Dramatic Sub-Genres

Ever since Aristotle’s Poetics, one distinguishes at least between two sub-genres of drama: comedy and tragedy (see also Genre in Basic Concepts). While comedy typically aims at entertaining the audience and making it laugh by reassuring them that no disaster will occur and that the outcome of possible conflicts will be positive for the characters involved, tragedy tries to raise the audience’s concern, to confront viewers with serious action and conflicts, which typically end in a catastrophe (usually involving the death of the protagonist and possibly others). Both comedy and tragedy have, in the course of literary history, developed further sub-genres of which the following list provides only an initial overview.

Types of Comedy

Sometimes, scholars distinguish between high comedy, which appeals to the intellect (comedy of ideas) and has a serious purpose (for example, to criticise), and low comedy, where greater emphasis is placed on situation comedy, slapstick and farce. Further sub-genres of comedy include:

Romantic Comedy

A pair of lovers and their struggle to come together is usually at the centre of this type of comedy. Romantic comedies also involve some extraordinary circumstances, e.g., magic, dreams, the fairy-world, etc. Examples are Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It.

Satiric Comedy

This type of comedy has a critical purpose. It usually attacks philosophical notions or political practices as well as general deviations from social norms by ridiculing characters. In other words: The aim is not to make people ‘laugh with’ the characters but ‘laugh at’ them. An early writer of satirical comedies was Aristophanes (450-385 BC), later examples include Ben Jonson’s Volpone and The Alchemists.

Comedy of Manners

The comedy of manners is also satirical in its outlook and it takes the artificial and sophisticated behaviour of the higher social classes under closer scrutiny. The plot usually revolves around love or some sort of amorous intrigue and the language is marked by witty repartees and cynicism. Ancient representatives of this form of comedy are Terence and Plautus, and the form reached its peak with the Restoration comedies of William Wycherley and William Congreve.


The farce typically provokes viewers to hearty laughter. It presents highly exaggerated and caricatured types of characters and often has an unlikely plot. Farces employ sexual mix-ups, verbal humour and physical comedy, and they formed a central part of the Italian commedia dell’arte. In English plays, farce usually appears as episodes in larger comical pieces, e.g., in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

Comedy of Humours

Ben Jonson developed this type of comedy, which is based on the assumption that a person’s character or temperament is determined by the predominance of one of four humours (i.e., body liquids): blood (= sanguine), phlegm (= phlegmatic), yellow bile (= choleric), black bile (= melancholic). In the comedy of humours, characters are marked by one of these predispositions which cause their eccentricity or distorted personality. An example is Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour.


Melodrama is a type of stage play which became popular in the 19th century. It mixes romantic or sensational plots with musical elements. Characters are often depicted as unusually virtuous or excessively viscious. Later, the musical elements were no longer considered essential. Melodrama aims at a violent appeal to audience emotions and usually has a happy ending.



high / low   comedy
romantic    comedy
satiric comedy
comedy of manners
comedia dell'arte
comedy of humours