What in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream makes it a dark comedy?
The term "dark comedy" was coined by literary critics to classify Shakespeare's comedies that are considered problem plays, having both elements of comedy, but also dealing with darker subject mater, such as social problems. The problem plays also may not have completely satisfactory or fully happy endings. Instead, readers or viewers are left contemplating the deeper issues the play has raised. Dark comedies are recognized as satirical due to the fact that they examine and ridicule human folly.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is certainly satirical, and in that sense, can be recognized as a dark comedy. Puck expresses the satire found in the play best when he says his famous line, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!" (III.ii.116). The darker social issues, or human folly, that the play ridicules or exposes particularly are gender roles and male dominance. In fact, Shakespeare portrays some of the male heroes as being outright abusive. We especially see one instance of this in Demetrius's treatment of Helena. When Helena follows Demetrius into the woods in the second act, he outright threatens to abuse and rape her. We see him threatening her with physical violence in the lines, "Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit; / For I am sick when I do look on thee" (II.ii.215-216). We further see him threatening her with rape in the lines:
You do impeach your modesty too much
To leave the city and commit yourself
into the hands of one that loves you not;
To trust the opportunity of night,
With the rich worth of your virginity. (218-223)
These references to her modesty and virginity in connection with the fact that they are alone in a deserted wood are clear threats of rape. Hence, Shakespeare is using Demetrius's treatment of Helena to mock human folly and to point out the social injustice of men's treatment of all women, making this a dark comedy.
Not only does Demetrius threaten Helena, Helena accepts his threats with gracious submissiveness and obedience. She even encourages him to abuse her in the lines, "I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius, / The more you beat me, I will fawn on you" (207-208). These lines of Helena's are farcical because they are humorous while also poking fun at abusive male/female relationships. The farce Shakespeare uses in the play makes it satirical, which also makes it a dark comedy. Also, while these lines of Helena's are funny, they are also very dark, showing us that not only is the play satirical, it also deals with the dark social injustice of abusive relationships. Since the play deals with dark material, we can say that it is a dark comedy.