Elements of Shakespearean Comedy
The six main aspects of comedy within Shakespearean plays and how they can be used by modern writers.
We’ve all been taught in school how Shakespeare’s plays tend to fall into one of two categories—comedy or tragedy—but sadly it’s never fully appreciated how the bard’s innovations have helped shape the comedy genre as we know it today. Though not a comedian by any stretch, Shakespeare’s penchant for clever puns and wordplay have nevertheless proved influential across the ages, as has his frequent use of comic devices and his embrace of a light-hearted tone.
Shakespeare’s lack of joke-telling and quipping is often counterbalanced by his imaginative use of insults, a legacy which itself has left a mark upon the development of humorous writing well into the Jacobean era and beyond. However, there are notable narrative elements which tend to underpin most of Shakespeare’s comedies, and once you recognise them it’s almost impossible not to notice their usage in many modern works too. Even more, as writers we can take these elements and play upon them in our own writing for comedic effect.
Here are the most commonly-recognised elements of Shakespearean comedy.
1. Mistaken Identity and/or Misconceptions
Situations where characters impersonate or are mistaken for somebody else are a long-standing comic tradition which Shakespeare only cemented in his time. This can be seen in Shakespearean comedies such as As You Like It, in which Rosalind impersonates a man in order to mentor her would-be lover into the man she secretly desires; or in Twelfth Night, where a shipwrecked Viola washes up in a strange land and decides to dress up as a man to enter into service of the nobility.
How characters get embroiled in gender mix-ups can be due to circumstances or just plain old-fashioned deception, but, all in all, the humour arises from the audience’s awareness of their predicament, in contrast to how others remain oblivious to it. Modern comedy films such as Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire also make use of this same comic technique, where male characters impersonate women to either advantage their career, or to bypass custody restrictions following a divorce battle. In either case, Shakespeare recognised how disguising one’s gender can be funny when it serves the need of the story.
2. Reason versus Emotion
The historical period in which Shakespeare wrote his plays was defined by an intellectual battle between Apollonian values (such as reason) versus Dionysian values (like desire). How does one act in the world—by following our passions, or by listening to our heads? It’s no surprise, then, that many of Shakespeare’s comedies toy with this dichotomy, challenging audiences to consider matters of the heart, whilst comparing it to the more rational considerations of the human mind.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia disobeys her father by refusing to accept Demetrius as her husband. Instead, she chooses to pursue a romance with Lysander, and is willing to face the possibility of a death sentence for doing so. Her motivations are led by emotion, and not dictated by reason. Only adding to confusion is Helena’s statement “love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind” when Hermia’s actions suggest the opposite to be true. In this way, Shakespeare’s comedies tend to wittily expose the contradictions inherent in human behaviour. In short, it’s all about choosing between what your heart wants, and what your mind says, and therein lies the humour.
3. Fate and the Fantastical
Shakespeare’s comedies enjoy invoking the supernatural and tend to portray humans as mere play-things in some grand mystical game. The fairies Puck and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream mischievously toy with the characters’ emotions throughout the play, so everything the characters experience is interpreted as being due to the impish wiles of magical beings. Whether through strife or tenacity, all character revelations in Shakespeare’s comedies are seen as being due to events beyond human control, or even our mortal understanding, which is why audiences still find it funny today.
In another instance, the use of magic in making one’s thoughts a reality is the inciting moment in The Tempest, as without Prospero’s meddling there would be no shipwreck and therefore Viola would never have arrived in Illyria in the first place. Again, magic is deemed as the unseen motivator of human struggle, a catalyst which subjects characters to wrestle with life’s little ironies to a point where humour often arises. Given comedies end happily, you could say all’s well that ends well (if you’ll pardon the reference), despite the complicated machinations of fate, but Shakespeare’s comedies often rely on the fantastical to provide an explanation for the convoluted goings-on of our everyday struggles.
4. Idyllic Settings
It’s remarkable just how many settings in Shakespeare’s comedies are given idyllic and almost fantastical settings—there’s the Forest of Arden in As You Like It, an enchanted wood outside the city of Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the mysterious island of Illyria in Twelfth Night. Each location has been carefully brought to life by Shakespeare to depict perfection—lands which only convey the world as we would wish it to be, havens of tranquillity and rich in nature. This is no accident on Shakespeare’s part, of course.
The main reason why Shakespeare enjoyed setting his comedies in almost paradise-like locations is because, more often than not, things tend to go wrong in these plays. Mistakes are made, complications are rife, misunderstandings always arise, so when audiences see how characters living in paradise engage in mishaps too, it only underscores the comedy. After all, if things can go awry in seemingly perfect worlds, it becomes strangely comforting to those of us who live in the real world. This is why many find Shakespeare’s comedies so resonant today, as it proves that if things seem too good to be true, they probably are.
5. Separation and Reconciliation
Naturally, love is the central theme in most Shakespeare plays, but they are even more pronounced in comedies. In particular, the idea of lovers being separated—such as Berowne and Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost—is a frequently-recurring element in a Shakespearean comedy. Where there is separation, of course, there is also reconciliation, so it’s hardly surprising when we see lovers reunite, although in some cases the journey to that point can be arduous and fraught with uncertainty, particularly when cross-dressing is involved.
Perhaps the most interesting and insightful depiction of love in a Shakespearean comedy is in Much Ado About Nothing, where Benedick and Beatrice spend most of the play at loggerheads with each other. In fact, some would go so far as to say they both hate each other, with each character brandishing scars from past relationships which have led them to dismiss the idea of love altogether. By the final act, of course, they realise they are in love and end up married. Benedick and Beatrice’s progression from mutual hate to romantic love is an ironic but very true insight into how many real romances develop, and it remains a testament to Shakespeare as an observer of how human relationships work.
6. Happy Endings
Lastly, but perhaps most crucially, one of the most notable elements of a Shakespearean comedy is a happy ending. Unlike tragedies, which always end with death, Shakespeare’s comedies ended in a celebratory manner, often with love and marriage as the biggest focal points. To modern eyes, this may seem trite given how cynical modern readers can be about the pitfalls of holy matrimony. For its time, however, marriage was a symbolic event, not just a means of achieving unity and higher purpose, but also of providing resolution to life’s woes. Ultimately, it was a means of allowing Shakespeare to end on a hopeful note.
In plays which invoke the supernatural, happy endings in Shakespeare’s plays can also come about as a result of deus ex machina. Known as ‘god in the machine,’ as a literary device it refers to instances which conclude a narrative thanks to a contrived but wholly unlikely occurrence, as if God has waved a magic wand to tie up loose ends. This can be seen in As You Like It, when the chief antagonist Duke Frederick is persuaded to give up his power by a religious man, thus allowing Shakespeare’s protagonists to marry and live happily ever after. Ultimately, one should interpret happy endings in Shakespearean comedies as his way of resolving the confusion his characters experience throughout his plays. Essentially, it’s a form a comic denouement.
All in all, elements of Shakespearean comedy are myriad and even today there are still many aspects to his plays which we could analyse and dissect. What’s most obvious, however, is that Shakespeare’s understanding of the complicated interactions between people have laid the foundations for most comedic storytelling. Shakespeare’s comedies explore how experiences may not necessarily be as we perceive it to be; they found humour in pondering how suffering may be due to reasons beyond our control; and they expose the irony in how thinking rationally stands in stark contrast to our heart’s desires. For those reasons, it’s easy to appreciate why his plays have retained a timeless appeal, and for writers there is still much to be learned.
© 2019 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.
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