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Sentimental comedy is a genre of theatrical comedy that emerged in the 18th century as a reaction against the more cynical and morally ambiguous comedies of the Restoration period, offering a more optimistic view of human nature and society. It aims to evoke an emotional response from the audience, focusing on the virtues and goodness of its characters rather than ridiculing their follies and vices. The narrative often revolves around themes of love, virtue, and morality, and the story typically ends on a positive note, reaffirming the inherent goodness of humanity.


Sentimental comedy is characterised by its emphasis on sentiment, virtue, and moral values. Unlike the bawdy humour and social satire of Restoration comedies, sentimental comedies aim to evoke sympathy and emotional response from the audience. The plots often revolve around themes of love, honour, friendship, and familial relationships, emphasising moral rectitude and virtuous behaviour.

Moral Tone

Sentimental comedies convey a moralistic tone, promoting ideals of kindness, compassion, and selflessness. The plays typically have didactic intentions, with plots centred around the idea that virtue should be rewarded and vice should be punished or redeemed. The characters are often depicted as paragons of virtue, embodying generosity, honesty, and integrity. The plays typically conclude with a reaffirmation of moral order and a celebration of virtue triumphing over vice. Characters often learn moral lessons through their experiences, providing a model for the audience to follow.

Emotional Appeal

Sentimental comedies aim to elicit emotional responses from the audience, often through portraying characters’ inner struggles, personal sacrifices, and heartfelt emotions. They often explore themes related to goodness, benevolence, and the inherent decency of the ordinary person. The goal is to leave the audience feeling emotionally moved and morally edified. The playwrights employ melodramatic devices such as tears, sighs, and impassioned speeches to heighten the narrative’s emotional impact.

Sympathetic Characters

Protagonists in sentimental comedies are usually likeable, virtuous, often naive, and fall into unfortunate circumstances through no fault of their own. The audience is meant to identify with these characters and root for their success.

Sentiment Over Wit

While comedies of manners rely on wit and cleverness in dialogue, sentimental comedies emphasise genuine sentiment and heartfelt expression. Language is less about showing off one’s intellectual understanding and more about expressing sincere emotions and virtuous sentiments.

Romantic Elements

Romance plays a central role in sentimental comedies, with love stories serving as the primary focus of the plot. Romantic relationships are often depicted as pure, idealised, and noble, transcending social barriers and overcoming obstacles through true love. The portrayal of romantic love is sentimentalised and often depicted as the ultimate source of happiness and fulfilment.

Middle-Class Morality

Sentimental comedy often reflects middle-class values of the time. It respects and upholds domesticity, familial loyalty, and an honest living as societal ideals.

Social Critique

While sentimental comedies uphold moral values and celebrate virtue, they offer subtle critiques of social norms and conventions. The plays highlight the injustices and inequalities of society, particularly concerning issues such as class distinctions, gender roles, and the treatment of the poor and marginalised. Through portraying sympathetic characters and their struggles, playwrights seek to inspire empathy and advocate for social reform.

Reform of Baggage Characters

Characters who possess vices or are morally flawed are often shown to reform by the play’s conclusion. Their transformation reinforces the possibility of redemption through kindness, love, or a moral awakening.

Key Playwrights

Notable playwrights associated with sentimental comedy include Richard Steele, Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Cumberland and Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée. 

    • The Conscious Lovers by Richard Steele
    • She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith
    • The West Indian by Richard Cumberland
    • The London Merchant or The History of George Barnwell by George Lillo
    • The School for Mothers by Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée

These playwrights, among others, played significant roles in shaping the form and content of sentimental comedy, setting the stage for later theatrical developments and influencing the portrayal of virtue and morality in drama.

While sentimental comedy fell out of favour by the late 18th century, its influence can be seen in later forms of sentimental literature, such as Victorian novels and melodrama. The emphasis on moral values, emotional sincerity, and romantic idealism resonates with audiences today, making sentimental comedy an enduring and influential genre in the history of theatre.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.