The Plays - The Comedies
William Shakespeare's plays come in many forms. There are histories, tragedies, comedies and tragicomedies. Among the most popular are the comedies which are full of laughter, irony, satire and wordplay.
Many times the question is asked: what makes a play a comedy instead of a tragedy? Comedies treat subjects lightly, meaning that they don't treat seriously such things as love. Shakespeare's comedies often use puns, metaphors and insults to provoke 'thoughtful laughter'. The action is often strained by artificiality, especially elaborate and contrived endings. Disguises and mistaken identities are often very common.
The plot is very important in Shakespeare's comedies. It is often very convoluted, twisted and confusing, and extremely hard to follow. Other character- istics of Shakespearean comedy are the themes of love and friendship, played within a courtly society. Songs - often sung by a jester or a fool, parallel the events of the plot. Foil and stock characters are often inserted into the storyline.
Love provides the main ingredient. If the lovers are unmarried when the play opens, they either have not met or there is some obstacle to their relationship. Examples of these obstacles are familiar to every reader of Shakespeare: the slanderous tongues which nearly wreck love in 'Much Ado About Nothing'; the father insistent upon his daughter marrying his choice, as in 'A Midsummer Nights Dream'; or the expulsion of the rightful Duke's daughter in 'As You Like It'.
Shakespeare uses many predictable patterns in his plays. The hero rarely appears in the opening lines; however, we hear about him from other characters. He often does not normally make an entrance for at least a few lines into the play, if not a whole scene. The hero is also virtuous and strong but always possesses a character flaw.
In the comedy itself, Shakespeare assumes that we know the basic plot and he jumps right into it with little or no explanation. Foreshadowing and foreboding are put in the play early and can be heard throughout the drama. All Shakespearean comedies have five acts. The climax of the play is always during the third act.
Shakespearean comedies also contain a wide variety of characters. Shakespeare often introduces a character and then discards him, never to be seen again during the play. Shakespeare's female leads are usually described as petite and often assume male disguises. Often, foul weather parallels the emotional state of the characters. The audience is often informed of events before the characters and when a future meeting is to take place it usually doesn't happen immediately. Character names are often clues to their roles and personalities, such as Malvolio from 'Twelfth Night' and Bottom in 'A Midsummer Nights Dream'.
Many themes are repeated throughout Shakespeare's comedies. One theme is the never-ending struggle between the the forces of good and evil. Another theme is that love has profound effects and that people often hide behind false faces.
The comedies themselves can be sub-categorised as tragicomedies, romantic comedies, comedies of justice and simple entertaining comedies with good wholesome fun.
'A Midsummer Night's Dream' was written in 1596. It has become one of Shakespeare's most fond comedies. It makes fun of everything from love at first sight to realistic staging. The play refers to "fair vestal throned by the west" which was once thought to have been a polite acknowledgement of the Queen's presence in the audience. The play was first printed in a quarto edition in 1600.
'Much Ado About Nothing' is a romantic comedy about a love relationship. It has a basic plot that's more orthodox than those of most of Shakespeare's plays. It's about two strong personalities who see each other as combatants rather than partners. The play exploits games of verbal punning and backchat between two reluctant lovers. 'Much Ado About Nothing' first appeared in a quarto 1599.
'Twelfth Night' is the most intricate of Shakespeare's great middle-period comedies. Written in 1601 it plays the familiar games of the time with boys playing girls who dress as boy pages. It is also filled with confusions of identity and memorable verbal put-downs. The play was not printed until the First Folio of 1623.
'The Winter's Tale' is a late tragicomedy written between 1609 -1610. It ranges through sixteen years in time, marked by the choric figure of Time himself and through a fantastic geographical range from Sicily to Bohemia. Shakespeare took this story, which shows the healing and restorative power of love, from an old romance. The play was printed originally in the First Folio of 1623.
'The Merry Wives of Windsor', written some time between 1597 and 1599, is the only comedy that Shakespeare set in his own time and country. For all the London scenes with Falstaff in the history plays, Shakespeare usually chose to set his comedies abroad. The use of local settings was still very new in the plays of this time. The play is an exciting piece of work, full of eccentric characters and slapstick comedy. The play first appeared in a memorial version in 1602 written down largely from memory. A better text appeared in the First Folio.