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William Shakespeare’s comedies were the reason for his early stage success in London. The plays often revolve around marriage and family matters, and have happy endings. Shakespeare’s comedies evolved over his career, losing much of the bawdy humor of his early work, and even approaching dark or black humor in his last plays.
The Comedy of Errors is believed to be Shakespeare’s earliest comedy, written around 1592. The play features a separated set of noble identical twins, which happen to have servants who are also a set of separated identical twins. The play is one of Shakespeare’s shortest, and relies heavily on sight-gags of mistaken identity, a very common device in Shakespeare’s comedies. The later comedy, Twelfth Night similarly features twins, but is even more confusing as one twin is male and the other female.
Two Gentlemen of Verona, has the smallest cast of any of Shakespeare play, and is the first of Shakespeare’s comedies to introduce another common theme, women dressing as men. In the play, Julia dresses as a boy and disguises herself as her fiancé’s page, in order to follow him to Milan. Unfortunately, she discovers he has betrayed her and is trying to win the love of Silvia, whom his best friend also loves. Luckily, everything is solved by the end, with Julia taking back her faithless lover as Silvia prefers the best friend.
A favorite comedy of modern audiences isThe Taming of the Shrew, which has been reproduced many times on stage and screen. Kate, a formidable and angry woman, is furiously married off to Petruchio, who is certain he can tame her. Despite its somewhat anti-female tone, the play is often given a feminist interpretation, portraying Petruchio as the only man who understands and respects Kate’s strength.
Love’s Labor’s Lost is the bawdiest of Shakespeare’s comedies, with a very simple premise: Three young men vow to devote themselves to studying and avoid any female contact for three years. Predictably, none of them are able to keep away from temptation for any length of time. Critics believe that Shakespeare may have written a sequel to this play, but the text has not survived.
A similarly bawdy play is The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which a fat knight named Falstaff is consumed with desire for two housewives who decide to play tricks on him. The play is significant in its use of Falstaff, who previously appeared in two history plays, Henry IV, Parts I and II. Falstaff’s appearance is somewhat surprising as the earlier plays were set in the 14th century, while The Merry Wives of Windsor takes place at the turn of the 17th century.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It are both called “green world” plays. In them, the young heroes must venture into a wild and unconventional nearby forest, before emerging with their correct future mate and restoring society to balance. Both plays have been extremely popular throughout history, on stage and on screen.
Considered by some to be the funniest of Shakespeare’s comedies, Much Ado About Nothing features a double-love story, possibly inspired by the stock comedies of the Italian form Commedia dell’arte. Beatrice and Benedict, despite their constant battles of wit with each other, must combine to save the marriage of Hero and Claudio after a plot endangers their wedding.
The Merchant of Venice is traditionally classified as a comedy, but is more often remembered for its dramatic plot involving Shylock of Venice. The play is considered a comedy as it ends happily rather than tragically. Some scholars argue that the play is better defined as an early attempt at a tragicomedy, a genre which Shakespeare would return to later in his career.
The last two of Shakespeare’s comedies, All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure are sometimes classified as black humor. Although they end with a marriage, as do most of Shakespeare’s comedies, the audience is left to question whether the marriages are suitable and the couples particularly happy. These two plays are rarely performed, and often grouped together under the heading “problem plays.”