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. The convention of ending a comedy with a wedding provides the audience with assurance that whatever conflicts arise in the play will not have lasting, negative consequences for the protagonists or society at large. Unlike the fatal conflicts of Shakespeare’s tragedies, conflicts in his 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, and we trust they will end the play happier than they began. Consider the difference between Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet, both of which feature a character who fakes her own death. In contrast to Much Ado, where the truth of Hero’s deception is revealed before anyone comes to harm, Juliet’s deception in Romeo and Juliet tragically leads to the real deaths of both herself and Romeo. As this comparison suggests, the plots of Shakespeare’s comedies frequently resemble the plots of his tragedies, but they have happier outcomes.
Shakespeare’s comedies represented a significant departure from the classical comedy that had dominated the stage prior to his arrival in London. Whereas classical comedies were fairly straightforward, Shakespearean comedies introduced a number of elements that made for more complicated plots. Classical comedies typically opened with an already established pair of lovers, and they told of how these lovers had to overcome some obstacle or another to confirm the legitimacy of their union. Shakespeare, however, did not write comedies with already established lovers, and instead placed the emphasis of the plot on the process of wooing itself. The Taming of the Shrew thus tells the story of Petruchio, who must labor to break through Katherine’s ill-tempered nature and win her affections. In other plays, such as Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare multiplies the number of lovers, which leads to preposterously intricate plots. In yet other comedies, such as Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare uses disguise as a significant plot device that adds further levels of complication, yielding a rich source of dramatic irony. The audience, who knows more than the characters, can laugh at the amusing predicaments that characters get themselves into with their own foolishness.