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The best Shakespeare comedies

The best Shakespeare comedies from laugh riots to mild chuckles

Which Shakespeare comedies leave us in stitches, verily? We rank the funniest, from As You Like It to Merchant of Venice.

Adam Feldman
Written by
David Cote
Adam Feldman

You’d think Shakespeare comedies would be as universal as his tragedies—but across the centuries, some don’t age well. It’s been that way since the ancient Greeks: Aristophanes would slay ’em at the amphitheater, but today, you’re lucky to hear the punch line above the snores. Shakespeare comedies do have basic, relatable features. First is verbal wit (punning, insults and bawdy badinage), which has lost some zing as word usage changed. Second is clowning: hard to appreciate since we have no visual record of the slapstick routines (we’re guessing lots mugging and falling down). Third is the sweetest of his humor tactics, and that’s romantic comedy. Often very charming, his rom-com is also subject to evolving attitudes about gender, sexuality and the patriarchy. And yet for all these qualifications, Shakespeare is funny. Really! Sure, his tragedies and histories dominate our favorite Shakespeare-to-screen adaptations, but in live performance, his farces can still sparkle. We could sit all day playing Fantasy Bard, casting these plays with the funniest New Yorkers. Below find our rankings of most comical to, well, not so much. Thanks to Theatre for a New Audience, Shakespeare’s Globe in London and the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park for lending us images of their side-splitting productions.

Best Shakespeare comedies

Twelfth Night
Photograph: Geraint Lewis

1. Twelfth Night

The title of Shakespeare’s greatest comedy refers to the Christmastide holiday also known as the Feast of the Epiphany, which has nothing to do with the plot of the play yet captures its spirit perfectly. Epiphanies abound in this feast of comic courtship, confused longing and gender-fluid romance. There’s something here to delight every palate, from the audaciously conceived central entanglement—which revolves around a pair of seemingly identical twins of different sexes—to unusually funny comic side plots and bittersweet notes of grief and resentment. Thanks to its beautiful calibration of elements, it is the kind of play that can seem as fresh the twelfth time you see it as the first.—Adam Feldman

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photograph: Joan Marcus

2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Who hasn’t been enchanted by the pastoral classic with woodland fairies, love-potion-addled youths and a group of blue-collar amateur thespians? A universally beloved confection of magic, rom-com and slapstick, Midsummer is one of Shakespeare’s most performed works, and one that has served as the “gateway play” to many an adult Bardaholic. Bottom, the bossy, stage-hogging “mechanical” (tradesman), is a juicy part for a comedian, and he only gets funnier when the fairy Puck transforms his human head into a donkey’s head. As for the lovers who get lost in the woods, there’s ample opportunity for bitchery, bickering and four-way slap fights.—David Cote

Much Ado About Nothing
Photograph: Joan Marcus

3. Much Ado About Nothing

“Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more” goes a lyric in Much Ado, and in a good production, you will find yourself sighing—as well as laughing plenty, too. This one has it all: sexual tension, flirtation, verbal zingers and (relatively) amusing clowns. The beautifully drawn love-hate relationship between tart-tongued Beatrice and blustery, confirmed bachelor Benedick is more engaging to modern audiences than the supposed main plot, which hinges on an elaborate scheme of decepiton and vicious slut-shaming. A precursor to screwball comedies of the next four centuries—from Howard Hawks to Judd Apatow and Tina Fallon—Much Ado inspires belly laughs and romantic sparks—often at the same time.—David Cote

As You Like It 
Photograph: Joan Marcus

4. As You Like It 

Perhaps no Shakespearean heroine has cast so deep a spell over critics, scholars and audiences as much as the intrepid central character of this forest comedy, Rosalind, who contends with Cleopatra for the title of the largest female role in Shakespeare. (She speaks a full quarter of the play’s lines.) Having fled to the Forest of Arden to escape persecution, Rosalind proceeds to educate her own suitor, Orlando, on how best to woo her—all the while dressed as a boy. Their mock courtship is a real courtship in disguise, in keeping with the play’s most famous line, spoken by the gloomy Jaques: “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”—Adam Feldman

The Tempest
Photograph: Marc Brenner

5. The Tempest

One of Shakespeare’s final plays, The Tempest conjures up equal parts magic and melancholy. It’s a weird, beautiful, deeply touching story, even if no one is rolling in the aisle. Exiled duke-turned-wizard Prospero inhabits an island with his daughter, Miranda, a half-man slave called Caliban and a fairy named Ariel. Postcolonial readings of the play are less than tickled by the clownish antics of shipwrecked fools Stephano and Trinculo, who get the discontented native Caliban drunk and lead him in a silly revolt against Prospero. We tend to classify it as a “romance,” one of Shakespeare’s valedictory works in which fathers and daughters are reconciled, love triumphs over death, and characters crave or receive forgiveness.—David Cote

The Merchant of Venice 
Photograph: Joan Marcus

6. The Merchant of Venice 

One of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” The Merchant of Venice play doesn’t have just any old problem: It has what we might call, with the full historical weight of the term, a Jewish problem. The bloodthirsty Jewish usurer Shylock overshadows the Christian characters, whose romantic antics continue for a full act after Shylock is banished, broken, from the stage. But although this purported comedy no longer strikes most people as funny, the depth and complexity of the writing has permitted generations of directors to reframe it as play about anti-Semitism, with Shylock depicted as flawed but often sympathetic figure whose forcible conversion no longer represents a happy ending.—Adam Feldman

The Winter’s Tale
Photograph: Marc Brenner

7. The Winter’s Tale

What a wild emotional ride is this bipolar parable of destruction and redemption, frost and bloom. The first three acts center on the Sicilian king Leontes, whose paranoid mistrust of his wife’s fidelity—he plays Iago to his own Othello—leads to tragedy: a false conviction, a child’s death and even, famously, a surprise bear attack. But just when all seems lost, the plays skips forward 16 years to a radically different mode of pastoral comedy, with music, dancing, young lovers and a roguish trickster. The famous finale, in which a statue appears to come to life, is a powerful metaphor for the reanimating powers of love, contrition and forgiveness.—Adam Feldman

The Comedy of Errors 
Photograph: Joan Marcus

8. The Comedy of Errors 

Shakespeare’s shortest play, and one of his first, The Comedy of Errors doesn’t have the poetic or dramatic depth of some of the Bard’s later work. What it does have is a spectacular farcical conceit: a pair of identical twins, both named Antipholus, with a pair of identical twin servants, both named Dromio, unaware of their doppelgängers and wreaking a havoc of confusion of mistaken identity everywhere they go. It’s all in the timing, and the play is constructed like a perfect cuckoo clock.—Adam Feldman

The Taming of the Shrew
Photograph: Joan Marcus

9. The Taming of the Shrew

The Bard’s battle-of-the-sexes comedy has some charm and lively banter, but it’s a laugh riot only to male-chauvinist sadists and self-hating women. Willful and hot-tempered Paduan maid Katherina is brought to heel by physical and mental torture devised by her bully of a husband, Petruchio. Shrew is basically a breezy tale about breaking a woman’s spirit for the good of the patriarchy. Even Othello and The Merchant of Venice try to complicate their racist plots. That being said, if you can stomach the misogyny, there is some extremely deft verbal sparring between Kate and Petruchio in their knock-down-drag-out Act II meeting.—David Cote

Measure for Measure
Photograph: Marc Brenner

10. Measure for Measure

The Duke of Vienna leaves the government in the hands of a puritanical judge named Angelo. Since the city is overrun with STD-spreading brothels, Angelo orders them torn down and ruthlessly prosecutes whores and pimps—even Claudio, a gentleman who got his girlfriend pregnant. When nun-in-training Isabella pleads for Claudio, Angelo agrees to spare the fornicator—if the nubile novice surrenders her virgin body. Measure is infamous for its Act V resolution, in which Angelo is tricked into sleeping with a woman he jilted at the altar (thinking she’s Isabella), then ordered to marry her by the Duke. As a final WTF, the Duke then pressures Isabella into marrying him. Anyone laughing yet?—David Cote

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