Shakespearean comedy

In the First Folio, the plays of William Shakespeare were grouped into three categories: comedies, histories, and tragedies;[1] and modern scholars recognize a fourth category, romance, to describe the specific types of comedy that appear in Shakespeare's later works.[2]


There are ten plays by Shakespeare which are consistently understood as being comedies by name and genre. More ambiguously, there are 17 of Shakespeare's plays which may or may not be called comedies, depending on the source of analysis or commentary, depending on whether the so-called problem plays of Shakespeare are counted, as well as the romance plays. Most of Shakespeare's romance plays appeared late in his life and include plays such as The Tempest and Cymbeline.

"Comedy", in its Elizabethan usage, had a very different meaning from modern comedy. A Shakespearean comedy is one that has a happy ending, usually involving marriages between the unmarried characters, and a tone and style that is more light-hearted than Shakespeare's other plays. Patterns in the comedies include movement to a "green world",[3] both internal and external conflicts, and a tension between Apollonian and Dionysian values. Shakespearean comedies tend to also include:

  • A greater emphasis on situations rather than characters (this numbs the audience's connection to the characters, so that when characters experience misfortune, the audience still finds it laughable)
  • A struggle of young lovers to overcome difficulty,[4] often presented by elders
  • Separation and re-unification
  • Deception of characters (especially mistaken identity)

Shakespeare's use of comedy and characters of comedic value was not limited to his comedies or his romance plays, and extended into his histories as well. The character portrayed by Falstaff in the Henriad, or plays dealing with Henry IV, is representative of Shakespeare's exemplary use of the comic type of character in his history plays.

Several of Shakespeare's comedies, such as Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well, have an unusual tone with a difficult mix of humour and tragedy which has led them to be classified as problem plays. It is not clear whether the uneven nature of these dramas is due to an imperfect understanding of Elizabethan humour and society or a deliberate attempt by Shakespeare to blend styles and subvert the audience's expectations. By the end of Shakespeare's life, he had written eighteen comedies. Cymbeline, listed in this article with the comedies, was, in the First Folio, included among the tragedies, even though it has many of the features of the so-called "late romances" (including a happy ending).


This alphabetical list includes everything listed as a comedy in the First Folio of 1623, in addition to the two quarto plays (The Two Noble Kinsmen and Pericles, Prince of Tyre) which are not included in the Folio but generally recognised to be Shakespeare's own. Plays marked with an asterisk (*) are now commonly referred to as the romances. Plays marked with two asterisks (**) are sometimes referred to as the problem plays.


  1. Wells 2011, p. 105.
  2. O'Connell 2006, p. 215.
  3. Bates 2006, p. 105.
  4. Wells 2011, p. 108.


  • Bates, Catherine (2006). "Love and Courtship". In Leggatt, Alexander (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Comedy. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 102–122. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521770440.007. ISBN 978-0511998577 via Cambridge Core.
  • O'Connell, Michael (2006). "The Experiment of Romance". In Leggatt, Alexander (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Comedy. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 215–229. doi:10.1017/CCOL0521770440.013. ISBN 978-0511998577 via Cambridge Core.
  • Wells, Stanley (2011). "Shakespeare's Comedies". In de Grazia, Margreta; Wells, Stanley (eds.). The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 105–120. ISBN 978-1139002868 via Cambridge Core.
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