Romantic comedy in its most general meaning includes all films that treat love, courtship, and marriage comically. Comic in this context refers more to the mood of the film and less to its plot. A film comedy need not have a happy ending, nor do all films that have happy endings qualify as comedies.
Of course, the great majority of romantic comedies do have happy endings, usually meaning the marriage of one or more of the couples the plot has brought together. The humor of these films typically derives from various obstacles to this outcome, especially miscommunication or misunderstanding between partners or prospective partners. For this reason, most romantic comedies depend heavily on dialogue. While they may also make use of physical humor and other visual gags, romantic film comedy remains close to it theatrical predecessors.
Theatrical romantic comedy is a distinct, historically specific genre that emerged with Shakespeare's comedies in the sixteenth century. It combines elements of two earlier forms having antithetical views of love and marriage. One ancestor is the New Comedy of ancient Greece, which centers on a young man who desires a young woman but who meets with paternal opposition. The play ends with some turn of events that enables the match to be made. Comedy here represents the integration of society, the concluding wedding standing for social renewal. The other ancestor is medieval romance, which appeared in both narrative and lyric poems. Romance here names a new sense of love—the passionate experience of the individual—distinct from the "social solidarity" love had previously meant. Romance was originally opposed to marriage, but in Shakespeare's comedies, such as Much Ado About Nothing , romantic love and marriage are united. Romantic comedies ever since have told audiences that their dreams of the right mate can come true.
Romantic comedy in film falls into four distinct subgenres: romantic comedy proper, farce, screwball comedy, and the relationship story. Each of the subgenres is defined by the ways in which love, romance, and marriage are depicted and, especially, how they are related to each other.