was very different to our modern comedy. The style and key characteristics of a Shakespeare comedy are not as distinct as the other Shakespearian genres and classification of the Shakespeare comedy plays is therefore difficult.

Common Features of a Shakespeare Comedy

What makes a Shakespeare comedy identifiable if the genre is not distinct from the Shakespeare tragedies and histories? This is an ongoing area of debate, but many believe that the comedies share certain characteristics, as described below:

  • Comedy through language: Shakespeare communicated his comedy through language and his comedy plays are peppered with clever word play, metaphors and insults.

  • Love: The theme of love is prevalent in every Shakespeare comedy. Often, we are presented with sets of lovers who, through the course of the play, overcome the obstacles in their relationship and unite.

  • Complex plots: The plotline of a Shakespeare comedy contains more twists and turns than his tragedies and histories. Although the plots are convoluted, they do follow similar patterns. For example, the climax of the play always occurs in the third act and the final scene has a celebratory feel when the lovers finally declare their love for each other.

  • Mistaken identities: The plot is often driven by mistaken identity. Sometimes this is an intentional part of a villain’s plot, as in Much Ado About Nothing when Don John tricks Claudio into believing that his fiance has been unfaithful through mistaken identity. Characters also play scenes in disguise and it is not uncommon for female characters to disguise themselves as male characters.

Shakespeare’s 17 comedies are the most difficult to classify because they overlap in style with other genres. Critics often describe some plays as tragi-comedies because they mix equal measures of tragedy and comedy. For example, Much Ado About Nothing starts as a Shakespeare comedy, but takes on the characteristics of a tragedy when Hero is disgraced and fakes her own death. At this point, the play has more in common with Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s key tragedies.

The 18 plays generally classified as comedy are as follows:

  1. All's Well That Ends Well
  2. As You Like It
  3. The Comedy of Errors
  4. Cymbeline
  5. Love's Labour’s Lost
  6. Measure for Measure
  7. The Merry Wives of Windsor
  8. The Merchant of Venice
  9. A Midsummer Night's Dream
  10. Much Ado About Nothing
  11. Pericles, Prince of Tyre
  12. The Taming of the Shrew
  13. The Tempest
  14. Troilus and Cressida
  15. Twelfth Night
  16. Two Gentlemen of Verona
  17. The Two Noble Kinsmen
  18. The Winter's Tale
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