The Merchant of Venice: Would you call it a tragedy?
Classifying ‘The Merchant of Venice’ either as a tragedy or a comedy is difficult because the elements of both can be found in it. It is a tragedy, for there is enough emotional melodrama in it like most tragedies. Simultaneously, it has the elements of a comedy and unlike a tragedy it ends on a happy note. None of the characters dies a tragic death as in Hamlet or Othello. Even the villain who is 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 saving Antonio’s neck. At the end, good has overcome evil and all the good characters are having a happy time. This proves that Merchant of Venice is a comedy. However, the situation is not as pleasant throughout the drama and it reaches the happy conclusion after being through some really tragic episodes.
Shakespeare’s villains are generally tough and painful. Shylock and Iago are particularly the most memorable ones in this regard. Both are vicious and heartless. Shylock is a real Jew. Antonio has to borrow from him against his wish despite knowing that Shylock hates him and would use any opportunity against him. If Antonio is unable to meet the deadline for repayment, he would have to pay by letting Shylock 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 the center of the drama is a loan and a complicated agreement. The plot comes a full circle at the end when the twist in the agreement is resolved. It all turns out to be a game of contract law. At the end, Portia argues in the favor of Antonio and that both the parties must abide to the contract. However, the problem with the poor agreement Shylock drafted was that it allowed him to take a pound of flesh but no blood. So, any blood 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 time drama ends, it appears more of a comedy and less of a tragedy.
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. Shakespeare takes the readers on a roller coaster throughout the drama. Tragedy elevates, tragedy falls and so on till by the end Shylock is lost thinking where his evil plan betrayed him. The readers are treated with such humor in the drama that they would not see it as a tragedy. Shakespeare has balanced the tragic and comic elements in his work that by the end comedy spills over the brim.
Shylock’s cruelty and thirst for revenge become his weaknesses and do not let him see where his plot is failing. Antonio has a good and kind heart and that heart is saved at last. However, it does not mean that there are no dark elements in the drama. Antonio is subjected to severe pain that leaves him feeling hopeless and depressed. He thinks he will be unable to pay Shylock’s loan. Shylock holds an old grudge against him and it is why he is bent upon getting revenge. Antonio despite being kind-hearted is subjected to the pain and agony of waiting for cruel death to arrive. He is certain that Shylock will not spare him. The kind of agony he is subjected to, what if for a limited period, is appalling and that is the most tragic element in the drama.
On the other hand Shylock too had to face losses for which it seems he is subjected to a more cruel fate at Shakespeare’s hands than he deserved. 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 be able to achieve his revenge. However, 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 to leave his property to his daughter and son in law after his death. So, things are actually more than happy by the time drama reaches its end than expected. Shylock, standing in the court of law ends up looking a monkey, stripped of its tail. The protagonist and team are having the last laugh. Again, Shakespeare leaves you marveling at his genius. He has given the readers a sharp dose of both humor 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 readers engaged. 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 is also comic and gives us some inkling of what is about to unfold. So, The Merchant of Venice is neither a tragedy or comedy but instead a combination of both. If the tragedy and pain in the drama are deep, then equally deep is the flavor of humor in it.