|'Williams' cartoon from Caricature magazine,|
"Tameing a Shrew; or, Petruchio's Patent Family
Bedstead, Gags & Thumscrews" (1815)
"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", both internal and external conflicts, and a tension between Apollonian and Dionysian values. Shakespearean comedies tend to also include:
- A greater emphasis on situations 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, often presented by elders
- Separation and re-unification
- Deception among characters (especially mistaken identity)
- A clever servant
- Disputes between characters, often within a family
- Multiple, intertwining plots
- Use of all styles of comedy (slapstick, puns, dry humor, earthy humor, witty banter, practical jokes)
- Pastoral element (courtly people living an idealized, rural life), originally an element of Pastoral Romance, exploited by Shakespeare for his comic plots and often parodied therein for humorous effects
- Happy Ending,though this is a given, since by definition, anything without a happy ending can't be a comedy.
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 humor 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 humor and society, a fault on Shakespeare's part, or a deliberate attempt by him to blend styles and subvert the audience's expectations. By the end of Shakespeare's life, he had written seventeen comedies.
- The Comedy of Errors is one of William Shakespeare's earliest plays. It is his shortest and one of his most farcical comedies, with a major part of the humor coming from slapstick and mistaken identity, in addition to puns and word play. The Comedy of Errors (along with The Tempest) is one of only two of Shakespeare's plays to observe the classical unities. It has been adapted for opera, stage, screen and musical theatre.
- The Taming Of The Shrew The main plot depicts the courtship of Petruchio, a gentleman of Verona, and Katherina, the headstrong, obdurate shrew. Initially, Katherina is an unwilling participant in the relationship, but Petruchio tempers her with various psychological torments—the "taming"—until she becomes a compliant and obedient bride. The subplot features a competition between the suitors of Katherina's more desirable sister, Bianca.
- The Two Gentlemen of Verona is considered by some to be Shakespeare's first play, and is often seen as showing his first tentative steps in laying out some of the themes and tropes with which he would later deal in more detail; for example, it is the first of his plays in which a heroine dresses as a boy. The play deals with the themes of friendship and infidelity, the conflict between friendship and love, and the foolish behaviour of people in love. The highlight of the play is considered by some to be Launce, the clownish servant of Proteus, and his dog Crab, to whom "the most scene-stealing non-speaking role in the canon" has been attributed.
- A Midsummer Night's Dream is believed to have been written between 1590 and 1596, it portrays the events surrounding the marriage of the Duke of Athens, Theseus, and the Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta. These include the adventures of four young Athenian lovers and a group of six amateur actors, who are controlled and manipulated by the fairies who inhabit the forest in which most of the play is set. The play is one of Shakespeare's most popular works for the stage and is widely performed across the world.
- Love's Labor's Lost was written in the mid-1590s, and first published in 1598.
- The Merchant Of Venice was written between 1596 and 1598. Though classified as a comedy in the First Folio and sharing certain aspects with Shakespeare's other romantic comedies, the play is perhaps most remembered for its dramatic scenes, and is best known for Shylock and the famous 'Hath not a Jew eyes' speech. Also notable is Portia's speech about the 'quality of mercy'.
- As You Like It was written in 1599 or early 1600 and first published in the First Folio, 1623. The play's first performance is uncertain, though a performance at Wilton House in 1603 has been suggested as a possibility. As You Like It follows its heroine Rosalind as she flees persecution in her uncle's court, accompanied by her cousin Celia and Touchstone the court jester, to find safety and eventually love in the Forest of Arden. Historically, critical response has varied, with some critics finding the work of lesser quality than other Shakespearean works and some finding the play a work of great merit.
- Much Ado About Nothing is about Benedick and Beatrice who are engaged in a very "merry war"; they are both very glib and proclaim their scorn for love, marriage, and each other. In contrast, Claudio and Hero are sweet young people who are rendered practically speechless by their love for one another. By means of "noting" (which sounds the same as "nothing," and which is gossip, rumour, and overhearing), Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into confessing their love for each other, and Claudio is tricked into rejecting Hero at the altar. However, Dogberry, a Constable who is a master of malapropisms, discovers the evil trickery of the villain, Don John. In the end, Don John runs away and everyone else joins in a dance celebrating the marriages of the two couples.
- Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will was written around 1601–02 as a Twelfth Night's entertainment for the close of the Christmas season. The play expanded on the musical interludes and riotous disorder expected of the occasion, with plot elements drawn from the short story "Of Apollonius and Silla" by Barnabe Rich, based on a story by Matteo Bandello. The first recorded performance was on 2 February 1602, at Candlemas, the formal end of Christmastide in the year's calendar. The play was not published until its inclusion in the 1623 First Folio.
- The Merry Wives of Windsor was first published in 1602, though believed to have been written prior to 1597. It features the fat knight Sir John Falstaff, and is Shakespeare's only play to deal exclusively with contemporary Elizabethan era English middle class life. It has been adapted for the opera on occasions.
- All's Well That Ends Well is traditionally believed to have been written between 1604 and 1605, and was originally published in the First Folio in 1623. Though originally the play was classified as one of Shakespeare's comedies, the play is now considered by some critics to be one of his problem plays, so named because they cannot be neatly classified as tragedy or comedy.
- Measure For Measure is believed to have been written in 1603 or 1604. It was (and continues to be) classified as comedy, but its mood defies those expectations. As a result and for a variety of reasons, some critics have labelled it as one of Shakespeare's problem plays. Originally published in the First Folio of 1623 (where it was first labelled as a comedy), the play's first recorded performance was in 1604. The play deals with the issues of mercy, justice, and truth and their relationship to pride and humility: "Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall".
- The Two Noble Kinsmen is a Jacobean tragicomedy, first published in 1634 and attributed to John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. Its plot derives from "The Knight's Tale" in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.
- Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a Jacobean play written at least in part by William Shakespeare and included in modern editions of his collected works despite questions over its authorship, as it was not included in the First Folio. Modern editors generally agree that Shakespeare is responsible for almost exactly half the play—827 lines—the main portion after scene 9 that follows the story of Pericles and Marina. Modern textual studies indicate that the first two acts of 835 lines detailing the many voyages of Pericles were written by a mediocre collaborator, which strong evidence suggests to have been the victualler, pander, dramatist and pamphleteer George Wilkins.
- Othello (tragic comedy) The work revolves around four central characters: Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army; his wife, Desdemona; his lieutenant, Cassio; and his trusted ensign, Iago. Because of its varied and current themes of racism, love, jealousy, and betrayal, Othello is still often performed in professional and community theatres alike and has been the basis for numerous operatic, film, and literary adaptations.
- The Winter's Tale. Although it was grouped among the comedies, some modern editors have relabelled the play as one of Shakespeare's late romances. Some critics, among them W. W. Lawrence, consider it to be one of Shakespeare's "problem plays", because the first three acts are filled with intense psychological drama, while the last two acts are comedic and supply a happy ending.
- The Tempest is set on a remote island, where Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, plots to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place using illusion and skillful manipulation. He conjures up a storm, the eponymous tempest, to lure his usurping brother Antonio and the complicit King Alonso of Naples to the island. There, his machinations bring about the revelation of Antonio's low nature, the redemption of the King, and the marriage of Miranda to Alonso's son, Ferdinand.