Classifying The Merchant of Venice

On the basis of plot alone it would appear that The Merchant of Venice is another Shakespearean comedy.  It is a story of a young sixteenth century Venetian noble and the complicated circumstances encountered during his endeavor to marry a beautiful and wealthy heiress.  On this basis alone, the story subscribes to the pattern of a romantic comedy, but Shakespeare deviates from pure comedy with the inclusion of the downfall of a powerful, fully dimensional, antagonist that excites both empathy and pity.  In effect, The Merchant of Venice has elements of a tragedy in addition to being a romantic comedy.

David Simpson of DePaul University defines the essence of comedy as “a story of the rise in fortune of a sympathetic central character” (Simpson n.p.).  This rise in fortune is applicable to the young noble Venetian, Bassanio, whose extravagance has left him without the capital needed to subsidize his expenditures as a suitor for the beautiful and wealthy heiress, Portia.  Bassanio is without credit and must utilize that of a merchant friend, Antonio, to borrow money from a Jewish usurer, Shylock.  In return for the needed capital, Shylock holds a pound of Antonio’s flesh as forfeiture.  Sympathy is generated for Bassanio’s pursuit of love and the burden Antonio is willing to bear in order that Bassanio find happiness.  Shylock is branded as the villain with his intent to do Antonio harm should he not be able to repay the debt.  In the pattern of comedy, the fortunes of Antonio and Bassanio rise up in the face of adversity.   Antonio keeps his pound of flesh and receives half of all the wealth from the man who would have murdered him while Bassanio marries Portia.

However, Shylock cannot be dismissed as a one-dimensional evil villain typical of comedy, he is a “complex man, whose every action can be understood and who, finally, elicits understanding” (Rogers n.p.).  In the story Shylock is consistently persecuted as a Jew, loses his daughter, his wealth, and is forced to convert to Christianity.   Certainly the depiction of Shylock as a villainous and greedy Jew serves to reinforce the historical stereotype and prejudice of sixteenth century Elizabethan drama (Rogers n.p.), but Shylock is also a tragic character whose sense of decency has been broken.   He is a creature created by circumstance, not a born monster, and his quest for vengeance is the product of what he describes as the “villainy you teach me” at the hands of Christians (Shakespeare 3:I.49-57).  This theme of religious persecution is clearly expressed in the following monologue by Shylock where he argues that Jews are human and that his revenge is inspired by Christian example:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? 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?” (Shakespeare 3:I.49-53).

In essence the empathy felt towards Shylock follows some, but not all, of the principles of Aristotelian tragedy outlined by David Simpson.  The pain and suffering Shylock endures evokes “pity and fear on the part of the audience” and his downfall is a result of his “fatal choice” in not showing mercy towards Antonio (Simpson n.p.).  On the third principle Shylock falls short; he is neither “admirable” nor “good” and his demise evokes “applause rather than pity” (Simpson n.p.).  Simpson also outlines another theory of tragedy by a German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, who defined tragedy as a “dynamic contest between two opposing forces” which involves “a situation in which two rights or values are in fatal conflict” (Simpson n.p.).  From this perspective The Merchant of Venice could be viewed as the fatal conflict between Antonio and Shylock and subscribe to Hegel’s pattern of tragedy.

The Merchant of Venice is ambiguous as to the categorization of either comedy or tragedy.  Seen from the perspective of rising fortunes, romance, and marriage, it contains elements subscribing to the patterns of a comedy.  But the play is not driven by these elements alone.  The play is also driven by the tragedy of Shylock’s demise as a Jew persecuted by Christian law during his conflict with a merchant of Venice.

Works Cited

Rogers, Jami. “Shylock and History.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Jan. 2015.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. ENGL200: Composition and Literature. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011: 308-339. Web. 7 January 2015.

Simpson, David L. “Comedy and Tragedy.” DePaul University. N.p.,1998. Web. 11January 2015.