The comedy of manners satirizes the manners and affectations of a social class, often represented by stock characters, such as the miles gloriosus in ancient times, the fop and the rake during the Restoration, or an old person pretending to be young. The plot of the comedy, often concerned with an illicit love affair or some other scandal, is generally less important than its witty and often bawdy dialogue.
The comedy of manners was preceded by the new comedy of the Ancient Greek playwright Menander. His style, elaborate plots, and stock characters were imitated by the Roman poets Plautus and Terence, whose comedies were widely known and copied during the Renaissance. The best-known comedies of manners, however, may well be those of the French playwright Molière, who satirized the hypocrisy and pretension of ancien régime in such plays as L'École des femmes (The School for Wives, 1662) and Le Misanthrope (The Misanthrope, 1666).
In England, William Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing might be considered the first comedy of manners, but the genre really flourished during the Restoration period. Restoration comedy, which was influenced by Ben Jonson's comedy of humours , made fun of affected wit and acquired follies of the time. The masterpieces of the genre were the plays of William Wycherley (The Country-Wife, 1675) and William Congreve (The Way of the World, 1700). In the late 18th century Oliver Goldsmith (She Stoops to Conquer, 1773) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (The Rivals, 1775; The School for Scandal, 1777) revived the form.
The tradition of elaborate, artificial plotting and epigrammatic dialogue was carried on by the Anglo-Irish playwright Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere's Fan (1892) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). In the 20th century, the comedy of manners reappeared in the plays of the British dramatists Noel Coward (Hay Fever, 1925) and Somerset Maugham, as well as various British sitcoms. The Carry On films are a direct descendent of the comedy of manners style. Television programs such as The Young Ones and Seinfeld have brought the comedy of manners to the modern era.