Comedy is a drama that provokes laughter at human behavior, usually involves romantic love, and usually has a happy ending. In Shakespeare's day the conventional comedy enacted the struggle of young lovers to surmount some difficulty, usually presented by their elders, and the play ended happily in marriage or the prospect of marriage. Sometimes the struggle was to bring separated lovers or family members together, and their reunion was the happy culmination (this often involved marriage also). Shakespeare generally observed these conventions, though his inventiveness within them yielded many variations.
Eighteen plays are generally included among Shakespeare's comedies. In approximate order of composition, they are Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, The, Loves Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, All's Well That Ends Well, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. These works are often divided into distinct subclasses reflecting the playwright's development. The first seven, all written before about 1598, are loosely classed as the 'early comedies', though they vary considerably in both quality and character. The last four of these—Loves Labour's Lost, the Dream, the Merchant, and the Merry Wives—are sometimes separated as a transitional group, or linked with the next three in a large 'middle comedies' classification. The Merry Wives is somewhat anomalous in any case; it represents a type of comedy—the 'city play', a speciality of suchwriters as Ben Jonson and Thomas Dekker—that Shakespeare did not otherwise write. The next three plays. Much Ado, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, are often thought to constitute Shakespeare's greatest achievement in comedy; all written around 1599-1600, they are called the romantic, or mature, comedies. The next group of three plays, called the Problem Plays, which include Alls Well that Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, and Measure for Measure that were written in the first years of the 17th century, as Shakespeare was simultaneously creating his greatest tragedies. The final cluster, all written between about 1607 and 1613, make up the bulk of the playwright's final period. They are known as the Romances which include Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and often The Two Noble Kinsman. (The problem plays and romances were intended to merge Tragedy and comedy in Tragicomedies. Many minor variations in this classification scheme are possible; indeed, the boundaries of the whole genre are not fixed, for Timon of Athens is often included among the comedies, and Troilus and Cressida is sometimes considered a tragedy.
Shakespeare's earliest comedies are similar to existing plays, reflecting his inexperience. The Comedy of Errors—thought by many scholars to be his first drama, though the dating of Shakespeare's early works is extremely difficult—is built on a play by the ancient Roman dramatist Plautus. Characteristically, Shakespeare enriched his source, but with material from another play by Plautus. The Subplot of The Taming of the Shrew was taken from a popular play of a generation earlier, and the main plot was well known in folklore, though the combination was ingeniously devised. The Two Gentlemen of Verona likewise deals with familiar literary material, treating it in the manner of John Lyly, the most successful comedy writer when Shakespeare began his career.
However, the young playwright soon found the confidence to experiment, and in Loves Labour's Lost, the Dream, and the Merchant, he created a group of unusual works that surely startled Elizabethan playgoers, though pleasurably, we may presume. In the first he created his own main plot and used a distinctively English variation on the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte traditions for a sub-plot. He thus produced a splendid array of comic situations. The play's abundant topical humor was certainly appreciated by the original audiences, although today we don't always know what it is about. In any case, the major characters are charming young lovers, the minor ones are droll eccentrics, and the closing coup de theatre, with which a darkening mood brings the work to a close, is a stunning innovation. Already, the eventual turn towards tragicomedy is foreshadowed. A Midsummer Night's Dream mingles motifs from many sources, but the story is again the playwright's own; moreover, the play's extraordinary combination of oddity and beauty was entirely unprecedented and has rarely been approximated since. The Merchant of Venice mixes a social theme, usury, into a conventional comedy plot to deepen the resonance of the final outcome as well as to vary the formula. Here, the threat that is finally averted is so dire as to generate an almost tragic mood, again anticipating developments later in the playwright's career.
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The mastery that Shakespeare had achieved by the late 1590s is reflected in the insouciance of the titles he gave his mature comedies (Twelfth Night's subtitle—'What You Will'—matches the others). That mastery is accompanied by a serious intent that is lacking in the earliest comedies. Shakespeare could not ignore the inherent poignancy in the contrast between life as it is lived and the escape from life represented by comedy. In Much Ado, as in The Merchant of Venice, a serious threat to life and happiness counters the froth of a romantic farce. Even in As You Like It, one of the most purely entertaining of Shakespeare's plays, the melancholy Jaques interposes his conviction that life is irredeemably corrupt. Feste’s song at the close of Twelfth Night gives touching expression to such sentiments, as he sends us from the theatre with the melancholy refrain, 'the rain it raineth every day' (5.1.391). We are not expected to take him too seriously, but we cannot avoid the realization that even the life of a jester may be a sad one. The mature comedies thus further a blending of comedy and tragedy.
In the end, however, all of Shakespeare's comedies, including the later problem plays and romances, are driven by love. Love in Shakespearean comedy is stronger than the inertia of custom, the power of evil, or the fortunes of chance and time. In all of these plays but one (Troilus and Cressida), the obstacles presented to love are triumphantly overcome, as conflicts are resolved and errors forgiven in a general aura of reconciliation and marital bliss at the play's close. Such intransigent characters as Shylock, Malvolio, and Don John, who choose not to act out of love, cannot be accommodated in this scheme, and they are carefully isolated from the action before the climax.
In their resolutions Shakespeare's comedies resemble the medieval Morality Play, which centeres on a sinful human who receives God's mercy. In these secular works, a human authority figure—Don Pedro or Duke Senior, for instance—is symbolically divine, the opponents of love are the representatives of sin, and all of the participants in the closing vignette partake of the play's love and forgiveness. Moreover, the context of marriage—at least alluded to at the close of all but Troilus and Cressida—is the cap-stone of the comedic solution, for these plays not only delight and entertain, they affirm, guaranteeing the future. Marriage, with its promise of offspring, reinvigorates society and transcends the purely personal element in sexual attraction and romantic love. Tragedy's focus on the individual makes death the central fact of life, but comedy, with its insistence on the ongoing process of love and sex and birth, confirms our awareness that life transcends the individual.
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