What Is a Comedy? Types & Characteristics of Comedy

Updated on October 20, 2018
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Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a Master's degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

Definition of Comedy
Definition of Comedy | Source

Definition of Comedy

The word ‘Comedy’ has been derived the French word comdie, which in turn is taken from the Greeco-Latin word Comedia. The word comedia is made of two words komos, which means revel and aeidein means to sing.

According to Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, comedy means a branch of drama, which deals with everyday life and humourous events. It also means a play of light and amusing type of theatre. Comedy may be defined as a play with a happy ending. Renee M. Deacon defines comedy as “Comedy, considered in its essence, represents the forces of life as opposite to the forces of death, the latter, in a greater or less degree, forming the subject of tragedy.”

Function of Comedy

Though, there are many functions of comedy, yet the most important and visible function of comedy is to provide entertainment to the readers. The reader is forced to laugh at the follies of various characters in the comedy. Thus, he feels jubilant and forgets the humdrum life. George Meredith, in his Idea of Comedy, is of the view that comedy appeals to the intelligence unadulterated and unassuming, and targets our heads. In other words, comedy is an artificial play and its main function is to focus attention on what ails the world. Comedy is critical, but in its scourge of folly and vice. There is no contempt or anger in a comedy. He is also of the view that the laughter of a comedy is impersonal, polite and very near to a smile. Comedy exposes and ridicules stupidity and immorality, but without the wrath of the reformer.

“A tragedy is a tragedy, and at the bottom, all tragedies are stupid. Give me a choice and I'll take A Midsummer Night's Dream over Hamlet every time. Any fool with steady hands and a working set of lungs can build up a house of cards and then blow it down, but it takes a genius to make people laugh.”

— Stephen King

Kinds of Comedy

There are two kinds of comedy, Romantic Comedy and Classical Comedy

Classical Comedy

Classical comedy is a kind of comedy, wherein the author follows the classical rules of ancient Greek and Roman writers. It is modeled upon the classical comedies like Platus Terence and Aristophanes. The most important classical rules are:

  • The Three Unities of Time, Place and Time
  • Separation of comic and tragic elements i.e., comedy is comedy and tragedy is tragedy having no other element from each other. There is no mingling of comic and tragic elements in a classical comedy.
  • The aim of classical comedy is satiric in nature. It does not only aim at providing entertainment, rather, it aims at correcting the society.

Romantic Comedy

Romantic comedy is a type of comedy, wherein the playwright doesn’t follow the classical conventions of comedy. The writer is mostly concerned with his plight of imagination and writes what he thinks. There is mingling of comic and tragic elements unlike classical comedy, wherein only comic elements are included in a comedy. The three unities are thrown into the wind. Its aim is not didactic or morality. Its main function is to provide entertainment to the readers. Comedies of Shakespeare are romantic in nature.

Comedy of Humours

Comedy of humours is a special type of comedy, wherein the author dwells upon a certain trait of a character. Humour means a specific trait of a character, e.g., avarice, pride etc. The ancients believed that human body was made of four elements i.e., air, fire, water and earth. The increased quantity of any of these elements is called humour. It was supposed that every element stands for a certain trait of human character e.g., fire stands for ill-tempered nature, water stands for cold temperament, earth signifies down to earth nature, while air implies a lofty or showy temperament of human being. The comedy of humours satirizes the idiocies and idiosyncrasies, the flaws and evils of contemporary society, and his satire is generally abrasive and fierce. For example, Ben Johnson’s comedy Volpone is written upon avarice.

Comedy of Manners

Comedy of manners is a play, which deals with the elite class of the society and their manners. It is satirical in nature like the comedy of humours. Its main purpose is to bring about reforms in the society of his age. Such plays were popular in the Age of Restoration. Sheridan’s The Rivals and the plays of Congreve and Oliver Goldsmith are examples in this regard.

Definition of Comedy
Definition of Comedy | Source
The Rivals at the Abbey Theatre
The Rivals at the Abbey Theatre | Source

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Comedy of Errors

It is a comedy, wherein the author dwells upon errors on the part of characters. Every character is not aware of what is going on. Mostly, the error occurred due to mistaken identity and other means. It was imported from Rome. In the Roman age, such plays were written by Terrence. Comedy of Errors deals with sea-sorrow, separation of twins and mistaken identity. At the end of the play, the mystery is completely resolved and every one comes to know about the real situation. For example, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a perfect example in this regard. It deals with mistaken identity.

Sentimental Comedy

It is a special kind of comedy, wherein the author focuses on sentimental and emotional traits of characters. It is pertinent to mention here that this type of comedy came into being as a reaction to the 18th century Comedy of Manners. Such comedies were composed by Richard Steele, Hugh Kelley etc. But later on, the sentimental comedy went into background and the comedy of manners revived again.

Quinn Mattfeld (left) as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Aaron Galligan-Stierle as Feste, and Roderick Peeples as Sir Toby Belch in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of Twelfth Night. Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014.
Quinn Mattfeld (left) as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Aaron Galligan-Stierle as Feste, and Roderick Peeples as Sir Toby Belch in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of Twelfth Night. Utah Shakespeare Festival 2014. | Source

Comedy of Intrigues

It is a form of comedy, wherein the main focus is on the intrigues and so on plot rather than characters. It was imported from Spain as it was extremely famous over there. The comedy of intrigues got popularity in the age of Dryden.

Masque

It is a form of comedy, wherein the actors wear masks. It was imported to England from Italy and became popular in the Elizabethan age. Many writers have tried their hands on Masque, but Milton was more successful in dealing with Masque. His masque, Comus, is a perfect example in this regard.

Farce

It is a form of comedy, wherein the author concentrates on producing laughter. In such type of comedy, we can observe the use of episodes of low comedy. In Farce, a one-dimensional character is put into ludicrous situation to evoke maximum laughter. An example of Farce is Fielding’s The Author’s Farce.

© 2014 Muhammad Rafiq

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