Merchant of Venice – Tragedy or Comedy

Author- | Posted- | Updated: August 25, 2019 |

The Merchant of Venice: Would you call it a tragedy?

Classifying ‘The Merchant of Venice’ as a tragedy or comedy is difficult since it resembles both. It is a tragedy as it is filled with emotional melodrama like most tragedies. There are also elements of comedy in it and moments full of laughter and fun. Moreover, unlike a tragedy, the drama ends on a happy note. None of the characters dies a tragic death as in Hamlet or Othello.  Even the villain, a cruel Jew ends up ‘looking a fool’ by the time the drama concludes. At the end, all the characters in positive roles are happy and a big tragedy has been averted. Merchant of Venice is unique in another aspect also.

It also casts a heroine who is just as beautiful as she is smart. Portia is not an ordinary beauty or a damsel in distress like Desdemona. She is a witty and smart young woman who at last defeats the villain in the court and saves Antonio’s life. At the end, good wins over evil and all the positive characters are left feeling happy. This proves that  Merchant of Venice is a comedy. However, the situation is not absolutely pleasant throughout the drama and it reaches its happy conclusion after passing several tragic episodes. The drama moves along jig-jag lines and through crests and troughs. The origin of all the tragedy lies in Shylock who is a disgruntled Jew and his excess greed for money as well as jealousy of Antonio and his wealth and reputation. Comedy in the drama erupts from several sources and sometimes even the villain leaves you laughing with his fantastic sense of humour.   

Shakespeare’s villains are generally difficult nuts to crack. Shylock and Iago are particularly the most complex.  They are vicious and heartless. Shylock is a real corrupt and greedy Jew. Antonio has to borrow from him against his wish despite knowing Shylock hates him and would use this opportunity against him. If Antonio is unable to meet the deadline for repayment, Shylock would carve a pound of flesh out of his chest. Most important thing about Shakespeare’s villains is that they are not easily predictable. Shylock’s character also exhibits similar contradictions. The Jewish money lender appears quite human at times in the drama when he speaks as the advocate of the Jews. At times, he uses humour to engage his audience and demonstrates both wisdom and cunning wit in his dialogues.

At the core of the drama are a financial loan and a complicated bargain. The plot comes a full circle at the end when the complication is resolved. At the end, Portia argues in the favour of Antonio and that both the parties must abide to the contract. However, the problem with the poor contract Shylock drafted was that he could take a pound of flesh and no blood. So, any blood he shed in the process, was Shylock’s liability. The kind of punishment Shylock is subjected to at the end is even tragic. He loses everything from his children to his possessions. So, many comical things happen by the end of the drama that it appears more of a comedy and less a tragedy. All the good characters are happy and satisfied. However, the cruel Jew has lost it all in his battle against Antonio including relatives, goodwill and wealth.

 Shakespeare’s villains take highly calculated steps. They are sharp at planning and even sharper at execution. Shylock would have successfully taken his shot at Antonio’s heart, had not Portia intervened. Portia’s intelligence in the drama serves as a remedy for Shylock’s cunningness. Tragedy elevates, tragedy falls and by the end when the dust has settled, Shylock is unable to calculate why his plan failed.  The readers are treated with such humour that they would never see in a tragedy. Shakespeare has balanced the tragic and comic elements in his work so well and lets none spill over the brim.

Shylock’s cruelty and thirst for revenge are his weaknesses and blind him against his adversaries resourcefulness. Antonio is wealthy, influential and people respect him in the society. He has a good and kind heart which is saved at last from coming under Shylock’s knife. However, Antonio is subjected to severe pain and hopelessness. The situation is creepy until the arrival of Portia. Antonio believes it is his end and he will be unable to pay Shylock’s loan. Shylock holds an old grudge against him and wants revenge. Antonio despite being kind-hearted is subjected to sever pain and agony. He is certain that Shylock will not spare him. The agony he is subjected to even for a limited period, is disturbing and that is the most tragic element in the drama. he feels Shylock’s knife getting closer to his heart every second.

On the other hand, Shylock loses so much in the drama that it seems Shakespeare has treated him with more tragedy than the other main characters. His daughter Jessica has eloped with Lorenzo, Antonio’s friend. While trying to satisfy an old grudge, Shylock goes on making a fool of himself. Till the end, he is certain that he will certainly get revenge against Antonio. On the contrary, he is on the verge of losing everything once Portia disguised as the clerk has cleverly brought him to justice. Shylock is made to pay a hefty fine and forced to reform. He has been caught trying to murder an innocent Christian. He is to become a Christian and leave his property to his daughter and son in law after his death. So, things are actually happier by the time drama reaches its end.

Shylock, standing in the court of law, ends up looking a monkey, stripped of all his belongings. The protagonist and his team are having the last laugh. Again, Shakespeare leaves you marvelling at his genius. He has given the readers a sharp dose of humour and tragedy. If the tragedy and Antonio’s pain in the drama are remarkable, then equally remarkable are the happy events and use of comic situations to keep the readers engaged throughout. Launcelot Gobbo and elder Gobbo treat the readers with humor in Act 2. Portia gets the husband of her choice despite her father’s complicated test. Her appearance with Nerissa as the lawyer without their husbands knowing who they are is also comic and gives us some inkling of what is about to unfold. So, The Merchant of Venice is neither just a tragedy nor comedy but instead a fulfilling combination of the two. If the tragedy and pain in the drama are deep, the flavour of humour in it is equally intense. Moreover, whenever the level of tragedy escalates, Shakespeare relieves the readers by injecting humour which shows he uses comedy to keep readers interested.

Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.