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Shakespearean Comedy

William Shakespeare's plays may be grouped into three categories: comedies, histories, and tragedies. It is important to note that the term "comedy" didn't mean the same to Elizabethans as it does today. It is true that there is quite a bit of humour in Shakespeare's comedies, but the term often simply referred to a light-hearted play with a happy ending. This indicates that Shakespearean comedies are different from his more dramatic tragedies and history plays when it comes to tone and plot.

Conventional plot elements in Shakespearean comedies:

  • Happy ending, usually involving marriages between the unmarried characters (sometimes deus ex machina)

  • Light-hearted tone

  • Tension between Apollonian values (reason, control and abstinence) and Dionysian values (such as desires, wildness and abandon)

  • Separation and re-unification, eg. lovers who overcome obstacles and re-unite in harmony

  • Mistaken identities and deception

  • Disputes between characters

  • Complex plot with several, intertwining plot-lines

  • Heavy use of comic devices

  • Comic language full of clever puns, metaphors and insults

  • Country setting which is often idealized

  • Main theme: love

  • Gender mix-up and disguise (men dressing as women and vice versa; ie. male )

  • Frequent use of improbable, fantastic, or supernatural elements

  • The best comedies often contain a philosophical thematic undercurrent

Frequent plot structure in Shakespearean comedies:

1. Introduction of main character(s)
2. Tragic Event
3. Journey (physical or self-discovery or both)
4. Reconciliation
5. Resolution
6. Happy Ending

The climax of the play most often occurs in the third act. The final scene has a celebratory feel with declarations of love.

Recurrent characters in Shakespearean comedies:

  • Young lovers that struggle to overcome the difficulties created by parents, society etc.

  • A clever servant

  • The fool

  • The drunk

  • The characters are often stereotypes, so the audience can maintain distance and laugh at them

List of comedies:

Several of Shakespeare's comedies have an unusual tone mixing humour and tragedy. These are often classified as “problem plays”. Plays marked with an asterisk (*) are now commonly referred to as 'romances'. Plays marked with two asterisks (**) are sometimes referred to as 'problem plays'.

  • A Midsummer Night's Dream

  • All's Well That Ends Well**

  • As You Like It

  • Love's Labour's Lost

  • Measure for Measure**

  • Much Ado About Nothing

  • Pericles, Prince of Tyre*

  • The Comedy of Errors

  • The Merchant of Venice**

  • The Merry Wives of Windsor

  • The Taming of the Shrew

  • The Tempest*

  • The Two Gentlemen of Verona

  • The Two Noble Kinsmen*

  • The Winter's Tale*

  • Twelfth Night

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