How to Identify a Shakespeare Comedy

Vintage engraving from 1868 of showing a scene from As you like it a pastoral comedy by William Shakespeare


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Shakespeare's comedy plays have stood the test of time. Works such as "The Merchant of Venice." "As You Like It" and "Much Ado About Nothing" are among the Bard's most popular and most often performed plays.

However, even though we refer to about a dozen or so of Shakespeare's plays as comedies, they're not comedies in the modern sense of the word. Characters and plots are rarely laugh-out-loud funny, and not everything that occurs in a Shakespearean comedy is happy or light-hearted.

Indeed, the comedy of Shakespeare’s time was very different from our modern comedy. The style and key characteristics of a Shakespeare comedy are not as distinct as the other Shakespearean genres and sometimes determining whether one of his plays is a comedy can be a challenge. 

Common Features of a Shakespearean 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's comedies are peppered with clever wordplay, 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. Of course,​ that measure isn't always foolproof; love is the central theme of "Romeo and Juliet" but few people would regard that play as a comedy.
  • Complex plots: The plots of Shakespeare comedies have 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 feelings for each other.
  • Mistaken identities: The plot of a Shakespearean comedy 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 comedies are the most difficult to classify because they overlap in style with other genres. Critics often describe some plays as tragic-comedies because they mix equal measures of tragedy and comedy.

For example, "Much Ado About Nothing" starts as a comedy, but takes on some of 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.

Shakespearean Plays Generally Classified as Comedy

  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. Troilus and Cressida
  14. Twelfth Night
  15. Two Gentlemen of Verona
  16. The Two Noble Kinsmen
  17. The Winter's Tale
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Jamieson, Lee. "How to Identify a Shakespeare Comedy." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Jamieson, Lee. (2020, August 27). How to Identify a Shakespeare Comedy. Retrieved from Jamieson, Lee. "How to Identify a Shakespeare Comedy." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).