William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, tells the story of a 16th-century merchant who secured a loan from a Jewish moneylender for his friend. Considered as one of William Shakespeare’s most contemporary works, The Merchant of Venice covers various aspects, from religious to poverty, greed to bitterness. It has been viewed as either a tragedy or a comedy or both. Though several factors influence the reasoning, the elements, characters, and how the play ends are significant to its classification. The main characters Antonio, the Christian merchant, and Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, portrays an abusive and prejudicial relations between both men, with Shylock, determined to teach his Christian ‘ neighbor’ a lesson. Shylock schemes and plans his revenge against Antonio for the abuse and injuries that were inflicted upon him for being a Jew. (Shakespeare)
Reason for viewing this play
This essay is for literary research to analyze and evaluate the different viewpoints. The Merchant of Venice though classified as a comedy, comprises of various themes ranging from humor to great disappointment and sadness. The overall story was melancholic in nature as it presents unrequited love, greed, bitterness, and the anti-Semitic treatment towards Jews. Arguably, this play is neither tragedy nor comedy as it resonates with intricate details of Shakespeare’s view on society.
Shakespeare opened this play with two of its main characters Antonio, a Christian Merchant, and Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. The relationship between the two may be considered antagonistic and precarious. “Though Shylock only appears in five scenes of twenty, his story and how it is presented defines the tone of each production of this problematic play. By keeping the production in an Elizabethan setting, Shakespeare’s Globe Company has stressed the sociological mindset of that audience, making a clear connection between today’s marginalization of immigrants and the treatment of minorities in the past” (Gelber).
Bassanio, a young noble, seeks financial assistance from Antonio as his extravagant living has made him somewhat of a pauper. Antonio is unable to assist, as he has overextended himself in various ventures. He agrees to the terms of the agreement set out by Shylock and secured the loan of 3000 ducats for Bassanio. Shylock uses this opportunity to remind Antonio of his treatment towards him in the past, when he stated, “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog / And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine / And all for use of that which is mine own” (l.iii.108-110)
There many moving parts to the play, Bassanio wants to court and marry Portia because she is wealthy, Jessica Shylock’s daughter runs off with Lorenzo, a Christian, with some of her father’s money; Antonio’s motive for selflessly offering a pound of his flesh to secure the loan is still questionable. Was this out of loyalty or because he was in love with Bassanio? Portia was racist towards the Prince of Morocco because of the color of his skin. These are a few takeaways from the play in its entirety, which in itself made it more controversial to the viewer.
Is it a comedy?
The Merchant of Venice is considered a comedy; however, it lacks the satirical sketches and jokes that would classify it as comedic to some extent. Nonetheless, the stage set for this comedy could not be relied on for the happy-ending effect if it endorsed the maltreatment of people. There were some aspects of the plot that were light-hearted, such as scene 2, where Launcelot’s father Gobbo did not know that he was talking to his own son, said: “Lord worshipped might he be, what a beard hast thou got! / Thou hast got more hair on thy chin than Dobbin my fill-horse has on his tail” (II.ii.94-95). However, this production by William Shakespeare was more controversial in the feelings that it prompted. Gelber expressed at the close of his article that “despite the humor that can still be wrung from this ‘comedy,’ the production closed on a very dark note.”
Significant points of tragedy
Shakespeare’s skillful ability of interweaving of the main stories and characters created complexity in the symmetrical structure of the Merchant of Venice (Fujimura). The question one asks is: How is tragedy defined in the theatre? Dictionary.com defines tragedy as a form or base of human suffering. The somber theme that was portrayed in this classic was evident from the beginning to the end. It incites a sympathetic response from the viewer to the circumstances and characters that were brought to life. Considering Jessica’s scheme with Lorenzo and Shylock’s lack of mercy towards Antonio and vice versa, every act presented some form of tragedy.
What was learned from the play?
Is there any difference in society then as persons who were considered inferior were treated and how they are treated today? There was a strong sense of loyalty and romance, but there was also victimization, prejudice, greed for wealth, and religious indifference throughout the entire play. Act 4, scene 1, which takes place in the Venetian Court of Justice, was remarkable, as both men who consider themselves as God-fearing, were unyielding and hypocritical in their beliefs and practice. After Portia/Balthazar urged Shylock to have mercy on Antonio, he refuses to do (IV.i.180-183). Antonio was no different when he forced a Christian conversion on Shylock and decided the division of his wealth. In an article titled Pity Silenced, Alessandra Marzola states:
“Unlike the virtue extolled by Portia/ Balthazar in her initial speech, the mercy finally rendered to Shylock is harshly conditional, cruelly exacting and utterly penalizing: life and half of the capital are forgiven, but under the provisions minutely listed by Antonio. And, under the circumstance, Antonio gives proof of unprecedented exactness: the fine is retracted for one-half of Shylock’s goods, provided that the Jew lets Antonio have the other half in captive use.” (Marzola)
The term ‘all is fair in love and war’ could be used to represent the relationship between all the parties in this play as each individual acted in their own interest and by their own moral code.
William Shakespeare being the absolute genius as a classical playwright used the Merchant of Venice as a tool to educate on the social standings of his time, both economically and religiously. Done in the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare may have written this to expose how the minorities were oppressed and the stereotypes that were prevalent. Today, the play still resonates with the happenings in current society. The Merchant of Venice may be considered as a social commentary, controversial and/or anti-Semitic but the classification of a comedy or tragedy is still to be justified.
- Fujimura, Thomas H. ‘Mode and Structure in The Merchant of Venice.’ PMLA Vol. 81.No. 7 (Dec.1966): 499-511 (13 pages). 23 February 2020. .
- Gelber, Bill. ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ Early Modern Literary Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, (2017): 1-3. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/2135049112?accountid=8289. 19 02 2017.
- Marzola, Alessandra. ‘ “Pity Silenced: Economies of Mercy in The Merchant of Venice.” .’ Critical Survey 30.3 (2018): 17. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=003e2e19-c4ca-477d-a0e2-817dd33ebc9f%40sessionmgr4008.
- Shakespeare, William 1564-1616. The Merchant of Venice. We are Classic Ebooks 2010, n.d. https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B004LB5EG4.