William Shakespeare is estimated to have written roughly 37 plays, although the debates continue as to which he wrote on his own — as opposed to collaboratively — and what other works may have been lost entirely.
Of those 37 or so plays, some 14 to 18 are considered comedies. However, his histories and tragedies also contain lines designed to make the audience laugh. Comedy, after all, has always been one of the most effective ways of keeping an audience engaged — and if you were going to stand for hours on end to watch a show, you’d probably need some levity to make it through.
Of course, humor is highly subjective, and the comedy in Shakespeare’s plays ranges from bawdy jokes to witty wordplay. There are clever puns and references that only well-read audience members might pick up on, but there are also jokes of a sexual nature that would make some viewers blush. And it may go without saying that, having lived hundreds of years ago, Shakespeare also made some quips that are now considered off-color for a variety of reasons.
With that in mind, here are 12 examples of Shakespeare at his wittiest, from flagrantly comedic characters such as Nick Bottom, whose head is transformed into that of a donkey in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to the gallows humor of the gravediggers in Hamlet.
How art thou out of breath, when thou hast breath to say to me that thou art out of breath?Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet”
I must to the barber’s, monsieur, for methinks I am marvellous hairy about the face; and I am such a tender ass, if my hair do but tickle me I must scratch.Nick Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
He took the bride about the neck and kissed her lips with such a clamorous smack that at the parting all the church did echo.Gremio in “The Taming of the Shrew”
I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing”
This woman’s an easy glove, my lord: she goes off and on at pleasure.Lafeu in “All's Well That Ends Well”
I have an answer will serve all men … It is like a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks: the pin-buttock, the quatch-buttock, the brawn-buttock, or any buttock.Fool in “All's Well That Ends Well”
They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps.Moth in “Love's Labour's Lost”
What, you egg?Murderer in “Macbeth”
O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words. I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon.Costard in “Love's Labour's Lost”
Is our whole dissembly appeared?Dogberry in “Much Ado About Nothing”
He shall recover his wits [in England]. Or if he do not, ’tis no great matter there … There the men are as mad as he.Gravedigger in “Hamlet”
Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon.Lafeu in “All's Well That Ends Well”
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