William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: Tragedy or Comedy?
William Shakespeare is a very famous playwright who has produced equally famous plays that touch the hearts of the audiences with a variety of emotions—anger, pity, romance, sadness, and much more. He has been famous for writing and producing plays that tinker with both the tragedy and comedy of life. After all, literature is meant to reflect the different things that are happening in the realities of society. Although the same perception cannot be judged on some of his plays which have touched on the magical and mythical like in the case of A Midsummer’s Night, he has many other plays which he has written that portray stories of the tragic which has transcended time—as with the likes of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet which is already considered as classic. It is not with romance only which was subjected to the tragic themes of William Shakespeare. As literature is meant to portray the events and issues that are happening in the realities of society, his other plays have mirrored the contempt and malicious hearts of men as with the examples of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. However, an issue on whether a work is indeed a tragedy of a comedy is reflected on William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The play is classified under a comedy, and yet, there have been considerable arguments on whether the play in actuality is a tragedy. It is very simple in plot and contains the usual witty women and intellectual banter that seems to pervade William Shakespeare’s plays. Although there is a considerable amount of thoughts to ponder on whether the play is really a tragedy or a comedy, the play will reveal whether it is the former or the latter in the manner of which perspective it is looked at.
The Merchant of Venice
The play portrays the lives of the merchants of Venice and some aspects of religion and even discrimination. The play opens in Antonio’s demise in finding the solution to Bassanio’s problem of money. Bassanio wants to marry the wealthy Portia but has no money to pursue her; thus, he goes to his friend Antonio, a wealthy merchant, to lend him the much coveted money. However, Antonio has just invested his money elsewhere, leaving them in a predicament. This is solved by Shylock, a merchant who is much in conflict with Antonio for the reason that he, Shylock, is a Jew. The conflict of the play arises when Shylock asks for an “equal pound / Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken” (1.3.140) if Antonio is unable to pay the money. Unfortunately, Antonio agrees, and this is what constitutes the events in the play that will soon follow after.
It was soon known that Antonio’s investments were altogether subject to loss and despair which makes Shylock request for the pound of flesh valid according to the law. Although there are romantic moments between the characters of the play (Bassanio and Portia, Jessica and Lorenzo, and Nerissa and Graziano), the focal point is really the conflict between Shylock and Antonio. The play concludes when Shylock appears in court along with the rest of the characters to get what was rightfully his—Antonio’s pound of flesh. However, Portia disguises herself as a man and defends Antonio with witty and brilliant logic which vouches for Antonio’s life.
The Question of the Tragic and the Comic
The question on whether the play was a comedy or a tragedy actually depends on which perspective a person would use in analyzing the play. Although there have been substantial amount of evidence in proving that the play is a comedy, I still believe that the play is a tragedy—on Shylock’s case, that is. The comic part probably relies on William Shakespeare’s background and that the usual formula he uses on categorizing his plays as a comedy are ultimately applicable to The Merchant of Venice. The play has been classified under a comedy according to Shakespeare himself: “The Merchant of Venice, like most of Shakespeare’s comedies, is about love and marriage” (Mowat and Werstine xiii). Shakespeare himself classified the play under such category since the play ends in the failure of the Jew, Shylock, and the triumph of the Venetian Christians, Antonio, Bassanio, and Graziano. This can be only attributed to the fact that Shakespeare himself is prejudiced against Jews and does not feel any melancholic sadness over the tragic fate of Shylock—being forcefully converted to a Christian, having lost his only daughter and almost losing all of his properties and wealth: “Shakespeare seems to have shared in a widespread…despicable prejudice against Jews” (Mowat and Werstine xiii). Shakespeare cannot be blamed for such prejudice of course since it is only understandable that at the time which he lived in, Jews were either mocked or (in some historical cases) killed. If it would be assessed in today’s radical thinking, the prejudice of the Europeans can only be considered as a common case of racism which is still prevalent in many parts of the globe.
Shylock’s character as a Jew can be considered as something which is a wonder to look at—a clown or novelty of some sort, since “In Shakespeare’s England there had been no Jews for a long time, except for an occasional visitor…” (Mowat and Werstine, xiii). Thus, the play being classified as a comedy is right if it is perceived with regard to Shakespeare’s background and time.
However, modern essayists have also contemplated on the fact the play is comedy, no matter which perspective it is looked at. Paul J. Voss, for example, wrote a review on different critical essays which have discussed the play as whether a tragedy or a comedy: “Clearly, though, Shylock at some level fits perfectly within the framework of Shakespearean comedy. There is no literary need to upset the structure of the play and to create a tragedy out of an ostensible comedy” (406). Voss seems to be implying that any other angle of looking at the play is just another case of over-analyzing or over-reading the play. In my opinion, he is terribly misinformed or even ignorant of the more important aspects of the play. Aside from the fact that Shakespeare himself was prejudiced against the Jews, it makes the play a tragedy of some sort—the tragedy of Shakespeare and the Christian Venetian. They are merely committing a crime of ignorance—and it is with this ignorance which justifies the premise that Shylock is a tragic hero.
In my most humble of opinions, the play is undeniably tragedy. Shylock’s thunderous speech about the injustices done to him by Antonio and the rest of the Venetian community is a proof that he is undermined and ridiculed by the Christians. This is coming from their ignorant belief that Jews needs to be converted to Christianity as what Antonio forced Shylock to do at the end of the play. Shylock’s speech is what constitutes the whole despicable discrimination of Antonio:
SHYLOCK. He hath disgraced me… [and] scorned my nation… and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. (3.1.46-64)
It is through Miller’s definition of a classic tragic hero which justifies the judgment of the play as a tragedy: “his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status” (3). Because of what Shylock was desperately trying to convey in the entirety of the play—that he is a Jew, that Antonio has “wronged” him because he is a Jew, and he will have his revenge for such ill-treatment—is what triumphantly makes him a hero of a tragedy. In conclusion, as what Miller has written in his essay, Tragedy and the Common Man: “the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing—his sense of personal dignity” (3). My conviction and judgment lies in this knowledge—that The Merchant of Venice was written to be called a comedy, and ironically, it ended up as being a tragedy.
Miller, Arthur. “Tragedy and the Common Man.” The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller. New York: Viking Press, 1978. 3-7.
Mowat, Barbara A. and Paul Werstine. “Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.” The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. xiii-xiv.
Shakespeare, William. New York: The Merchant of Venice. New York: Simon & Schuster,
Voss, Paul J. “The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays.” Christianity and Literature, 53.3 (2004): 406-408.