“The Merchant of Venice” as a Tragicomedy
“The Merchant of Venice” as a Tragicomedy
** Consider the play as a tragicomedy
Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a comedy with a difference. It was written almost certainly between 1596 & 1598. The play is classed as one of the 16 comedy plays but it is also a ‘problem’ play due to the tragic elements woven throughout the intricate plot. The play concludes with a harmonious ending but all through the plot, reoccurring themes of sadness and tragedy are included.
In terms of dramatic structure, “The Merchant of Venice” is undoubtedly a comedy. It follows the typical upward trajectory of comedy (beginning complication to ending resolution}. Act 1 introduces the plays main complication, but it also sets the tone for comic expectation by establishing upward rhythm of comedy in each of its three scenes. Antonio and Portia’s melancholy are shortly alleviated by appropriate distractions & hope. Bassanio hopes to thrive, Antonio tries to help his friend, Portia will not have to worry about being chosen by the suitors she has mocked. Bassanio and Antonio get what they mistakenly but happily think is a friendly loan and Shylock mistakenly and happily, he has hit upon a winning scenario.
After the opening act has set the rhythm and expectation of comedy, there is increasing fluctuation of the rising and dashing of hopes because of the various characters choices. Raised hopes and satisfaction however outweigh dashed hopes and dissatisfaction. Launcelot, Jessica, Lorenzo, Portia, Nerrisa, Gratiano & Antonio all escape the danger they most fear and realize their aspirations. Morocco, Arragon, Shylock and Antonio all suffer losses. However, Morocco and Arragon receive the strict justice of their penalty that they swore oaths to accept but both Shylock & Antonio are spared death & half of their financial losses are recovered.
The plot devices used in “The Merchant of Venice” are quite typical of romantic comedies. For example, external forces keep the lovers apart, not by shortcomings in their own characters or incompatibility. These forces include arbitrary laws & restrictions (the conditions of Portia’s fathers will) & cases of mistaken identity, often involving the wearing of disguises.
“The Merchant of Venice” is a play about friendship & love. In the first scene itself Antonio displays the nature of love & friendship he feels for Bassanio, “My purse, my person, my extremest means lie all unlocked to your occasions”. There is also a predominance of young people and many pairs of lovers and multiple marriages are present in the play.
Another common feature of comedies is that the original problem is often less important and complex than the original solution. This is certainly true in “The Merchant of Venice”. At the beginning of the play, Bassanios ‘problem’ is supposedly that he wants to repay the debt he owes Antonio Even though Antonio does not care Very much about getting his money back. Bassanio’s solution to this problem courting and marrying a beautiful heiress promises to be pleasant enough for him but requires turning Antonio into a debtor himself & even endangering his very life. Only in the world of comedy would this sequence of events be accepted without question.
However, “The Merchant of Venice” is too dark to be considered merely as a romantic comedy. It has come more & more to be seen as a play, which introduces into Shakespearean comedy a range of disturbing tones. Even if we allow structure to dominate, arguing that love wins over hatred & Shylock is primarily a function of the overall design, there are too many disquieting elements to allow any complacency.
Shylock far from being a mere plot device, is a character of considerable dramatic power & he is presented as embodying an intractable mixture of racial vulnerability & obdurate insistence upon the inviolability of commercial & legal facts. He was hindered and insulted by Antonio for which he wants to kill the merchant. His thrust for revenge suggests an anger that a petty spirit could not feel. At the end of the play, he is left without the props of his life and although he is considered the villain, one cannot help feeling sorry for him.
The title character Antonio belongs in a different kind of play. His mysterious sadness & his apparent willingness to die to prove his love for Bassanio suggest the world of tragedy. His ill treatment of Shylock makes him a rather dark hero. The bond he signs with Shylock is unromantically explicit about the three-month term and the consequences of forfeiture. His contempt for Shylock finds no comic expression & at the end of the play, he is the odd man out among the pairs of happy lovers.
Love is not the only dominant interest of the play unlike Shakespeare’s other romantic comedies. The play could easily be one that is dealing with issues of Jewry and usury that were very contemporary. Bassanio as a romantic hero is not a lovesick languishing figure but his motives are rather dubious. The climax of the play is not the love story, as it should be in a romantic comedy but in the trial scene that comes rather late.
‘The Merchant of Venice is also unconventional because it mingles the people of the aristocracy with lower class characters(such as, Shylock & the clown Launcelot Gobo), even though , according to the reigning critical theory of that time, only upper class characters were appropriate to tragedy while member of the middle and lower classes were the proper subject solely of comedy. The play also presents a threat of death to its main protagonist Antonio that is suddenly at the end by Portia’s ingenious casuistry in the trial scene.
‘The Merchant of Venice’ contains both tragic & comic elements. It also mingles the upper& lower class characters & there is a reversal of fortune. All these elements are typical of tragicomedy. Therefore, we can conclude that ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a tragicomedy.
**Is Shylock justified in seeking revenge?
In Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’, the antagonist Shylock seems to be the pivotal character determining the 20th century interpretation of the play. Shylock is an example of a character so dynamic that it takes over from the writer & assumes dimensions of an independent entity. He evokes an interest that is beyond the scope of the play.
Shylock is a wealthy Jewish moneylender in Venice. He lends Antonio three thousand ducats on the promise that if it is not repaid, the forfeiture shall be a pound of Antonio’s flesh. By placing a pound of flesh as collateral, Shylock is able to envision his revenge all too clearly. By eliminating Antonio, Shylock will not only fuel his thirst for vengeance but would also eliminate his leading competition. Antonio by lending money at no interest had thwarted Shylock in his bid to acquire even more gold, which he valued more than anything else. So when Antonio defaults on his loan, Shylock relentlessly demands absolute compliance with the terms of the agreement.
However, it is simply too easy to label Shylock as a hate driven moneygrubber bent on killing Antonio. In fact, when one looks at the terms of the agreement, and the treatment Shylock has received over the years, one could argue he is completely justified. In the text, we read of Antonio spiting on Shylock in the past, calling him dog & insulting him in front of other merchants. He calls Shylock a ‘cur’ and belittle him for his religious belief. Shakespeare is successful in creating an environment rich with people but exclusive to only Christians. For a lone Jew in a sea of Christians it appears life can be very lonely. Even at the point of the transaction, his contempt for the ‘Jew’ was obviously apparent-
“I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spur thee too”
By displaying his utter disregard for Shylock, Antonio creates an enemy who simply salivates at the prospect of some payback when Antonio comes to ask for a loan. Treated as less than a second-class citizen for far too long, Shylock found it more than a bit hypocritical that the same Christians who cursed and spit upon him for being a moneylender now came willingly to him in their time of need. This is a crucial moment in the drama, and outlines a clear moral dilemma. At this point, we beg for Shylock to practice a truly humane principle, thus teaching his tormentors then true meaning of religion. But alas, Shylock is too blinded by hate to forgive & for better or worse as readers, we can understand this.
Jessica’s betrayal makes Shylock more determined to seek his revenge. With one blow, Shylock loses his daughter and huge portion of his hard-earned fortune due to Jessica’s disloyalty. The fact that the Christians knew about it and later taunts him about it shows the extent of prejudice that existed in that society. Shylock’s speech-
“If a Jew wrongs a Christian what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrongs a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, & it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”
The above mentioned quote, briefly, explains Shylocks motives and drive in his pursuit of a pound of flesh. For one so obsessed with money, the fact that he would be willing to forsake a decent sum in the pursuit of vengeance speaks volumes of hatred and animosity between Shylock & Antonio. Justifiably bitter over his treatment by a hypocritical Christian society, Shylock focuses his revenge so sharply, that he is blind to anything else. Our understanding of this fact does not lessen the horror we feel at his cruelty towards Antonio but, we are able to remember that the passion for revenge is a common human failing.
In my opinion, Shylock was justified in seeking revenge, but he takes it too far. He was victimized but one is also repulsed by his treatment of his daughter and his mercenary attitude. Although I think that his seeking revenge against Antonio was reasonable, his way of executing it was not.
** The contrast between Belmont and Venice
In ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Shakespeare creates an interesting contrast between the mercantile, tumultuous city of Venice and the peaceful, gracious world of Belmont. The striking difference between these two settings helps to capture and maintain our attention. There are differences in the value of systems of the people belonging to the two different cities.
To understand the play we must first look at the setting. The play is not set in the year it was written. Instead, Shakespeare looks back in time to the beginning of the Renaissance. Venice, a city-state in Italy, was a crossroads for crusaders, a money-lending centre of Europe. Venice fascinated the Elizabethans, as it was commercially hospitable to people from all parts of the world e.g. Greeks, Jews and Protestants. The city was also a trading centre of great importance. Venice itself was Catholic city and politically independent. A place of great beauty, luxury and extremely artistic.
A second setting of the play transports us to Belmont, which contrasts, with Venice in its fairy tale outlooks and musical interludes. It is in Belmont that love blooms, honesty and peace prevails everywhere. The atmosphere of Venice is almost like a romantic fairy tale and Portia is like the beautiful princess who cannot marry until the right man arrives to choose the right casket. As long as she is imprisoned by her fathers will, Portia must remain in Belmont and wait for her prince to come and rescue her.
The distinction between Venice and Belmont is that one place is where money is made and the other is where it is spent. One is characterized by light, sunshine, and the other by moonlight and music. Wealth is described in almost sensuous terms like when Salerio says
“…touching but my gentle vessels side …Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks”.
Moreover, in an ironic way, later love is talked about in commercial terms. Another dissimilarity is presented when the scenes shift from Venice to Belmont. When we hear of Shylock’s hatred and his terms of the bond, our anxiety builds. Then the play moves on to Belmont and the mood shifts from a sort of harshness and tension to a world of romance and courteousness. The most striking disparity is between the courtroom scene in Act 4 and the opening scene of act 5, which takes place on a starlit, romantic night in Belmont.
Belmont in contrast to Shylocks Venice is full of music. Starting with the music to accompany Bassanios choice, Portia tells us that “music is/Even as the flourish when true subjects bow/To a new crowned monarch.” “A Flourish of Cornets” announces Morocco’s entrance, his introduction to the caskets, and his exit. Arragon is introduced to the caskets by another flourish. A song accompanies Bassanios choice. In Act 5, Bassanio’s ‘tucket’ heralds his victorious return to Belmont.
These trumpeting are signs that the people of Belmont observe rituals or ceremony. In Venice, ceremony runs into difficulties. Gratiano regrets that “we have not made good preparation’ for the masque at Bassanio’s house. Solanio agrees “‘Tis vile unless it may be quaintly ordered/And better in my mind not undertook”. The ill fated masque is eventually cancelled when the inconstant wind unceremoniously changes for Belmont.
At the end of the play we see that Belmont clearly extend its influence over Venice. The theme of mercy comes with Portia from Belmont and eventually spreads over Venice.
Shakespeare is a shrewd dramatic engineer and in words of Joan Holmer he “fashions an artistic unity out of the richly varied and often contradictory elements that constitute The Merchant of Venice”. By creating, a difference between Venice and Belmont Shakespeare makes the play even more appealing and as readers, we sure can appreciate this.