Shakespeare wrote humour into all his plays and one of the vehicles of that is character. This article picks out Shakespeare’s funniest characters across all of his plays (though perhaps surprisingly, not all these characters come from one of Shakespeare’s comedy plays!).
Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences expected certain things when they went to the theatre. They wanted violence, they wanted a love story somewhere in the play, and above all they wanted to be entertained with humour. There was a lot more to laugh at in a Shakespeare play than we realise today, because the English language has changed quite a bit and many of the jokes and puns are lost to the modern audience.
The pronunciation of English is much more diverse around the world than it was in Elizabethan London and many of Shakespeare’s puns don’t make much sense to us because some words that used to rhyme don’t anymore. For example, the word ‘nothing’ was pronounced ‘noting’ and so the title ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ misses its other meaning today. The play is largely about the way we see and hear things and the plot revolves around characters misreading the things they see and hear. The Elizabethan audience would have been aware that they were going to see a play with that dimension as soon as they read the title. It is something that has to be explained to us today. Many of the jokes in Shakespeare are based on puns that would have had the audience rolling about, but which we often miss.
So, in no particular order, here’s our pick of Shakespeare’s funniest characters:
Much Ado About Nothing
Dogberry has entertained generations of audiences with his malapropisms and pompous demeanour as chief of the Watch – the voluntary civilian police in Messina. The Watch itself is funny, as Shakespeare is to some extent satirizing the state of Elizabethan law enforcement. The men of the Elizabethan Watch were notorious for going to sleep while on duty and also for doing their best to avoid the criminals they were supposed to be apprehending. Shakespeare has this absurd figure briefing his men at the beginning of their duty stint telling them that it’s alright to have a sleep during their watch, and also that if they come across a thief they should avoid touching him lest they are contaminated by their association with crime.
Dogberry is a funny character. He has no understanding of the law or of the things that are going on around him but he knows the procedures used in conducting the business of the Watch. His application of his misunderstandings and ignorance of those formal procedures has a great comic effect. He is filled with a sense of his importance as chief of the Watch, and in pitching that against the Watch’s ineffectual performance Shakespeare creates another source of comedy. That Dogberry is instrumental in the uncovering of the villainous plot that is central to the play is co-incidental, and nothing to do with Dogberry’s efforts, which expose him as a laughable figure.
What makes Dogberry particularly memorable, though, is his eccentric use of language. He speaks slowly and deliberately, believing that he is uttering great profundities but just about everything he says is laughable. Here is the exchange when the Watch brings the villains to Don Pedro.
Don Pedro: Officers, what offense have these men done?
Dogberry: Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly; they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.
Dogberry makes himself a laughing stock among the other characters by such utterances as the following:
‘One word, sir: our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two aspicious persons.’
‘Comparisons are odorous.’
‘Is our whole dissembly appeared?’
‘O villain! Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this.’
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
It is Bottom’s silliness that makes him particularly funny. He is a member of an Athenian drama group hoping to mount a play to celebrate the marriage of the duke, Theseus, and the Amazonian queen Hippolyta. The players are all local artisans and Nick Bottom is a weaver.
Bottom is usually played by an actor made up to look unattractive. From the moment the group enters in a scene where they begin their rehearsals for the play, Death of Pyramus and Thisbe the ridiculous Bottom grabs the audience’s attention. He displays a high degree of narcissism in that he thinks that he can play all the roles on his own. As the parts are being given out he not only wants to play each one but offers a demonstration of how he will play the character. It makes for a hilarious scene.
The Fairy King, Oberon’s servant, the mischievous Puck, is charged with the job of putting a spell on the Fairy Queen so that when waking from a sleep she will fall in love with the first creature she sees. Puck administers the magic potion then, having observed Bottom in the rehearsal, exchanges his head for that of a donkey. When Titania wakes up she sees Bottom and falls in love with him and takes him into her circle of fairy courtiers. This leads to a whole stream of funny exchanges based, mainly on the contrast between Bottom’s view of himself as a handsome romantic lover and the reality that the audience sees – that he is quite literally nothing more than an ass. The beautiful Titania’s declarations of love and the gross Bottom’s responses are very funny.
As usual in Shakespeare, the classification of characters is not a simple matter. In Twelfth Night Malvolio is something of a tragic character but there is no doubt that he is very funny. It is not that we laugh with him, which is the case with many of Shakespeare’s comic characters, but that we laugh at him. At the centre of the play there is a very cruel joke played on the pompous, puritanical, quite unpleasant Malvolio, the steward of Olivia’s household, where he is disliked by everyone.
Shakespeare uses several different types of humour to make Malvolio appear foolish – slapstick, puns, dramatic irony, comedy of manners, and ridicule. He is exposed as being pretentious and snobbish. Shakespeare encourages the audience to laugh at Malvolio’s ignorance as well as his wish to be more than he is, and the result is that we lose sight of the cruelty of the prank and join the household in laughing at him.
One of Olivia’s maids puts a letter in Malvolio’s way – a letter purporting to come from Olivia in which Olivia declares her love for her unattractive steward, and he falls for it. In it, she begs him to wear the latest fashions of yellow stockings and cross garters, fashions which she hates. He then appears to her in front of the whole household, looking absurd in his black suit but with yellow stockings and cross garters, and making a fool of himself as he addresses her, quoting from the letter, which she, of course, knows nothing about. He appears to be mad and is taken away, to be confined as a lunatic.
When he emerges at the end of the play he is a broken man and the audience, who has laughed at him as loudly as had those who had played the trick on him, now feel sorry for him. So he is a different kind of ‘funny’ from the other funny Shakespeare characters.
These two characters have no dramatic function but their scene is an important one: the play is partly about death and mortality. Hamlet is involved in the gravedigger scene, in which he offers his most important reflections on life and death. However, as the gravediggers dig Ophelia’s grave they generate a funny scene. They banter with each other, using puns and riddles, about death. In this scene Shakespeare makes us laugh about death. When Hamlet arrives in the graveyard he questions them about whose grave it is, and once again, they reply in riddles, and use more puns. Elizabethan audiences loved puns and found them very funny, so the scene acts partly as a valve to let off steam during the very intense action which, after this scene, becomes even more intense.
Sir Andrew Aguecheek
What makes Sir Andrew Aguecheek funny is his silliness and his gullibility. He is usually played by a tall thin actor. There is a description of him – in caricature terms, as having long hair that hangs like flax a distaff. He is usually presented as a seriously odd-looking man. He has come to Olivia’s house in the hope of wooing her, and fallen in with her uncle, Sir Toby Belch. He has no hope even of attracting Olivia’s attention but Sir Toby encourages him, stopping him from going home, telling him that his niece is considering him as a husband, and fleecing him financially while making fun of him mercilessly.
Sir Toby flatters Sir Andrew: he tells him that he is a good dancer and makes him prance about and make a fool of himself. Sir Andrew is stupid and has no self-insight so entertains the audience with his responses to Sir Toby. When Viola, disguised as a young man, emerges as Olivia’s love interest, Sir Toby goads Sir Andrew into challenging Viola to a duel. The duel takes place, each one terrified of the other, and Sir Andrew makes a fool of himself once again in a highly entertaining and funny scene.
Romeo and Juliet
Mercutio is a young man in Romeo and Juliet, a friend of Romeo and a central member of Romeo’s social set. He is highly intelligent and a joker whose every utterance is amusing. He is also a performer and engages is some quite daft antics but always with a sharp wit. He is fearless in his associations as he is related to both the Montagues and Capulets and so acceptable to both of the feuding families. He is extremely articulate and he uses language to tease and to entertain. Much of what he says has a double meaning, almost always sexual, and he is always the center of attention in the group.
Romeo and Juliet is structured differently from Shakespeare’s other tragedies in that the first half of the play is basically a comedy but the play is transformed with the tragic fight in the middle of the play in which Romeo, a Montague, kills Tibalt, a Capulet, after Tibalt accidentally kills Mercutio.
Mercutio’s death comes about when Tybalt, a fiery young man who goes against his elders’ efforts to play the feud down, by keeping its sparks alive, accosts Mercutio, and kills him by accident. On a hot afternoon, he approaches Romeo’s group of friends and accuses Mercutio of ‘consorting’ with Romeo. Mercutio treats it as a joke and the two have a pretend sword fight. Mercutio makes funny comments all the way through, with everyone laughing, including Tybalt, but when Romeo appears he tries to break the fight up and Tybalt accidentally stabs Mercutio. Mercutio staggers about, making jokes like calling himself ‘a grave man,’ etc. Tybalt, realizing what he has done, turns and flees, but the others continue to laugh at Mercutio’s antics until he actually falls down dead. It is at this point that the whole atmosphere of the play turns as Romeo pursues Tybalt and they have a vicious fight in which Romeo kills Tybalt. Mercutio has been the main comic driver in the play but now things get serious: the death of Mercutio, followed by that of Tybalt, is the main dramatic device that generates the play into the great tragic drama that it is.
It may seem strange to see Hamlet among the top ten funny characters but the fully rounded character that he is includes a sense of humour that comes through even in the grim circumstances in which he finds himself and the serious issues explored in the play. It takes the form of witty responses to the people he either doesn’t like or regards as ridiculous and his habit of teasing them. Although he is very serious for the most part he loves goading people and often uses his royal rank to put them in a position of confusion during verbal exchanges. He likes using puns and twists the words of others to disadvantage them in exchanges. But even in his conversations with his close and trusted friend, Horatio, his sense of humour is evident. All this adds up to some amusing interactions with the other characters.
When we first see him at court, shortly after his father’s death, with his mother and his uncle who is now his stepfather and king, Claudius comments on his dark mood. ‘How is it that the clouds still hang on you?’ he says. Hamlet, punning on the word ‘son’ replies: ‘Not so, my lord; I am too much in the sun.’
Talking to Horatio, who tells him that he has come to Elsinore for his father’s funeral, Hamlet says, I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student; I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.’ Horatio admits that Hamlet’s mother’s wedding did follow rather closely on his father’s funeral and Hamlet says, ‘ Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked-meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.’
Hamlet particularly dislikes the garrulous, scheming senior courtier, Polonius, and is merciless in his mockery of him. When Polonius says to him: ‘Do you know me, my lord?’ Hamlet retorts: ‘Excellent well; you are a fishmonger.’ Then, after more banter of the same kind, when Polonius asks him what he is reading, he answers: ‘Slanders, sir; for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled… and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams,’ putting the old man into a state of confusion. Hamlet makes fun of him at every encounter he has with him.
Two of Hamlet’s fellow students, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, arrive and Claudius bribes them to spy on Hamlet. In all his conversations with then Hamlet mocks them, again creating confusion in victims who don’t know how to respond.
One of the most minor characters in a Shakespeare play is a messenger, Osric, who, although he has no dramatic function and a very small part, is quite famous as a Shakespearean character because of the memorable fun-making on Hamlet’s part. Osric is effeminate and Hamlet teases him mercilessly. Hamlet contradicts everything he says, forcing him to contradict himself, in the same way as Polonius does.
In this very serious play Shakespeare has created a character who examines life in great detail, and because life is complex and contains humour as well as tragedy, it is fitting that such a character should be very much in touch with the humorous side of life.
Much Ado About Nothing
Beatrice is one of Shakespeare’s most appealing characters. She is the niece of a wealthy Messina landowner who is entertaining some officers returning from a war who have stopped by. One of them, Benedick, is an officer whom she has met before and whom she doesn’t like. She engages in bantering conversations with him during which she mercilessly demolishes him, while he fights back. He has told everyone that he will never marry. She is also resolved never to marry. They are both highly intelligent and superb with language, which makes for very funny scenes between them During the course of the play their friends trick them into discovering a hidden love for each other, which surprises her, and they end up marrying.
In the 21st Century we can still recognise our own humanity in all of Shakespeare’s 400 year-old characters but even in that context, Beatrice is remarkable. She is very much like the modern feminist women of our times. Her assertiveness with men is striking and the views she expresses go beyond anything else among Shakespeare’s women to the point of believing and articulating that women are the superior sex. The exchange of insults between Beatrice and Benedick are witty and philosophical at the same time and revolves around what we would recognise as the battle of the sexes. They put each other down on gender grounds and debate the advantages and disadvantages of being a member of the respective genders.
The following quote is an example of the way Beatrice talks about men and her distaste for the state of marriage: ‘Lord, I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face: I had rather lie in the woollen,’ meaning that she would rather sleep with the wool of a sheep against her face than with a man’s beard against it.
Even when Beatrice realises that she is madly in love with Benedick and finally agrees to marry him she can’t help a playful barb suggesting that she is only marrying him because she feels sorry for him, and marrying her could save his life.
‘I would not deny you. But… I yield upon great persuasion, and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption’
Henry IV Parts 1 & 2
It is characteristic of Shakespeare that even his funniest comic characters, however minor, are not just there to make the audience laugh. They always serve the serious function of making a contribution to the structure of the drama.
Sir John Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s most famous comic characters. He appears in two plays, Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2, and then again in The Merry Wives of Windsor. In The Merry Wives he is not the same person as in the Henry plays but, in another sense, he’s the same character, identical in appearance and behaviour, as though he were the identical twin of the Falstaff of the Henry plays.
Falstaff is just about the worst of men. Apart from his appearance – fat, ugly, old, and personally disgusting – he is a small-time criminal, a thief, a liar, a swindler, a drunk, a sexual abuser, and a coward. He frequents The Boar’s Head Tavern, a Fleet Street pub, surrounded by low life city dwellers. The young Prince Henry (Hal) has abandoned his father’s (King Henry IV) court and is busy sowing his wild oats in the underbelly of London. He is befriended by Falstaff and his companions and spends most of his time in the pub. Falstaff treats him as a ‘buddy’ and Hal becomes involved in that sleazy life but maintains a distance from Falstaff’s worst excesses. Shakespeare’s purpose is to suggest what a well rounded education for a king should be, showing us a fledgling king learning about all aspects of English society, from the top to the bottom and he goes on in Henry V to show Hal as the best king a man could ever be. When he becomes king on the death of his father Falstaff turns up, hoping to gain some advantage but Hal firmly and publicly rejects him.
The scenes between Falstaff and Hal in the pub and on their other adventures are hilarious. They are funny because of the way Hal provokes Falstaff and goads him into revealing his worst characteristics. The scenes between the two are classic and among the favourite comic scenes in all of Shakespeare. His responses to Hal’s goading include boasting, lying, and committing criminal acts, including a robbery during which he runs away and then boasts about his bravery.
Romeo and Juliet
Juliet’s nurse is her only friend and supporter but later betrays her, just when Juliet needs her most. The nurse is warm, funny and protective. She never stops talking and most of her language is sexually suggestive.
There are two scenes in particular in which the nurse is very funny. She goes to town to tell Romeo that Juliet will turn up at Friar Lawrence’s cell to marry him. She encounters Romeo’s friends and has an exchange with Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio. Mercutio is also a funny person whose language is also full of sexual innuendo. He and his friends make fun of the nurse, chasing her around the square and making fun of her. It is a comic double act.
The other scene takes place between the nurse and Juliet. When the nurse returns she finds an extremely impatient Juliet, dying to know the result of her mission. The nurse teases her, talking non-stop, almost reaching the point of giving her the news but then going off the point, coming back to it and straying again, driving Juliet wild with impatience. The nurse is very funny in that scene.
That’s your lot for Shakespeare’s funniest characters. Any we’ve missed out? Let us know in the comments below!