Can you remember the first time you laughed during a Shakespeare play? Like, absolutely cackled at something—so much you forgot the writer had been dead for 400 years? It’s a special moment: one where you discover that Shakespeare wasn’t just an old white dude you had to read in school. He was funny, he enjoyed humour (often corny and crass) and wrote some cracking characters as fun to play as they are to watch. When it comes to the best Shakespeare comedy roles, there are almost too many to choose from! But us theatre nerds, right here at StageMilk, put our heads together and chose a list of ten.
This article is a list of the top ten best Shakespeare comedy roles. We’ll look at a vast selection of characters who show up in an array of his plays—not just the “comedies”—and examine what they can offer to audience and actor alike.
As always, this list is purely our own opinion: our personal favourites, the ones who made us laugh all those years ago the first time we discovered them. If you disagree, or you think a certain exclusion is too much to ignore, let us know! Get in touch and we’ll do all we can to right this injustice.
#1 Beatrice (from Much Ado About Nothing)
“I thank god and my cold blood I am of your humour for that. I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.”
She is wit, she is smarts, she is passion. Beatrice, as far as characters go, is the full package (also ending up at #3 on our list of Best Shakespeare Characters.) She brings levity and heart to the at-times bogged-down politics of Much Ado About Nothing, sparring with her friend/enemy/crush Benedick as she wrestles with the feelings that develop between them. However, despite these affections brewing, she also fears that such feelings will cost her independence and identity. It’s a surprisingly complex characterisation for somebody who could easily give in to their emotions and fulfil the action of the plot.
Beatrice is often labelled as a ‘proto-feminist’ Shakespearean character. She exhibits unusual traits for a female character written at the time. In addition, her actions in the later part of the play can be read as a challenging of conventional masculinity and chivalry. Famously, Beatrice asks Benedick to kill his best friend Claudio after humiliating a friend of hers. While some scholars have interpreted this request as needlessly cruel, there is a way to view this action as Beatrice highlighting the inherent flaws in the chivalric system. And how ‘real men’ are more than the beckons of the hegemonic system that props them up.
For some quick wit and wisdom from Beatrice: Beatrice Monologue: Much Ado About Nothing Act 3 Scene 1
#2 Sir John Falstaff (from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, The Merry Wives of Windsor)
“Hal, if I tell thee a lie, spit in my face, call me a horse.”
Falstaff is an incomparable lout, drinker and petty criminal, who doles out terrible advice and questionable schemes to his adoring cohort of reprobates. Among them, however, is Hal—future King of England—who looks up to Falstaff as a sort of demented father figure. Sounds awful, no? Well Falstaff is also one of Shakespeare’s most vibrant and lovable characters, who lives life to the fullest and brings vitality with him every time he steps on stage. While his morality and courage is questionable, he is a charismatic figure in the landscape of Henry IV, and an important influence on the future king’s life. His death, as described in detail during Henry V, speaks to the love his friends (and his creator) had for him.
And a quick note about The Merry Wives of Windsor: the story goes that Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed Falstaff’s schemes so much she requested a play in which he falls in love. Talk about fan service… This has been debated by scholars and critics ever since (scrutinising the timeline and plots of the Henry plays), but it’s too good a tale not to repeat in this context. Suffice to say,
#3 Bottom (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
“What do you see? You see an ass head of your own, do
Of all the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Nick Bottom—weaver, ac-tor, donkey—endures a particularly wild journey through the play. When we first meet him, he is dominating a cast meeting of his amateur theatrical troupe The Mechanicals, insisting he is perfect for every single part. Next, he takes a nap in a forest, gets turned into an ass and is seduced by Titania, queen of the fairies. And while you’d think his story would end with him being changed back to a human, Bottom acts like a true professional and performs the play-within-a-play at the climactic wedding scene. Enthusiastically, if not brilliantly.
Bottom and his band of thespian misfits bring much-needed, grounded humanity to a play that threatens to run off into fantasy or sex farce in its other plot threads. Indeed: every one of his castmates belong on this list, as their meeting reads like a scene from The Office. And in some ways, this is what makes their humour so triumphant; they might seem ridiculous, but it comes from a place of real. Any actor experiencing Midsummer will recognise Bottom as a friend of theirs … or themselves.
#4 Viola (from Twelfth Night)
“O time, thou must untangle this, not I.”
Strap in, folks. This play is a high-concept romp full of farce and mistaken identity. Viola, shipwrecked and far from home, assumes the identity of a man she names Cesario, in order to find work with the local Duke Orsino. Viola falls for this handsome noble, but he only has eyes for the Countess Olivia. But when he sends “Cesario” to the Countess to convey his feelings, she falls madly in love with Viola’s clever disguise. And this is just one of the play’s many surreal happenings.
Twelfth Night is a perfect example of Shakespeare’s love of contrived, situational comedy. In the hands of a lesser writer, the last three words in the previous sentence should scare discerning audiences away (and with good reason). But Shakespeare was forever smart, grounding such ridiculousness in plot with rounded, relatable characters. Viola’s reactions to her own maddening situation feel like a fourth-wall-break from any beloved modern sitcom; her intelligence and wit mark her as not only one of Shakespeare’s best comedy roles, but one of his best characters hands down.
For a snippet of Viola’s schemes catching up with her: Viola Monologue (Act 2, Scene 2)
#5 Kate (from The Taming of the Shrew)
“Why sir, I trust I may have leave to speak,
And speak I will.”
Katherina “Kate” Minola is the worst thing one could possibly imagine in Renaissance Padua: an assertive, independent woman who disdains the notion of marriage. She finds herself at the centre of a plot spun by a man who hopes to woo her younger sister (provided Kate is married off first). She marries a man named Petruchio, who tries his best to ‘tame’ the ‘shrew’ so that their marriage might work and he can inherit her father’s riches. But not all men, right?
The Taming of the Shrew is a divisive play in Shakespeare’s canon. Some scholars even suggest Shakespeare would have been accused of sexism at the time of its first production—which is to say nothing of its reception now! We’re not here to defend the play, simply to celebrate the brilliance of a comic character whose wits are so perfectly displayed. In modern productions, Kate’s views and intelligence only serve to ingratiate her further with the audience; contemporary actors often perform her final, famous speech about women obeying their husbands with irony, sarcasm. It is not her husband that has tamed Kate, but the other way around. And while the play might belong in the bin, a feminist retelling of the work on film remains one of the best Shakespeare film adaptations.
#6 Mercutio (from Romeo and Juliet)
“True, I talk of dreams, Which are the children of an idle brain…”
Mercutio is the free-wheeling best friend of Romeo Montague—the fun one in the friend group always up for crashing a party of a sworn enemy. He doesn’t appear in the play for long, but his friendship helps to guide Romeo through his matters of the heart. In the first scene of Act III, Mercutio’s murder at the hands of Juliet’s cousin Tybalt represents the ‘death’ of the play as a comedy as well. Until this moment, it follows a similar trajectory to any of Shakespeare’s comedy plays. But with the literal death of the life of the party, the action turns and the tragedy unfolds.
Mercutio is the second character on this list that isn’t strictly in a comedy. But in the landscape of Romeo and Juliet‘s teen angst, impulsive weddings and respectable body count, Mercutio is a breath of fresh air. He’s the lovable best friend of the title character, he’s quick-witted and brings levity to proceedings. And when he’s gone, the audience mourns him just as Romeo does.
For a snippet of Mercutio’s unhinged ranting on love: Mercutio Monologue (Act 1, Scene 4)
#7 Dogberry (from Much Ado About Nothing)
“A good old man, sir; he will be talking: as they say, when the age is in, the wit is out: God help us!”
In Much Ado About Nothing, Dogberry is the highly inept, wildly self-important constable of Messina. Somehow placed in charge of the citizen militia, he instructs his fellow volunteers terribly. He tells them to sleep on the job and never to attempt to stop a crime for fear it may taint the officer in question. Despite his incompetence, he manages to fail forward throughout the play, even arresting one of the its villains after a farcical court scene.
Dogberry is one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated comedic characters. The role was originally written for one of his regular collaborators, William Kempe. It has since been played by Samuel Johnson, John Woodvine, Michael Keaton and Nathan Fillion. The character’s name has even been adopted into English vernacular as “dogberryism”, referring to a malapropism in which one word is mistaken for a similar-sounding other: “Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this.” (swapping “damnation” for “redemption”.)
#8 Nurse (from Romeo and Juliet)
““Yea,” quoth he, “dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit…”
Juliet’s Nurse in Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the most kind and nurturing character in the play—if not in all of Shakespeare’s works. She’s more a mother to the young heroine than Juliet’s own, and offers sensible, loving advice to her young charge. Despite this, she proves to be an entertaining and joyous presence in the lives of those around her. In one notable scene, the Nurse takes a note from Juliet to Romeo and is harassed by Romeo’s friends; rather than back down, she shares an exchange of banter with Mercutio (knowing more than she should about the lyrics of a rude song) and wins the boys’ respect.
One of the great things about Nurse for any actor portraying her is how versatile she can prove to be in performance. She can be played shrewd and sarcastic as much as older and dottery. She can be doting, firm, grumpy or eccentric. A little script analysis of the text reveals a lot about her life: a child she’s lost, and how she knows Juliet better than her parents. It goes a long way to bring depth to this character—who might otherwise have fallen into the background with less memorable characters.
#9 The Gravediggers (from Hamlet)
“What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?”
Technically a pair of characters, we’ll count them together in our number nine entry. The Gravediggers appear once in Hamlet, in the penultimate scene where they dig a grave for Hamlet’s deceased love Ophelia. As they dig, they argue about whether or not she deserves a Christian burial as she died from suspected suicide; however, this topic is quickly lost as they riddle and joke with each other. Hamlet soon arrives and observes them, when the second gravedigger leaves Hamlet confronts the first about whose grave is being dug. Their conversation turns to the nature of life and death, and how all humans will eventually be buried and gone.
There is a fascinating layer of the absurd to the characters of the gravediggers. They feel more like they belong in a Samuel Beckett play than in a work of Shakespeare, as their commentary on the nature of life and death and the madness of Hamlet (as they know him not by sight) feels almost like a meta-commentary. And while the setting of the scene is macabre, their presence still lifts the sombre tone of the play with some beautifully deployed gallows humour.
#10 Hamlet (from Hamlet)
“I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is
southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.”
“Hamlet? On this list? Really? Can you check again?” Trust us: Hamlet is a funny character. He’s intelligent, quick-witted and (let’s be honest) hella dramatic. His plan for revenge—to topple his uncle who murdered his father and married his mother—isn’t exactly direct. It involves feigning madness, putting on a play and a lot of screwing around. In his ‘mad performance’, he jests and clowns and carries on, which is doubly enjoyable for audiences who are in on his ‘joke’. This also helps to offset the more serious and tragic elements of the play.
Much like the gravediggers he encounters in Act V, Hamlet’s antics feel more absurd than they do blatantly comical. You could almost argue that this is why he is such an enduring, enigmatic character. He reacts strangely, not as a perfect hero should. And this serves to complexify his character—and how he deals with trauma and grief. Despite the tragic circumstance, Hamlet is most definitely laughing. It’s just a matter of whether or not the world laughs with him.
For a glimpse into the lighter side of Hamlet, check out: Hamlet’s Advice to the Players
So there you have it! Ten of the best Shakespeare comedy roles designed to make us laugh. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the genius of his comic writing. There are always new characters to discover, and old ones to return to and re-evaluate. Keep looking for them, as you will find them in the most unlikely places.