Features of Shakespearean Comedy

Elements and Features of Shakespearean Comedy

William Shakespeare

Digitally recreated image of Shakespeare generated with AI.


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

Shakespearean comedy grew out of national tastes and traditions. A Shakespearean comedy is a “romantic comedy”. Shakespeare shuns the rules of literary creation and writes according to the indicates of his fancy. He even neglects the three “classical unities”. And there is a free mingling of the comic and the tragic, the serious and the gay, for Shakespeare instinctively realised that life is a mingled yarn of joys and sorrows, and it would be unnatural to separate them. 

The aim of Shakespearean comedy is not corrective or satiric, but innocent good-natured laughter. We laugh with the characters, and not at them. In the words of H. B. Charlton: 

Shakespearean comedy is not finally satiric, it is poetic. It is not conservative, it is creative. The way of it is that of imagination, rather than that of pure reason. It is an artist’s vision, not a critics exposition.”

His comedies may be classified under the following heads: 

  1. Early Boisterous Comedies

This group includes Loves Labour Lost, The Comedy of Errors and The Two Gentleman of Verona. These comedies are immature and farcical. They are full of wit and wordplay, puns and conceits. Humour is often course and cheap. 

  1. Joyous and Sunny Comedies

This group includes As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night. In these comedies Shakespeare’s comic genius is in its full bloom. Love and music are their very essence, and the atmosphere is one of mirth and merry making throughout. 

  1. Painful, Dark and Sombre Comedies

Measure for Measure, All’s Well that Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida fall under this category. In the words of Albert, these comedies: 

reflect a cynical, disillusioned attitude, and a fondness for objectionable characters and situations. In them, Shakespeare displays savage desire to expose the falsity of romance and to show the sordid reality of life.” 

  1. Later Comedies or Dramatic Romances

Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tales and The Tempest fall under this category. Towards the close of his career and after his tragic period, the playwright again returned to comedy but comedy, so unlike the former kind that the plays of this group are referred to not as comedies but as dramatic romances.

Elements of Shakespearean Comedy 

The Shakespearean comedy is romantic, not only in the sense that it does not observe the classical rules but also in the sense that it provides an escape from the sordid reality of life. Raleigh says: 

Shakespearean comedy is a rainbow world of idleness.” 

The action takes place in some distant far-off land and is not in the familiar everyday England. The dramatist transports us on the wings of his imagination to the forest of Arden, to the shores of Llyria,  or to an ancient forest in Greece, which exist nowhere but in the imagination of the poet. In this land of romance and enchantment, the inhabitants have no other business than love making. 

The Blending of Romance with Realism 

In this world of romance, realism enter by a few deft and subtle touches. Indeed, the mingling of romances and realism is one of the salient features of comedies of Shakespeare. The characterisation is realistic. His personages are ordinary human beings and incidents are such as are possible in common everyday life. It is said that the poet may soar high, but his feet is always fixed on earth. There is a confrontation of the romantic main plot with a realistic subplot. In the idyllic As You Like It, there is the realistic ‘Jaques’ to remind us of the ingratitude of man, which is more painful than winter wind or the frozen sky. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the homely ‘Nick Bottom’ and his companions our constant reminders of the reality of life. In Twelfth Night, the ‘Malvolio’ episode and the wise comments of the ‘Fool’ serve the same purpose. The setting is poetic and romantic, but it is skilfully related to the real life. 

Love in Shakespearean Comedy 

A Shakespearean comedy is a story of love ending with the ringing of marriage bells. Not only are the hero and heroine in love, but all are in love, and so in the end there is not one marriage but a number of marriages. The entire atmosphere is surcharged with love. The lovers are all young people, and they fall in love at first sight. Christopher Marlowe’s Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight?is perfectly applicable to Shakespeare’s lovers. 

Love inspires both the lover and the beloved. Each tries to outshine the other as ‘Beatrice’ and ‘Benedict’ do in Much Ado About Nothing. ‘Rosalind’ is at her most charming when talking to ‘Orlando’, ‘Portia’ more poetic in the company of ‘Bassanio,’ ‘Olivia’ gay only before ‘Viola’ (disguised). Love is the means of all human fulfilment and the source of all natural fruition. 

Blending of the Comic and Tragic Elements 

Shakespeare instinctively realized that life is mingled yarn of joys and sorrows, and it would be unnatural to separate them. So, he often blends it subtly and skilfully with tragedy and pathos. In his mature art, there is perfect inter-penetration of the tragic and the comic and of the pathetic and the gay. In the tragedies, his humour serves to enliven the general atmosphere of gloom and give relief from the tragic tension. Thus, Shakespeare holds a “mirror of nature” in the true sense of the term. 

His Humour 

Shakespeare is the greatest humourist in English literature. His laughter is varied, many-sided and all pervasive, like a sweet perfume. Like his total genius it is genius. It is generally objective and impartial, kindly and sympathetic, refined and noble. But when the occasion demands it, he can also be ironical and satiric, grim or morbid. We find in him comedy of character and wit, as also farcical situations productive of horse-laughter. In his plays we laugh at “fools”, at those who pretend to be wise, at affection, at extreme simplicity, at awkwardness and at hypocrisy. 


The characters of Shakespearean comedies are kindly light-hearted and humorous. They are lovable creatures who win our sympathies, so that we share our joys and wish them all success. The women, especially, are winning and charming. They dominate the action and are always at front. An array of glittering, heroines, bright, beautiful, and witty enliven the world of comedy of Shakespeare. The remark of Ruskin, Shakespeare has only heroines and no heroes,” is certainly true of his comedies. 

Music and Songs 

It is one of the important elements of Shakespearean comedy. Music and dance are very life and soul of it. Twelfth Night opens with music which strikes the keynote of this merry tale of love. Several exquisite songs are scattered all over As You Like It. 

Role of Fortune 

The quote from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream,the course of true love did never run smoothis particularly applicable to Shakespeare’s love stories. Difficulties soon come in the way of the lovers. Misunderstandings arise or there is hostility of parents, friends or other relatives and consequently there are many tears and sighs before the final union take place. But all these complications and difficulties are unexpectedly, and unaccountably removed. Things turn up by chance at the right moment and all ends well. Then we find the role of God’s fortune in Shakespearean comedies. 


Shakespearean comedies give hope. They tell us that we all should always have hope. In real life too, we face a series of trials before we head to our goals and success. But it is hope that keeps us moving ahead through thick and thin. 

If you are looking forward to prepare for UGC NET/JRF, you may find this article useful.




©2024. Md. Rustam Ansari [profrustamansari@gmail.com]


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