University High School
Instructor(s): Scott Boehnen, Jim Garrett
Is The Merchant of Venice a Comedy or a Tragedy?
Is The Merchant of Venice a Comedy or a Tragedy?
In his play The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare tells a story of romance and comedy in the bustling streets of 16th century Venice. The story follows protagonists Antonio and Bassanio through the chaotic city, and through the pursuit of love and justice, Antonio finds himself at the claws of death by means of the Jewish moneylender Shylock. Then through a reversal of fortune, Bassanio and his comrades save Antonio from certain doom, leaving the reader with a happy ending. However, the question many readers pose is if The Merchant of Venice should be classified as a comedy or a tragedy. A comedy can be defined as a genre of drama in which the characters avert an impending disaster and have a happy ending. A tragedy is a serious play where a character passes through a series of misfortunes leading to a final, devastating catastrophe. Both genres are defined by the concept of peripeteia, meaning reversal of fortune, something best exemplified by the turning of a wheel of fortune. In a comedic play, the wheel may spin around, showing highs and lows for the characters, but in the end, the characters come out on the top. On the other hand, a tragedy is quite the opposite, with the wheel stopping at the very bottom leaving the character at the lowest of lows. Nonetheless, The Merchant of Venice fits neither of these categories perfectly, as there are characters, both protagonists and antagonists, whose stories are truly tragic, even though they hide behind the play's mainly comedic plot.
The Merchant of Venice can be perceived as a comedy by its defining plot points that match the characteristics of a comedy. The recurring motif of comic peripeteia further exemplifies this characterization, allowing for a reversal of fortune for the protagonists that leads to a happy ending. The most prominent example of this peripeteia when Portia saves Antonio's life, finding a loophole in Shylock's deadly bond. Portia sentences Shylock, saying, "Thou hast contrived against the very life/Of the defendant, and thou hast incurred/The danger formerly by me rehearsed./Down, therefore, and beg mercy of the Duke" (4.1.375-378). In this scene, Antonio, one of the main protagonists of the play, is saved from certain doom. In a way, this can be seen as a wheel of fortune turning, with Antonio at the closest point to death, and being spun upwards towards safety. This reversal of fortune continues when Antonio receives notice from Portia that his ships have, in fact, not been wrecked at sea. Portia says, "Unseal this letter soon./There you shall find three of your argosies/Are richly come to harbor suddenly./You shall not know by what strange accident/I chancèd on this letter" (5.1.294-298). In learning his ships have not been destroyed, Antonio can rise even higher on the wheel of fortune, regaining his money and status as one of the most prominent merchants in Venice. This recurring motif is so prominent that The Merchant of Venice must be, in part, a comedy.
However, even though the play possesses these unmistakably comedic qualities, there are underlying themes in the play that are not in the least comedic. First, is the story of Shylock, the character perceived by most as the main antagonist of the play. Despite being seen as an antagonist by many, Shylock's story is undoubtedly tragic. This is first exemplified by the treatment of Shylock as a member of the Jewish faith throughout the play. Shakespeare tells of how Shylock reacted to the disappearance of his daughter, who had taken a large sum of his money and run off with a Christian man. He writes, "As the dog Jew did utter in the streets./ 'My daughter, O my ducats, O my daughter!/ Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!'" (Shakespeare 2.8.14-16). In this excerpt, presumably Christian narrator Solanio mocks Shylock for his misery. Shylock has not only just lost his daughter, but the majority of his money, making it hard for him to continue his career as a money lender. Nonetheless, he receives no sympathy from Solanio, being described as a "dog Jew." Shylock sinks even deeper on the wheel of fortune as his bond over Antonio is outwitted by Portia, disguised as a man of law. Shylock is set to lose all his possessions, but Antonio shows "mercy" by allowing Shylock to keep all his belongings on the condition he becomes Christian (4.1.402-406). However, this "mercy" shown by Antonio is nothing of the sort. By not paying Shylock back his loan and with his daughter having stolen the rest of his money, it is clear Shylock will no longer be able to lend money, which is his only source of income. On top of that, they are stripping Shylock of his identity and community, because Christians will continue to treat him as a Jew, whilst he can no longer seek asylum with the Jewish people.
Despite many perceptions towards comic peripeteia, Antonio is another character who faces a tragic ending. Although not as prominent as Shylock's story, Antonio meets tragedy through the same theme of identity. In the play, Antonio has been perceived by many readers as a homosexual man. There are many examples in Shakespeare's writing pointing towards this assumption, but the most prominent example is when Antonio is awaiting his trial, near-certain of his approaching carnage. Antonio writes a letter to Bassanio, detailing his impending fate, saying, "[I]t is impossible/I should live, all debts are cleared between you and I if/I might but see you at my death. Notwithstanding, use/your pleasure. If your love do not persuade you to/come, let not my letter" (3.3.330-334). In this short passage, Antonio is, in a way, confessing his love for Bassanio: a love that can never be fulfilled as he and Bassanio are both men living in a society that is heterosexual. Even though at the end of the play Antonio has had all his riches and career restored via comic peripeteia, he has underlying tragic peripeteia exemplified through his identity as a homosexual man. Shakespeare makes this clear in the final lines of the play when Gratiano, a heterosexual man, says, "Let it be so. The first inter'gatory/That my Nerissa shall be sworn on is/Whether till the next night she had rather stay/Or go to bed now, being two hours to day. /But were the day come, I should wish it dark/Till I were couching with the doctor's clerk" (5.1.322-327). With this line, all three heterosexual couples retire to their bedrooms, leaving none other than Antonio, alone on the stage to end the play. Despite comic peripeteia giving Antonio a "happy ending," his story ends for the reader in tragedy, alone, while all the other protagonists retire to their bedrooms to consummate their marriages.
It is the underlying theme of identity that rests alongside this mainly comedic story. This theme is shown mainly through characters Shylock and Antonio, whose identities, external or internal, drift them away from the rest of society. Shylock is a Jewish man, living in a world that ousts him as an alien, seen as the impurities of society. Antonio is a homosexual man, with all the money he could ever need, but with an enduring attraction towards a young man determined to win himself a youthful bride. With their respective identities, they find it impossible to find their true place in this Venetian society. One might think Antonio and Shylock could simply move away from this wretched society, but they cannot, for it is their home. Even though they might be the most polar opposites, one against another, "good" versus "evil," they share this common struggle. It is with this underlying struggle that The Merchant of Venice cannot simply be a comedy, for it is much more. Therefore, it must be classified as a so-called "tragicomedy," a work that possesses elements of both a tragedy and a comedy. Nonetheless, this is no compromise by the writer, as Shakespeare intentionally wrote The Merchant of Venice in this manner. Shakespeare wanted to show that no matter how happy the ending, there will always be suffering amongst the cheers of victory.