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What is a Comedy?

Drama, one of the oldest literary forms, is intended to be performed before an audience by actors on stage. The ancient Greeks were the first to invent drama, and the earliest Greek drama grew out of ancient religious rituals honoring Dionysos, the god of wine and fertility. A chorus of men wearing masks spoke and sang together to tell stories of the gods and goddesses. Over centuries, as the form developed, individual actors began to play separate parts, and the stories retold the adventures of great heroes. The ancient Greeks used drama as way of investigating the world they lived in, and what it meant to be human. They classified drama or play into two major types:

  • A comedy is a type of drama that is intended to amuse, usually with a happy ending. The central character of a comedy is usually an ordinary character who faces conflicts that arise from misunderstandings or mistaken identities but overcomes them, and the play ends with a happy resolution.
  • A tragedy, on the other hand, is a drama that ends in the downfall of its main character. In ancient Greek drama, the main character, or tragic hero, is usually dignified and courageous and often high ranking. The hero’s downfall is caused by a tragic flaw, a mistaken action or weakness within the character. The hero’s downfall is meant to inspire audiences to examine their own lives, to define their beliefs, and to cleanse their emotions of pity and terror through compassion for the character.

While tragedy presents the heroic or moral struggle of an individual, comedy strives to entertain chiefly through criticism and ridicule of ordinary people’s weaknesses or of society itself.


What is Comedy?

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A play or literary work that ends happily and often makes us laugh is said to be a comedy. It usually deviates from the normal action or character, or thought, or speech in a funny manner though sometimes its purpose can be serious. While ancient Greek comedies were performed to show the humorous actions of one or more characters attempting to solve a problem, Shakespeare’s comedy often involves problems between lovers that are often created by elders.  Comedies often involve reversals, but the change is always for the better.

Consider this example:
A jolly little clown comes walking toward the other, slips over a banana peel, and falls to be hit in the face with a cream pie.

As long as no one is hurt, we find this to be funny.

The Laurel and Hardy series, the Charlie Chaplin series are all said to be great comedies of the modern era.

Comic hero: The main or central character in a comedy who displays a measure of comic sense can be termed a comic hero. He does not have to be the classical, flawless kind but needs to have enough personal appeal to relate to and gain the full approval of the audience.

An excellent example in this regard is that of Huckleberry Finn who is from a disadvantaged background, which moves the audience to be sympathetic. He is also fun-loving and innocent, it adds to his actions turning out comical and enthralling the reader.

One of the traditional characteristics of comedy: Unlike tragedy that deals mostly with kings, queens, and the nobility, comical plots deal with ordinary life situations and ordinary people. So in a comedy, we find people that we come across in everyday life such as porters, bakers, vagabond boys, butchers and so on; and we find problems and conflicts revolving around these characters.

Purpose of Comedy: Comedy not only entertains and keeps away depressing thoughts, but it also makes us aware of our own individual flaws or flaws that exist in the social or political scenario. In fact when making a mockery of the existing order or ourselves, by laughing at it, we are in reality laughing at ourselves.

Some of the greatest comedies of all times we find are in Shakespearean plays. 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. Some of his comedies are:
  • Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • The Comedy of Errors
  • As You Like It
  • The Tempest

Types of Comedy

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Burlesque: It is also called a travesty and is a form of satire that ridicules a subject as the style of speech or even writing. In theatrical entertainment, it was in a parody form that often involved comic skits.


To mock the chivalry and the outdated romantic ideals, Cervantes used burlesque in ‘Don Quixote’.
Black Humor or Dark comedy: It is a sub-genre of the satire and includes serious topics such as rape, murder, extra-marital affairs, domestic violence, death, and so on. These topics are treated in a satirical manner.


A modern example of such a work is ‘Harold and Maude’ by Colin Higgins which deals with the activities of a young man who is intrigued with death and who develops a relationship with an older woman.
Farce: Farce is a type of comedy that provokes laughter by placing flat characters in ridiculous situations. In this type of comedy, an author uses exaggeration, physical action, improbable events, different degrees of sophistication in the use of verbal humor, and word play to make the audience laugh. Farce is one way to make fun of human traits and social customs. 


In A Marriage Proposal, for example, Lomov says “Your mother limped!” It pokes fun at people’s urge to insult others when angry.
Satire: This form of writing uses humor, irony, or wit to expose and ridicule personal, social, or political failings, often in an effort to correct them. Writers use satire to poke fun at a person, a group of people, an attitude a social institution, even all of humanity. Though satiric writing is meant to evoke laughter, its main objective is to expose and eliminate human stupidity and wickedness, and it is always intensely moral in its purpose.


Mark Twain, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, satirizes whole spectrum of American life and the cruelty of human nature. The novel ultimately holds a moral: Twain is making us see things that should not be permitted to exist (slavery is one of them).
Romantic Comedy: This type of comedy centers on young lovers who want to marry despite parental and societal obstacles. At the end of such comedies, the young lovers triumph over the forces blocking them; the lovers marry, and everyone celebrates the renewal of life and love.


Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are perfect examples of this type of comedy.
Comedy of Manners: Comedy that satirically challenges the social customs of an upper-class society. It focuses on the behavior of men and women who violate the rules and manners of upper-class society.


A classic example of this type of comedy is ‘The Country Wife’ by William Wycherley. It ridicules the sexual duplicity of the aristocracy during the reign of Charles II.
Slapstick comedy: This is a form of low comedy that includes collisions, chases, and people doing silly things as tripping or falling over just to make others laugh. Noted comedian Charlie Chaplin used a lot of slapstick comedy.

All comedies, be it a satire or a silly joke have some common characteristics. Let us look at some of the most common elements:
  • Unbelievable: Often a comedy has an incongruous situation where something bizarre as a baker may be asked to diffuse a bomb or a cold and indifferent cop may be asked to take care of a baby. These situations do not seem probable, but the results it produces such as the blunders committed or the clumsiness can turn out to be very funny episodes. 
  • That is so true: Truths about everyday life are used as source material for great comedies. When audience find themselves in a setting, the joke becomes funnier.
  • Conflicts: Many comedies also use conflicts to establish a story. People in authority, class-bullies have been used as foils to the main character. When the audience is easily able to recognize the antagonists, they are better able to relate with the conflict and enjoy the story.
  • Surprise element: One of the main characteristics in a good comedy is the surprise element. Be it the punch line of a joke to the resolving problem of a mistaken identity, good comedy makes use of what we already know and turns it on its head.
  • Characters that is recognizable: Most comedies portray the hero with a flaw or two that makes him real and the audiences are able to relate to those flaws in themselves. Also, the character that is created by a heroine with flaws and from an average background is easily recognized by the audience and gains their sympathy.

Characteristics of Comedy

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Let us now examine some characteristics of comedy and characters in a comedy.
  • Complexity: Comic heroes seem to be more flexible. We find diversity in their lives and it is full of mess. Unexpected events keep occurring.
  • Disorder: The plots in a comedy mostly occur at random and are created with a lot of loose ends.
  • Searching for the unfamiliar: In a comedy, the comic heroes tend to view the unexpected or the surprise element as an opportunity for a comic act rather than a violation of a norm.
  • Ambiguity: Ambiguity makes humor possible irrespective of the fact that it may not make any sense. In a comedy, everything need not make sense.
  • Differed Thinking: A comedy stresses on playfulness and is more creative or imaginative and looks for a variety of answers though not needing to solve everything.
  • Incongruity: The comic effect arises from a recognition of some incongruity of speech, action, or character. Some kinds of incongruity in comedy are human shortcomings such as ignorance, ugliness, folly, and vice.
  • Detached Emotionally: Comic heroes are generally ironic and are somehow disconnected from the situation. They are creative in their response and do so with wit and cynicism. They tend to separate themselves from their misfortunes and the audience is expected to react according to what the characters go through.
  • Adaptability: The characters in a comic role are willing to change but if they are not, we, as the audience find this humorous and not tragic.
  • Pragmatic: Perceived through the vision of comedy, the realities are more concrete. Comic heroes seek to try and pull through from day- to- day.
  • Reversal: In comedies, the change in fortune was almost always for the better.
  • Light-hearted: Despite its serious side, large parts of life in a comedy are treated as something not serious.
  • Anti-heroism: The characters in a comedy are down- to- earth, normal individuals. Many comedies distort or insult authority.
  • Forgiveness: In a comedy there is forgiveness or even friendships that blossom from among former enemies.
  • Equality: A comedy includes people from all classes. Even if people of the lower strata may be the target of jokes, they still emerge triumphant in ways unexpected.
  • Authority Questioned: Comic heroes tend to question tradition and also those in authority.
  • Ethics based on situations: Comic heroes may make up rules as they go along according to the situations they are in and are mindful and cautious of generalizations.
  • Social integration: Comedies often focus on spending time on larger groups and communities.
Let us now look at characteristics unique to Shakespearean comedy.

The term “comedy” did not quite have the same meaning to the Elizabethan audience as it does for us today. While we do find some humor in the Shakespearean comedy plays, comedy referred to a light-hearted play that had a happy ending unlike the tragic or historical plays.

Some of the characteristics found in Shakespearean comedies include, mistaken identities, a battle of the sexes, and jumping to conclusions. These characteristics set apart the comedies from the tragedies. Shakespeare’s romantic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” is a tale of love, intrigue, and mistaken identity.

No matter what faults or dismay we may find within a comedy, the end is always a classic “and they lived happily ever after.”
Some of Shakespeare’s well-known comedies are: All's Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, Cymbeline, Love's Labour Lost, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Pericles Prince of Tyre, Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Troilus and Cressida, Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Winter's Tale and Measure for Measure.

Some of these works are really funny from start to finish but some, such as ‘The Merchant of Venice’, has a serious tone and some dramatic moments that are quite strong.

What are some common elements found in these plays?

  • Lovers struggle to overcome obstacles: Obstacles are brought about by the elders as parents or guardians in the play. The lovers are kept apart due to various circumstances and then they must overcome all obstacles in their relationship and unite
  • Mistaken Identity: This element was Shakespeare’s favorite as it is one of the most used plot devices in his plays. He also mixed up genders in his plays that led to many misunderstandings and comical situations in the plays. This is shown in Twelfth Night, the plot of which involves a pair of twins who are mistaken for each other, and this brings about a comic conflict throughout the play.
  • Plot twists: Shakespeare’s plays contain not just one plot but many plots intertwined with the main plot that keeps the audience gripped and guessing. The twists in the plots are always straightened out toward the end. 
  • Use of puns: Shakespeare was a master at word play. In fact his play on words is a distinguishing feature of his works. He uses puns and witty language in his comedies.
  • Typical Characters: Like many classical writers, Shakespeare relied on stock characters for his plays. The fool, the servant, the drunk and so on are characters that appear frequently in the comedies and these stereotypes were easily recognized by the Elizabethan audience.
  • Happy endings: All Shakespeare’s comedies end happily with love triumphing in the end and culminating in marriage to a pending marriage.
Thus in a comedy, we see that the accepted notion of things is turned upside down and becomes the basis of a play.
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