Sentimental Comedy | Definition, Characteristics, Examples in Literature

Sentimental Comedy | Definition, Characteristics, Examples in Literature

Sentimental Comedy Definition

As a result of reaction against the licentiousness, indecencies and immoralities of comedy of manners, a peculiar kind of drama arose which was neither comedy nor tragedy, but frequently known as ‘sentimental comedy’.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Sentimental Comedy as a

“Comedy that addresses itself to the spectators low of goodness rather than to his sense of humor and emphasizes the moral aspects of its situations and the virtues of its characters.”

The absence of unhappy ending and presence of serious matter that do not thrill, clearly distinguish it from tragedy. It also does not come under the category of comedy as it lacks serious philosophic and moral aims.

Sentimental comedy was a ‘type of pathetic play which reflected the false sensibility of the rising middle class in the eighteenth century. This reaction from the comedy of the Restoration was introduced by Richard Steele’s The Lying Lover (1703) and The Tender Husband (1705). Colley Cibber wrote similar comedies including The Careless Husband (1705).

Sentimental Comedy Characteristics

1. Problems of Conduct, Family, Marriage and Marital Relations

Most of the sentimental comedies deal with the issues of conduct, family, marriage and marital relations. The Conscious Lovers by Steele deals with the problems of family and marriage sanctioned by parents. The hero Bevil falls in love with an unknown girl, Indiana to whom he can neither accept without the sanction of his parents nor betray her. Lastly, Indianan’s father consents her to marry the hero.

2. Emotional Appeal

Here, the appeal is made to emotions of pity and sympathy and not to the intellect. Innocent and virtuous suffer due to lack of intellect and arouse our sympathy. Thus, the comic playwright exploits the insensibility of audience to produce comical effect.

3. Introduction of Pathetic and Tearful Situations

Comedy often ceases to be a comedy and becomes an ocean of tears. Such situations come in the comedy that spectators have to weep and feel sympathy for the characters. Thus, the purpose of making the audience laugh exhausts.

4. Exposure of Virtues than Vices of Private Life

Almost all the characters in the sentimental comedy are exceedingly good and have enough feelings and sentiments. The audience praises the follies of characters rather discarding them because of their generosity. Thus, in Sentimental Comedy, the foibles of the characters are not ridiculed as is done in comedies. A. Nicoll said,

“Not the man and women they saw round them, but abstractions conceived in their own mind.”

5. Some Moral Purpose

Sentimental dramatists have some moral purpose which it aims to hand over to the audience. They restore the suffering innocence to happiness and peace and change the rascals into exemplary character In pumping out the moral lesson, the sentimental playwrights destroy the amusement and pleasure attached with the sentimental comedy.

Sentimental Comedy Examples

Mentioned below best sentimental comedies of all time:

  • Love’s Last Shift by Colley Cibber
  • The Constant Couple by George Farquhar
  • The Conscious Lovers by Richard Steele
  • She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith
  • The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

History of Sentimental Comedy

The sentimental drama is an off-spring of comedy with a moral purpose more or less avowed. The comedy with a moral purpose has two varieties. In one, the aim is to ridicule a vice, abuse or a social evil. The other is the “sentimental” kind. Prof. Elton suggests that “Sentimental” being a slippery term to define, a simpler term for this kind of play is the comedy of good feel. Thus, the moralized comedy of sentiment was born. Such was the effect of Collier’s attack on the comedy of manners that in 1704 an ordinance by Queen Anne was issued to the effect that “nothing contrary to religion and good manners should appear on the stage.” The new direction given to comedy is first to be seen in Colley Cibber’s plays. His The Lady’s Last State and The Careless Husband are classed as sentimental.

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Sir Richard Steele went a step ahead by directly emphasizing the moral purpose of his plays. His best comedy is The Funeral. He accepted the theory that the business of comedy is to attack the lesser faults of humanity with the weapons of ridicule.

Prof. Elton observes that the chief practitioners of the comedy of sentiment were Hugh Kelley and Richard Cumberland. Kelley’s False Delicacy and The School for Wives are quite well-known. The comedies of Colley or Richard Steele have their place in the study of middle class inspiration or of the dawn of sentimentalism.

First of all, we shall have to distinguish between false and true sentiment. In the first place, sentimentalism as it invaded the comedy on the time, banished mirth and laughter from the stage. The triumph of virtue in time, in the end is the recurring theme of a sentimental comedy. The definite purpose was to effect a moral regeneration Steele threw all his weight on the side of morality. If we analyze any typical sentimental comedy, we find that it is divorced from realism. Emotional scenes and sentimentality fill it up. There is an attempt at idealizing which leaves the reader unconvinced


Sentimental comedy is after all a degenerate type and in it we have tears instead of laughter. The age of Johnson and Goldsmith was also the age of the sentimental comedy. People believed that morals and manners of the society should be reformed. But changes could not come so easily. Everybody wanted to work for the welfare and improvement of the society and as a result of this, sentimental dramas and novels were produced in the eighteenth century. Kelley’s False Delicacy (1768) was an instant success and so was Cumberlands The West Indian (1771). Sentimental comedy may be said to have arisen to its full height in these two comedies. The comedies of this type contained incidents like discoveries of lost heirs etc. and the comic vein was only incidental. The plots were rich in unexpected incidents. The stress is laid on simple nature as the source of all virtues and there are exaltation of charity, a tone of philosophical preaching and the justification of the victims of social prejudices. Goldsmith and Sheridan infused this vein of sentimentalism with pure comedy and spontaneous laughter.


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