Shakespeare's comedies dramatize a remarkable variety of moods and characters. The tones range from the farcical to the gentle to the satirical, and the casts encompass royals, buffoons, and legions in between. Furthermore, all the plays have multiple plot lines in which events at one stratum of society reflect events at another. The works also have one unifying theme: love in all its myriad facets. In every play we watch men and women struggle with their own drives and emotions: sometimes trying to resist, sometimes trying to gain control, sometimes trying to understand. We see love in its purest, most spiritual form. And we hear about love in its lustiest, most physical aspects. Virtually all the plays conclude with marriages that not only maintain the social and political order, but that also exalt human passion.
The comedies are usually classified in three groups. The "early" plays, including the first five discussed here, are those in which Shakespeare is often judged to be exploring technique and character. These works are laden with elements of farce, i.e., humor based primarily on physical action and intricacies of plot. Some of the characters are subtle emotionally and intellectually, but by and large the depictions lack sophistication.
In the next five plays, the "mature" comedies, the characters are more complicated. Their attitudes, actions, and values are less obvious and the ramifications more profound. In addition, these plays are set against a social system that often invades the story, and the efforts of the characters to achieve happiness are often hindered by environmental conditions. Thus these works have greater intensity, and at times we feel a satiric attitude on the part of the playwright.
The final three comedies are the "problem" plays, written later in Shakespeare's career, and sometimes referred to as the "dark comedies" or "tragicomedies." They are classified together not by what they have in common but by the fact that each one differs in its own way from the other twelve comedies. These three plays are at moments funny, but their essential crises are grim, and the laughter is often cut off by painful turns of plot. The satire is powerful, and the targets are individual characters as well as societies at large. Two of these