The Merchant of Venice Structure: Comedy or Tragedy?

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      The Merchant of Venice is often listed under the category of Shakespearean comedy. Keep in mind that comedy, in Elizabethan times, did not mean the same thing it does today. If someone were to tell us there was a comedy playing at one of our local movie theatres today, we would expect to see a movie that makes you laugh a lot. In Shakespeare's time, a person going to the theatre to see a comedy would expect to see a play about love. A Shakespearean comedy often includes the trials and tribulations of a young man and woman who have fallen in love at first sight and then must contend with a variety of challenges to realize that love. By the end of the play, they are married.

      In The Merchant of Venice, audiences find these elements in the structure of the play. There are three marriages, actually: Portia and Bassanio; Nerissa and Gratiano; and Jessica and Lorenzo. Bassanio must face the challenge of money and the guessing of the correct casket in order to win the hand of Portia. Lorenzo must secretory steal Jessica from her father's house at night. Gratiano appears to have little or no challenge, except for winning permission from Bassanio to go to Belmont.

      However, it is the stories of these three couples that makes this play a comedy.

      Shakespeare appears to mix the elements of comedy and tragedy in the play The Merchant of Venice, therefore leading some critics to classify The Merchant of Venice as a problem play. In other words, it is a combination of tragedy and comedy, and therefore, there is difficulty in placing it completely in one category or the other. Certainly, if you look at this play through the eyes of Shylock, there would be no comedy seen at all. Shylock loses everything by the end of the drama, including his right to maintain his own identity as a Jew. Shakespearean tragedies involve death; and even though there is no actual death in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock tells the court that if they take away everything he has, they might as well kill him. In Shylock's case, life after the courtroom scene might be more tragic than death. He makes his daughter's suitors face an interesting puzzle, which they must solve to prove their worth. He does so in a set of three chests, three being a somewhat magical number in most traditional fairy tales. The riddles that are presented are very simple on the surface, but the analyses of these riddles will identify what each suitor contains in the depth of his heart and soul. Will the suitor be fooled by the luster of the gold chest, thus demonstrating his lust for surface beauty? Will he go for the silver, arrogantly believing that he deserves Portia? Or will he rightly choose the leaden chest, as Bassanio does, realizing that true beauty lies within. This part of the play is didactic in the sense that it teaches the audience that, as Shakespeare writes on the note inside the golden casket, "All that glisters is not gold." Like a fable, the play teaches a lesson.

      Reflecting the division that is inherent in the play between comedy and tragedy is the division in the setting between Venice and Belmont. Venice is the place of business, where money is made, lent, and lost; where cultures clash; where fathers and daughters do not get along; and where courts decide who will live and who will die. Venice is the world of challenges, unhappy people, and prejudice. In Venice, Antonio is filled with sadness, though he has much wealth. Likewise, Shylock is embittered because his wealth does not earn him respect. The people of Venice, as portrayed in this play, center their lives on money instead of on love.

      Belmont, the other half of the setting in The Merchant of Venice, represents the opposite of Venice. It is separated from Venice in many ways. Belmont is the fairy-tale city of music and love. Although there is much money there, fortunes are secondary to love. Whereas Venice is portrayed in darker tones, Belmont is light and colorful. People are happy, festive, and generous in Belmont.

      The play itself is divided in form and themes; so the setting of the two varied places helps to emphasize the double visions of the underlying currents of the play.

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