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    How helpful is it to call the ‘Merchant of Venice’ a comedy Essay

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    The term ‘comedy’ is a story that ends in a happy resolution, often in marriage. Since the ‘Merchant of Venice’ is classed as a romantic comedy, it also involves an engaging heroine. The comedy usually involves a struggle but towards the end, all pieces are supposed to fall into place. “The characters and their discomfitures engage our pleasurable attention rather than out profound concern” – M. H. Abhram (i. e. rather than feeling sympathetic for the misfortunes of characters on stage, we respond to them in a positive and amusing manner). One typical characteristic of a comedy is that it usually contains humour in one way or another.

    The ‘Merchant of Venice’ is definitely a play which contains plenty of humours scenes. In fact, in the second scene of the play; a lighter humorous tone is introduced. In this scene, Portia describes the male characters using national stereotypes in quite an amusing manner. “He bought his doublet in Italy, hose in France, and his behaviour everywhere. ” (L61). Portia also jokes and exaggerates her negative opinions of the gentlemen who want her hand in marriage “God defend me from these two! ” (L44). The fact that this casual scene is written in prose rather than blank verse also suggests that the tone is less serious.

    Another comical scene is II. ii where Lancelot, Shylock’s clumsy servant is introduced. There are many examples of malapropism in his speech “Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation”. (L21). We can tell that although he says ‘incarnation’ he actually means ‘incarnate’. Though this may perhaps be less humorous to the modern audience, when this play was initially written; it is likely that an Elizabethan audience would have reacted differently to this. There is also darker ironic comedy later in the scene when Lancelot’s father Gobbo enters and fails to recognise his son. “Master Young man, you” (L25).

    Act II, scene ix can also be regarded as a humorous event in the story at the expense of the Prince of Arragon. In this scene, Arragon is portrayed as a man who is shallow since he refuses to “give and hazard all he hath” simply for “base lead”. This shows that he is one to judge on appearance. Arragon goes on to pick to dismiss the gold casket in a hypocritical manner as he refuses to “jump with common spirits” (L31). This not only reveals an inflated opinion of himself and a rather low opinion of others, causing the majority of the audience to respond unfavourably to actions.

    Furthermore, he rarely mentions Portia in this scene and this also gives us a negative impression of him. It is even more ironic the way he happens to “get what he deserves” (L49). Before he unlocks the casket, his “assumption of desert” (L50) is also another example of arrogance. Effectively, the Prince of Arragon has been made a scapegoat for the audience to laugh at and the way that he fails miserably in his quest despite his own self-confidence is quite amusing “Still more fool I shall appear. ” (L72).

    This scene is also emphasised as something comedic considering how it contrasts with the previous casket scene with Morocco in II. viii. In this scene, though Morocco is confident in himself; he shows caring for Portia and picks the wrong casket for the right reason “Never so rich a gem, Was set in worse than gold. ” (L54-55). So we feel sympathetic for his losses. Arragon has picked the wrong casket for the wrong reason so we laugh at his losses. The contrast makes Arragon’s losses even more laughable and even more amusing in comparison with Morocco’s.

    Another area of the play which could perhaps be regarded as humorous could be II. viii where Salarino and Salanio are making cruel jokes mocking Shylock behind his back. “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! ” (L15). Although the modern audience may see this scene as a harsh one, to an Elizabethan audience; the response may have been very different. Back in Elizabethan times, there would have been issues of prejudice between Christians and Jews. Therefore, it is possible that a Christian audience who responded unfavourably to Shylock may have found this scene quite amusing.

    Speaking of the Elizabethan audience, they may also have found that Shylock’s ending may have been positive. Although many would regard his end as one which is tragic, some could argue that by forcing Shylock to become a Christian; Antonio rescued Shylock and gave him salvation. This is due to the fact that in Elizabethan times, people believed that only Christians could go to heaven and Jews were unable to. The ‘ring bond’ which both Bassanio and Gratiano make with their lovers could also be regarded as a comic event in the ‘Merchant of Venice’.

    It is made clear in Act III Scene ii that if “this ring, Which when one parts from, Presages the ruin of love” (L171-173). Though later in Act IV Scene I, Nerissa and Portia (disguised as the lawyer and clerk) request that these rings be given to them as reward for their good deed. “For your love, I’ll take this ring from you. ” (L423). This is done in order to test Bassanio and Gratiano on their faithfulness towards Portia and Nerissa. “I’ll see if I can get my husband’s ring, Which I did make him swear to keep forever” (L13-14).

    The use of dramatic irony gives the audience quite an amusing overview of the entire situation. Later in Act V, a joke is played on Bassanio and Gratiano by Portia and Nerissa giving them quite a scare as a way of punishing them for their carelessness. Nerissa for example complains that her ring was given away to a “scrubbi?? d boy” (L261). This is quite funny one the audience’s part seeing the two males squirm at the feet of their lovers “By my soul I swear I will nevermore break an oath with thee” (L249). Though besides the humor, the episode of the ring bond runs through like a typical comedy.

    Even though the course of love between the ring bearers has not run smoothly, Gratiano and Bassanio were forgiven in the end. The last two lines of the play are displayed in rhyming couplets to emphasize the resolution. “Well, while I live I’ll fear no other thing, So sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring. ” (L306-307). Speaking of the rest of Act V, there is a strong sense of harmony. “Soft stillness of the night Becomes the touches of sweet harmony. ” (L57). Like a romantic comedy – it ends in a marriage. Not just one marriage, but three marriages.

    Nerissa is united with Gratiano, Portia with Bassanio and Lorenzo with Jessica. Despite the rough road that has passed, all of the main characters have ended the play on a high. Even though Antonio is not married to anyone, his life has been saved from the wrath of a merciless man. The way that “three of his argosies richly come to harbour” (L275) is highly unusual and makes the event appear fairytale-like. Since this event is so abnormal, it shows how much has been done to simply tidy up the loose areas and it shows that ‘The Merchant of Venice’ was probably intended to be a comedy.

    Like a typical romantic comedy, the ‘Merchant of Venice’ also contains the role of an engaging heroine, this role being played by that of Portia. At the beginning of the play, we can see clearly that she is a victim of the ‘patriarchal society’ that exists in both Venice and Belmont. Her father’s will meant that she is unable to “choose” or “refuse” (L19-20) in terms of the man she is to marry. Though by Act IV, she has managed to release herself from the boundaries of female obligation and is able to give a triumphant contribution to the course of events.

    She has not only managed to save Antonio’s life but has also cunningly lured Shylock into a trap “Tarry, Jew: The law hath yet another hold on you. ” (L343-344). She manages to give Antonio and opportunity to “seize one half of his goods” and the other half was donated to “the privy coffer of the state. ” (L350). Furthermore, she has also left Shylock at the “mercy of the duke. ” (L359). By doing this, she is able to engage with the audience and also overcome many obstacles that she was put under. Both of these attributes are emblematic of a character in a romantic comedy.

    However, despite all of the comedic factors that this play contains, there are also areas in this play which could perhaps be related to the storyline of a tragedy. A ‘Shakespearean Style Tragedy’ usually involves a fall from a great height, resulting in death. The actions of the main characters give us a sense of waste and they “arouse pity and fear” (Aristotle). Furthermore, the main character in a tragedy also has a fatal flaw in himself that leads to his own downfall. In ‘The Merchant of Venice’, Shylock is perhaps one of the characters that plays a tragic role in this story.

    When we first see him in Act I Scene iii, he elicits our sympathy when we see all the misery that Antonio has put him through. “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, And spit upon my Jewish gabardine. ” (L103-104). Though it is arguable that Shylock could be exaggerating his grievances, Antonio’s response fully reassures the audience that everything that Shylock speaks is true “I am as like to call thee so again, to spurn thee too. ” (L123). Some may argue that it is not possible to sympathise with Shylock for his malicious nature and his desire for a pound of Antonio’s “fair flesh” (L143).

    One must think if he’s acting in such a twisted manner; what could Antonio have possibly done to turn him into something like this? Because of this, I believe that the way he acts would make us feel even more sympathetic towards him. In spite of our sympathy, the misery Antonio has placed him through has left him with a fatal flaw that leads tragic characters to their downfall. This fatal flaw is the “Ancient grudge” that he bears for Antonio and his sheer desire for revenge against him. There are many examples in the play where we are able to see his ruthlessness and vindictive character.

    Such as in III. i, when he first hears Antonio’s ship has been lost and that he may possibly have his bond “I thank god, I thank god. Is it true, is it true? ” (L81). The way he repeats his words for reassurance shows just how his desperation and emphasises his pleasure in the idea of someone else’s downfall. In III. iii, Shylock also shows his obsessive characteristics “I’ll have my bond, speak not against my bond, I will have my bond. ” (L4-5). Once again, he constantly uses repetition to emphasise his emotions and cuts Antonio off twice, not allowing him to speak.

    In Act IV, like other tragic characters; he falls from a great height to a moment of total loss. Towards the start of the scene, he is in a state of total power and he constantly revels in it to the expense of other characters. “Thou canst rail the seal from off my bond. ” (i. e. “Whatever you say will not change my mind about what I am going to do. “) (L139). Alas, his own actions eventually lead to his own undoing. Due to his ruthlessness, he insisted on going exactly by his bond and refusing to do anything to stop Antonio from bleeding to death “I cannot find it, ’tis not in the bond. ” (L258).

    Yet, because of this; he has given Portia the opportunity to find a loophole in the law and as a result, punish him for it “Tarry Jew, the law has another hold on you. ” (L343-344). Previously, Portia had given Shylock plenty of opportunities to be merciful with Antonio and made a huge speech persuading him to do so “The quality of mercy is not strained, it blesseth him that gives. ” (L183). But due to his ‘fatal flaw’, Shylock was too obsessed to heed her warning of the trap that was set. If we think about Shylock’s course of actions; had he decided to go away with the money, things would perhaps have turned out very well for him.

    But, as said before – his ‘fatal flaw’ has become the cause of his agony. Shylock’s losses are further emphasised by the way that others rub in his losses. Gratiano is perhaps the worst culprit of this, mocking Shylock in what he said earlier “A second Daniel! I thank thee, Jew, for teaching me that word. ” (L337). To add insult to injury, Antonio forces him to become a Christian and to give his possessions to his daughter (who previously betrayed him) after he dies. The ironic way he says “I am content” (L390) also underlines his fall. Over the course of time, he has become victim of not only Antonio but a victim of his daughter as well.

    In Act V, Shylock has been reduced to a non-entity and this is a final statement of just how badly he has fallen due to his own actions and this effectively could characterize him as a tragic character. It is also arguable that all of the losses and all of the pain Antonio has gone through in this play could be regarded as something tragic. He is brought ever so close to his death and had Portia not been there to save him, his life would have been at the mercy of Shylock. Keeping in mind Shylock’s personality, he would not have hesitated to cut his “pound of flesh” from Antonio.

    Antonio could perhaps also have a fatal flaw in him that leads to his potential downfall and I think this is probably his excessive caring and compassion for his friends. This is most evident in the first scene of the play when he speaks with Bassanio. In Bassanio’s speech starting from L121, we can tell he is trying to build up a persuasive argument to ask Antonio to lend him money. Before Bassanio finishes, Antonio tells him to “let him know” (L134) what he wants. “My purse, my person, my extremest means, lie unlocked to your occasions. ” (L137-138).

    This shows he is willing to also offer up all of his services to Bassanio regardless of the consequence and it is carelessness that leads him into the predicament with Shylock. Though it is possible to say, that since Antonio did not die in the end and since he turned out relatively well; his role cannot be regarded as a tragic one. Antonio is in fact perhaps one of the luckiest characters in the play. Not only does he manage to escape death, he is also fortunate to have his ships arrive from sea despite all the other news that has come concerning it.

    “Three of your argosies, richly come to harbour” (L278, V. i. . Yet another counter-argument states that the miseries that Antonio suffers are not typical of a comedy either. The society in which this play is set in is also questionable when considering whether it is a comedy or tragedy. This world seems to be far more than the mere ‘fairytale’ land at which it first appears. Unlike characters in an ordinary comedy, many of the characters in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ possess a bitter prejudice against people of other races and religions.

    Most prominent of these areas are perhaps the attitudes of the Christian characters towards Shylock. Examples of this are shown in II. iii when Salarino and Solanio refer to Shylock as “The villain Jew” (L4) and “The dog Jew” (L14). Throughout the play, there are few times where others refer to Shylock by his name; many refer to him as “The Jew”, often coupled with various other unpleasant adjectives. This shows that these characters are discriminating against Shylock primarily due to his religion and his faith.

    In the opening scenes of the play, Portia also shows signs of racial discrimination when she speaks of Morocco, claiming that even if “he hath the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil (i. e. f he was of a darker skin colour). ” (L107), she would refuse to marry him. This shows that the world of this play is one this is somewhat unpleasant and not typical of a comedy. The ending in Act V is also more than it simply appears on the surface. Even though it may seem resolved and complete on the outside, there is still a prevailing dark undertone that one cannot help but realise. For example, during the ‘romantic’ scene between Lorenzo and Jessica, other pairs of lovers are such as Troilus and Cressid (L4-6); Pyramus and Thisbe (L8); Dido and Carthage (L10-12) and Medea and Aeson (L13-14).

    When we look into the stories of these lovers, they all deal with tragedy and betrayal. For a newly married couple, it seems somewhat unusual and gloomy to compare themselves with these tragic lovers. Also, despite the fact that the tragic character of Shylock may have left the play; there are still a few areas where he is hinted at in the final scene. “The man that hath no music, is fit for treasons, stratagems etc… ” (L85). Since it is known for Shakespeare to generally relate positive things with music, it is unlikely that Lorenzo is referring to anyone else.

    However, this comment seems to reflect ironically upon Lorenzo when we consider what he has done in the past. He was in fact the one that used treasons and stratagems to win Jessica over and steal her from Shylock. It makes him appear a little hypocritical in his speech. Portia is also guilty of this when she speaks of her “good deed in a naughty world. ” (L91). But when we think about all the pain Shylock has been put through, her actions were not necessarily a ‘good deed’. Lastly, in Act V; Antonio (though reunited with his money) is not united with any female in this play.

    He has no lover to share his fortunes with and this shows that Act V is perhaps not an entirely ‘neat or happy ending’ and effectively shows that the ending of the “Merchant of Venice” may not be entirely comical after all. In the end however, I would say it is quite useful to classify ‘The Merchant of Venice’ as a comedy. Even though many would argue that the it is a tragicomedy (with elements of both a tragedy and a comedy) or a problem play (a play that is difficult to characterise), there are very few films that are entirely clear cut with elements of only one type of play.

    For example, when we look at Macbeth – there are some elements of humour in the play (Porter scene as Mac Duff enters Macbeth’s castle) but no one has ever doubted that the play is a tragedy. Tragic plays can have comic elements and comedic plays can have tragic elements. I believe that since ‘The Merchant of Venice’ predominantly contains comic elements, it should be classified as a comedy.

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