If there is a single element that unites all Shakespearean comedies, it is a wedding, or several weddings, at the end of the play. Although not all of the fourteen plays classified as comedies in the First Folio are particularly light-hearted or humorous, all end with at least one marriage. Other features of Shakespearean comedy include disguises, usually in the form of cross-dressing; thwarted lovers; wordplay; preposterously complicated plots; and music and song. Unlike tragedies, whose events have lasting negative consequence for the protagonists and society at large, the conflicts in comedies are reconciled before serious harm can come to anyone Because the audience knows the discord is only temporary, we don’t take the foibles and misfortunes of the characters seriously, trusting they will end the play happier than they began. The earliest examples of the comedic genre date back to Aristotle, who said that while tragedies concern characters who are more admirable than the average audience member, comedies concern characters who, because of their exaggerated flaws, such as buffoonish self-importance, are less admirable than the audience. In ridiculing these cartoonish characters, comedies satirize the pretensions of society.
Because the characters in Shakespearean comedies test and deceive each other by disguising their identities and even pretending to be dead, the plots of comedies can resemble the plots of tragedies. For example, Hero fakes her own death in Much Ado About Nothing , in much the same way Juliet fakes her own death in Romeo and Juliet . But because the truth in Much Ado is revealed before anyone is harmed by Hero’s deception the device is comic, whereas in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s fake death leads to the real death of the play’s lovers, making it tragic. Dramatic irony, where the audience knows more than the characters, is a common theme of Shakespearean comedy, and keeps the audience from becoming too deeply invested in the potentially upsetting plot twists before the happy conclusion. The love potion Puck applies to the sleeping lovers’ eyes in Midsummer Night’s Dream and the cross-dressing disguise Viola assumes in Twelfth Night are examples of dramatic irony. The audience knows Titania is not really in love with a donkey in Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that the “boy” Olivia loves in Twelfth Night is actually a girl. The characters, lacking similar knowledge, behave foolishly, while the audience laughs at their predicaments.
Shakespeare’s Comedies: All’s Well that Ends Well , As You Like It , The Comedy of Errors , The Taming of the Shrew , A Midsummer Night’s Dream , The Merchant of Venice , The Tempest , Love’s Labour’s Lost , Measure for Measure , Twelfth Night , The Merry Wives of Windsor , Much Ado About Nothing , Two Gentlemen of Verona , The Winter’s Tale