Renowned as the greatest playwright and poet in history, William Shakespeare has transformed English literature with his vast collection of comedies, tragedies, and historic plays. His works are especially susceptible to various interpretations due to his use of language and artful expression of radical ideas. While many of William Shakespeare’s plays unquestionably fall under the genres of comedy or tragedy, The Merchant of Venice has heated debates among scholars and writers for its ambiguity. However, from the amount of comedic relief and irony displayed in the play, the lack of a tragic hero, and the happy endings of all the protagonists, The Merchant of Venice is without a doubt a comedy.
Throughout the entire play, Shakespeare inserts comic relief, humor, and irony. Let’s consider the time period that the Merchant of Venice was written in. This play heavily reflects the anti-Semitism of the 16th century. During the Renaissance, Jews were hated in Christian Europe for the most part. There were laws which kept them segregated and prevented them from interacting with basically the Christian society. To the audience of that time and even today, The Merchant of Venice can be seen as a comedy because of its religious stereotypes. Shylock is presented as a typical Jew. He is a moneylender, portrayed as a cruel materialistic father who values money more than his daughter. What makes the play ironic is that Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, falls in love with a Christian and steals all of her father’s money. Shylock, the antagonist that no one roots for, ultimately loses all of his possessions, even his identity as a Jew. In addition, Shakespeare sprinkles in humor in the scene where Bassanio tells Antonio that he “would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all here to this devil [Shylock], to deliver” Antonio (Act IV Scene I Line 286-287). When he gives the lawyer the ring which he swore to Portia that he will never lose, it shows that Bassanio values his Antonio over Portia. Hilariously, Portia, along with her servant Nerissa, happens to be there at the scene disguised as the lawyer defending Antonio. Of course, no one takes notice of their true identity. In the end, Portia jokes that the ring was a gift from the lawyer after she slept with him, which she actually got from the very hands of her husband. Shakespeare is also known for his use of comical relief in his plays. This is especially prevalent in the Merchant of Venice, in which he includes not only comedic twists but also interesting characters to lighten up the mood after intense scenes. Launcelot Gobbo, a clown and Shylock’s servant, is introduced in Act Two, where he has a scene with his blind father who fails to recognize him. He also performs an entertaining soliloquy, arguing with himself in the lighthearted scene.
In the end, the play concludes on a comical note as all the protagonists have a happy resolution. Portia eventually marries Bassanio, whom she was initially interested in. Although Portia was bound by the lottery in her father’s will, which forced her to marry whichever suitor who chose the correct casket, she gets to be with the man of her choice in the end. Meanwhile, Antonio is miraculously spared from his charges and cleared from his debt from Shylock, his cargo ships which were rumored to be wrecked at sea come home safe and sound, and he even receives half of Shylock’s money. Even though they are not the main protagonists, with their efforts of elopement, Jessica and Lorenzo are finally together. As a bonus, Lorenzo gets to have all the money and riches that Jessica had stolen from her father, Shylock. Just as we think that two marriages are more than enough in one single play, Gratiano and Nerissa randomly fall in love with each other in the end. In short, the play ends in favor of all the protagonists of the play.
If we look at the bigger picture, the overall mood of The Merchant of Venice is relatively lighthearted compared to the other Shakespearean plays, specifically tragedies. This play cannot be characterized as a tragedy because a tragic hero doesn’t appear anywhere in the five acts. Although some may argue that Shylock qualifies to be a tragic hero, he does not evoke pity from the readers. Not only does he have countless villainous traits, he is narrow-minded and values money over his family. Even when his daughter Jessica elopes with Bassanio, Shylock is more concerned and infuriated by the fact that he lost all of his wealth rather than the safety of Jessica, born of his flesh and blood. He also lacks compassion and mercy as he refuses to forgive Antonio and insists that Antonio must serve his punishment cutting a pound of flesh from his body. However with help of Portia who cleverly manipulates the law in Antonio’s favor, Shylock falls under his own trap in the end. Although he is the only character who suffers from a tragic ending, the audience does not feel obligated to sympathize for him. Rather than having pity on him, some may even cheer for his deserved conclusion.
While William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice can be interpreted in numerous ways, the play is definitely a comedy. Through Shakespeare’s use of comedic relief in the plot and his characters as well as having a happy resolution for all the protagonists in the play, the overall mood is lighthearted and comical. The lack of a tragic hero further supports the fact that The Merchant of Venice cannot be a tragedy.