William Shakespeare is known to have written thirty-seven plays, and of those thirty-seven, seventeen are considered comedies. He was very formulaic in his writing, and therefore most of his comedies share similar plot points, as well as types of characters.
If asked to describe a Shakespearean comedy, most people would include twins, weddings, and cross-dressing. While those do appear in his most popular plays, mistaken identity, separation, complex plotlines, and love, are also main aspects of a Shakespearean comedy.
The biggest feature that is prominent in Shakespeare’s comedies is the very thing that defines it as a comedy—ending with a wedding. Even if the play doesn’t end with a wedding scene, most end with a promise of a wedding, the implication that the characters are soon to be married, or an invitation to continue courtship. A fair number of the plays include double weddings, or even triple weddings, with multiple couples marrying over the course of the play and usually at the same time. Some of the marriages are love matches, but some happen only because someone made a deal with someone else, or because one character (usually the woman) has no real say in the matter. As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Twelfth Night are a few of the plays that contain multiple weddings. As You Like It also includes an instance of a wedding that takes place because two characters, Rosalind and Phoebe, made a deal, rather than because the characters who wed, Phoebe and Silvius, love each other.
Another often repeated feature of Shakespeare’s comedies is this aspect of love. Love is loosely defined, however. In some plays, “love” happens the instant one character sets eyes on the other. As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to name a few. In other plays, a character chases relentlessly after another character who is completely uninterested. This also happens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, as well as in Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Neither of these situations seem like they could possibly produce “true love,” but that is part of the comedy of it all. There is almost always outside interference as well, sometimes in support of the lovers and sometimes in opposition. The ridiculousness of instant love, one-sided love, and additional people trying to get involved almost always creates a humorous catastrophe.
Mistaken identity also shows up frequently. Usually it is due to cross-dressing, but is due to the instances of twins in Twelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors. (These are the only two plays that actually contain twins, though many people usually think there are more.) Sometimes the mistaken identity is on purpose, when a female character dresses as male. Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Viola in Twelfth Night, and Rosalind in As You Like It all put on men’s apparel with the intention of acting as a man. This was likely considered funny in Shakespeare’s time because men played all the parts, meaning that a man was playing a woman pretending to be a man. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Sir John Falstaff dresses as a woman, as does Bartholomew in The Taming of the Shrew, giving the audience a cross-dresser in the other direction.
Separation also occurs in several of Shakespeare’s comedies. In Twelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors, it happens to the sets of twins during a shipwreck. A shipwreck also separates several characters in The Tempest, which also includes the separation of a duke banished from his home. A banished duke also appears in As You Like It, wherein most characters end up lost in the forest, which also happens to multiple characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Touchstone in As You Like It, Maria in Twelfth Night, and Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are but a few examples of clever servants, who make frequent appearances in Shakespearean comedy. They are lower-class characters who end up playing a big role, usually by interfering with their masters’ love affairs. Frequent puns abound in every comedy, and we can always rely on these “witty servant” types to deliver the most, though all the characters use them.
Between the interfering servants, loves-at-first-sight, mistaken identities, and countless weddings, it’s no wonder the plots always end up being rather complex. Shakespeare combines these features, sometimes a few and sometimes all at once, into chaotic and hilarious scenes. This usually happens more in his most popular comedies, which is perhaps why they are the most popular. His lesser-known comedies include these same elements, but not to as extreme a degree. Not every single one of these elements is present in every single comedy, but these are the most used, and best recognized, as being integral to a Shakespearean comedy.