The genre’s main goal is entertainment. It uses physical humor, low-brow jokes, and other slapstick elements. Farce does not try to be something it is not.
A farce also contains absurd elements and some kind of miscommunication or deception. This might be a case of mistaken identity, a simple misunderstanding of a word’s multiple meanings, or someone’s intentions. A subcategory of farce is the “tragic farce.” This kind of story is much bleaker and darker. A farce usually rakes the form of a play.
Definition of Farce
Farces are comedic stories that contain a humorous and outrageous plot. The conflict is usually fairly simplistic, as are the comedic elements that lead up to it. They include drunkenness, absurd turns of events, physical humor, and low-brow jokes. A farce often takes place in one location in which all the characters gather—for example, a bar, a house, or a workplace.
The genre developed in Europe in the 15th century. It was a way to speak about serious things in a more lighthearted way. For example, religion, marriage, and familial relationships. These productions included many of the same elements that are seen in the farce genre today. They were just as focused on entertainment and making the audience laugh.
Examples of Farces in Literature
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Wilde’s most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is a famous example of a farce. There is a wonderful example of mistaken identity and the two-sided meaning of the word “earnest.” It refers to someone’s name, “Ernest,” and the character trait. The play was first published in 1898 with the subtitle “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.” The protagonists deal with social norms of the time while also suggesting that those same norms should be avoided if possible. Here are a few lines from the play that demonstrate its humor:
I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.
The play concludes with Gwendolen insisting that she can only marry a man named Ernest and Jack discovering that his father’s real name, for which he was supposedly named, was Ernest all along. The final famous lines of the play are spoken by Jack. He says: “I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital importance of being Earnest.”
Read Oscar Wilde’s poetry.
The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare
The Comedy of Errors is a famous early play by William Shakespeare. It is one of his shortest and is usually categorized as a farce. It uses mistaken identity and slapstick humor. It occurs over the course of 24 hours (the only play besides The Tempest to do so). The play tells the story of two sets of identical twins separated at birth. Here are a few lines from the play:
Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?
Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advised?
Known unto these, and to myself disguised?
I’ll say as they say, and persever so,
And in this mist at all adventures go.
Throughout the play, the twins are constantly confused for one another. It is celebrated as a masterwork of comedy, and its name, “comedy of errors,” is often used as a catch-all turn for farcical stories.
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
In this Shakespearean play, the poet creates numerous farcical elements in his construction of the plot. It was written sometime between 1590 and 1592. It starts with one character convincing another, a drunk; the’s a nobleman. The bulk of the story centers on Petruchio and Katherina. The latter is the ‘shrew” the title refers to. She has no interest in their relationship and is often defined as obstinate. Their banter with one another is one of the main comedic elements at the heart of the play. Here is a characteristic exchange like those readers can find in the play:
Petruchio: Come, come, you wasp; i’ faith, you are too angry.
Katherine: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
Petruchio: My remedy is then, to pluck it out.
Katherine: Ay, if the fool could find where it lies.
Petruchio: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.
Katherine: In his tongue.
Petruchio: Whose tongue?
Katherine: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.
Petruchio: What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay, come again, Good Kate; I am a gentleman.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.
Why Do Writers Write Farces?
Writers create farces for one main reason—to entertain. Even Shakespeare, who is celebrated for his complex plot lines and deeply resonate literary works, turned to the farce genre. He set thematic intentions aside to focus on the creation of an amusing narrative. Despite this, some farces do contain symbolic meaning. For example, one might detect satire in the depictions of society and high-ranking society members, such as can be found in The Importance of Being Earnest. These are far from complex depictions. Instead, they are fairly surface level and easy to pick up on.
Related Literary Terms
- Historical Fiction: a genre that fictionalizes real places, people, and events.
- Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.
- Fantasy: a literary genre that includes talking animals, magic, and other worlds. It includes plots that couldn’t take place in the real world.
- Satire: used to analyze behaviors to make fun of, criticize, or chastise them in a humorous way.
- Aphorism: short, serious, humorous, and philosophical truths about life.
- Antihero: a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
- Watch: 12 Comics You Need To See
- Read: The Philosophy of Comedy
- Watch: How to be Funny