Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

Comedy in Drama

Comedy in Drama

Who doesn't like to laugh? Do you often read or watch something funny to relax after a long day? Read on to find out about the origin of TikToks and Rom-Coms! Comedy in drama is a genre that goes as far back as Ancient Greece.

Comedy in drama: definition

Let's take a look at the definition of comedy in drama:

Comedy is a genre of drama that has the purpose to amuse and entertain. Comedies typically involve misunderstandings that lead to funny situations. Most comedies also incorporate romance and end happily with a marriage.

The aim of comedy is to make people laugh. Comedy can be light-hearted and make people happy but it can also be a means to expose issues in society by ridiculing them. Most comedies include convoluted and even ridiculous situations that the protagonist(s) find themselves in before they get their happy ending. It is also very common for comedies to involve romance, love and marriages.

History of Western comedy in drama

Let's explore the history of comedy in the West!

Origins

Western drama originated around the 6th century BC in the city-state of Athens, in Classical Greece (5th-4th centuries BC). More specifically, the first forms of Western theatre appeared at the City Dionysia festival. People would celebrate the god Dionysus by singing a hymn called dithyrambs. Later, the singing turned into more coherent performed stories that were eventually split into two genres – comedy and tragedy.

The earliest surviving text that defines the characteristics of both tragedy and comedy is Poetics (c. 335 BC) by Aristotle. According to Aristotle, comedy should show people as worse than they are in real life. In this way, by making the audience laugh at the exaggerated flaws of people, a comedy can teach valuable lessons. Aristotle also believed that comedy is needed because it makes people happy. For him, to reach happiness was to reach an ideal state. To this day, many comedies follow Aristotle's concept of the three unities of drama which is also referred to as the unity of time, place and action. This means that that time, place and action in a play should be connected in a linear and logical way. Ideally, the story would take place within the time frame of 24 hours with no time jumps. The scenes should happen in one place only. The action should consist of events that are logically connected.

Another Greek philosopher, Plato, also shared his theory on comedy. Unlike Aristotle, Plato perceived comedy as unnecessary and as an obstacle to rationality and self-control.

Who would you side with – Aristotle or Plato? Do you find that comedy adds value to your life or do you think it brings out the worst in people?

Comedy was more clearly established as a genre by the Classical Greek dramatist Aristophanes. In his works, Aristophanes used satire and humour to explore the behaviour of people in society. These are traits that we still associate with comedy today.

Lysistrata (411 BC) is the most famous comedy by Aristophanes.

Beyond Classical Greece

Now we will look at the evolution of Western comedy through the ages and at the development of comedy specifically in English literature.

Western Comedy in Classical Rome

In the Classical Roman Period in literature (200 BC–455 CE), the comedies were adaptations of Greek comedies or Greek tales.

Asinaria (date unknown) by the Roman playwright Plautus is set in Athens and features Greek characters adapted for Roman audiences.

Comedy in the Medieval Period

In the Middle Ages, the prevalent genres in theatre were religion-oriented – morality plays and mystery plays. Still, there was a form of comedy called elegiac comedy.

Morality play is a type of medieval religious play which teaches moral lessons and good behaviour that are in accordance with the Church. This is done through the introduction of abstract characters who represent certain concepts such as the everyman, good deeds, and death.

Mystery play is a type of medieval play that presents stories from the Bible.

Elegiac comedy is a genre of medieval drama that is written in Latin. It's generally labelled as comedy although this has been debated because it doesn't have a strictly comedic style. Elegiac comedies are written in high style and in elegiac couplets (a poetic form that was first used by Classical Greek poets and then by Classical Roman poets).

Elegiac comedies were often inspired by Roman plays which, as we've mentioned, were adapted from Greek texts and themes.

Geta (12th century) by Vitalis of Blois is an elegiac comedy that is based on Amphitryon (date unknown) by the Roman playwright Plautus. The play follows the general Amphitryon whose wife Alcmena is tricked by the god Jupiter from Roman mythology (known as Zeus in Greek mythology). Jupiter pretends to be Amphitryon to sleep with Alcmena and this leads to Alcmena giving birth to the hero Hercules.

Another form of comedy that emerged during the Middle Ages and continued to be performed during the Renaissance is farce.

Farce is a type of comedy that uses exaggeration and physical humour to present unrealistic, absurd and ridiculous situations.

Comedy in the Renaissance

Comedy thrived in the Renaissance. Commedia dell'arte developed in Italy in the 16th century and it remained popular across Europe until the 18th century. Theatre in other European countries, such as Britain, Germany and France, used elements and characters from commedia dell'arte and adapted them into their own cultural contexts.

Commedia dell'arte is a form of comedy that uses improvisation to portray an ensemble of character tropes: Arlecchino (Harlequin), Innamorati (the lovers), Pantalone (Pantaloon), Colombina, and Pierrot, among others. The stories told through commedia dell'arte were usually based on commedia erudita (literary drama).

Las Spagnolas (1549) by Andrea Calmo.

Comedy in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries

In the 19th century, the most popular forms of comedy were the ones that involved the use of slapstick.

Slapstick is a type of humour which tends to be very physical in an exaggerated way.

Vaudeville emerged at the end of the 19th century in France and it soon took over the rest of Europe and the United States. It was at the height of its popularity until the 1930s.

Vaudeville is a genre of comedy which has the purpose to entertain and doesn't aim to send a moral message of any kind. Vaudeville performances involve music and dance.

Later in the 20th century, in the aftermath of the two world wars, comedy changed from primarily being a source of entertainment to addressing more serious subjects such as the meaning of existence. The most prevalent genre that used humour to question the purpose of human existence is the Theatre of the absurd.

The Theatre of the Absurd is a genre of drama that was started by European playwrights in the 1950s. Plays in this genre are 'absurd' and seemingly illogical. The purpose of the plot is not the classic conflict and resolution but an expression of existentialism that asks questions about the meaning (or lack thereof) of human existence. Plays categorised within the Theatre of the Absurd usually have a round narrative structure, meaning that they end in the same way they started.

The Bald Soprano (1950) by Eugène Ionesco

Nowadays, comedy continues to be a beloved genre for theatre-goers in the West. When writing a comedy, a contemporary playwright can choose to incorporate elements from different types of comedy, depending on what is suitable in the context of their work.

Comedy in Drama in English literature

During the Renaissance in Britain, the most popular comedy author was William Shakespeare. He wrote the type of comedy that we now call classic romantic drama or classic romantic comedy. Some of the famous Shakespearean comedies include Much Ado About Nothing (1598–99), Twelfth Night (1601–02), and The Tempest (1611). Read on to learn more about these genres in the next section!

The British pantomime and the Punch-and-Judy show were other forms of comedy that emerged at the time, inspired by commedia dell'arte.

Pantomime is a type of British comedy which involves music and slapstick. It's usually based on a fairytale or another kind of nursery tale. Pantomimes between the 17th and the 19th century often involved harlequinade – a part of the show that revolves around the commedia dell'arte character Harlequin.

The Punch-and-Judy show is a type of British comedy. It is a puppet show performed by a single puppeteer that features the characters Mr Punch and Judy. Punch is based on the commedia dell'arte character Pulcinella.

In the 18th century, the most prevalent genres of comedy in Britain were comedy of manners and satire. We will explore these in the next section!

In the 19th century vaudeville was immensely popular both in Britain and in the United States. While in America, it was still called vaudeville, in Britain it went by the name of variety and it was performed in the so-called music halls. Another comedic genre that emerged was the drawing room comedy.

Drawing room comedy is a type of comedy that occurred during the Victorian period in Britain. Drawing room comedies feature characters from upper class society and the action usually takes place in a drawing room which is where the name comes from.

The most famous drawing room comedy is The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) by Oscar Wilde.

In the 20th century, absurdist comedy was also prevalent in English literature. Famous playwrights who wrote in this genre include Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.

Waiting for Godot (1953) by Samuel Beckett

The Birthday Party (19567) by Harold Pinter

Types of comedy in drama

There are three main types of comedy in drama: classical romantic drama, satire, and comedy of manners.

Classic romantic drama

Classic romantic drama or classic romantic comedy is a type of comedy which depicts an idyllic world. Classic romantic dramas usually involve young lovers who go through some confusing and funny predicaments before they end up happily married. Classic romantic dramas are set in pastoral places, such as a forest in the spring or an island overlooking the sea, and they often include some kind of magic and mischief.

Satire

Satire is a type of comedy that criticises and ridicules human behaviour. Satire achieves comedic effect but it also provides serious comments on different issues in society. Playwrights throughout the centuries have used satire to tell uncomfortable truths about society and the human world in a comfortable way – through laughter.

Comedy of manners

Comedy of manners is a type of comedy which uses witty and sophisticated language to make fun of the manners of a particular social group, often high society and upper social classes. Comedy of manners incorporate satire but they are not entirely satirical plays. Performances of comedies of manners often aim to expose the flaws of the audience. This means that the behaviour of the characters resembles the way people act in social situations.

Examples of comedy in drama

Now we will look at some examples of the three main types of comedy in drama.

Classic romantic drama was most common during the Renaissance, the most famous dramatist who wrote in this genre being William Shakespeare.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1605) by Shakespeare is a classic romantic drama in which two pairs of young lovers get lost in a magical forest where they are tricked by fairies.

Satire was at the height of its popularity from the 17th to the 19th century and it remains popular today.

Volpone (1606) by Ben Jonson is a satirical comedy that follows a man who tricks people out of their money. The play criticises greed through the means of satire.

Comedy of manners was an important genre from the late 17th century into the 18th century.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777) is a comedy of manners that revolves around two brothers. One of them is exposed to be a hypocrite who keeps up pretences in the face of society while the other one gets a happy ending as a reward for being truthful.

Aspects and elements of comedy in drama

We've discussed that there is a wide range of different types, genres and styles of comedy. But how can we know for sure that the play we're reading or watching is a comedy? Most comedies, regardless of their type and age, feature common aspects or elements:

  • A satire or a parody of the behaviour of people in society – Comedies point out our flaws by making fun of them.

  • The protagonist's journey towards happiness – The protagonist in a comedy might go through some obstacles but eventually they reach their happy ending, be it marrying the person they love or finding a fortune of some kind.

  • Comic exaggeration – Comedies use exaggeration to highlight certain details and to make them funnier for the audience.

  • A comic villain – If a comedy features a villain, they are not actually scary or dangerous but funny. The comic villain is someone whose evil plans fail and the only thing they achieve is embarrassing themselves.

  • Disguise and other elements that cause confusion – A comedy involves many situations that are funny because some level of confusion and chaos is caused.

  • The use of wordplay – The language of comedy is usually very witty and it involves wordplay.

Comedy in Drama - Key takeaways

  • Comedy is a genre in drama that aims to amuse and entertain. Comedy can also expose people's flaws and issues in society by making fun of them.
  • Western comedy originated in Classical Greece. The two main theories about comedy in Classical Greece were held by Aristotle and Plato.
  • Western comedy evolved through the ages. Today, when writing a comedy, a contemporary playwright can choose to incorporate elements from different types of comedy.
  • The three main types of comedy are: classical romantic drama, satire, and comedy of manners.
  • Some of the aspects of comedy are: a satire or a parody of the behaviour of people in society, the protagonist's journey towards happiness, comic exaggeration, a comic villain, disguise, the use of wordplay.

Frequently Asked Questions about Comedy in Drama

Comedy is a genre of drama that has the purpose to amuse and entertain. Comedies typically involve misunderstandings that lead to funny situations. Most comedies also incorporate romance and end happily with a marriage.

William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1605) and The School for Scandal (1777) by Richard Brinsley Sheridan are examples of comedy in drama.

Comedy in drama can feature different aspects, such as a parody of the behaviour of people in society, comic exaggeration, disguise, and the use of wordplay.

Through the ages, comedy has had two main purposes – to entertain and make people laugh, and to expose issues in society. This can be traced back to Aristotle. According to Aristotle, the purpose of comedy is to show people as worse than they are in real life. In this way, by making the audience laugh at the exaggerated flaws of people, a comedy can teach valuable lessons. Aristotle also believed that comedy makes people happy which, for him, was an ideal state. 

Comedy in drama is a wide genre and it can cover many themes that vary from romance to exposing hypocrisy in society.

Final Comedy in Drama Quiz

Question

True or false: the protagonist in a comedy doesn't get a happy ending.

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

True or false: the purpose of comedy in drama is to amuse and entertain.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Which Classical Greek dramatist established comedy as a genre?

Show answer

Answer

 Aristophanes

Show question

Question

According to Plato comedy is...

Show answer

Answer

an obstacle to rationality and self-control


Show question

Question

Which British form of comedy is NOT inspired by commedia dell'arte?

Show answer

Answer

Drawing room comedy

Show question

Question

Who is the most famous writer of classic romantic drama?

Show answer

Answer

 William Shakespeare

Show question

Question

Variety is the British equivalent of...

Show answer

Answer

 vaudeville

Show question

Question

True or false: comedy of manners uses witty and sophisticated language.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

True or false: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1605) is a satirical comedy.

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

Which of these is an aspect of comedy?

Show answer

Answer

 A parody of the behaviour of people in society

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the Comedy in Drama quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.