The Merchant of Venice: A Problem Play

Several literary works defy their classification of being traditional genres. The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare is one of those plays which have defined consistent efforts of the critics to classify it in any of the genres Shakespeare has been written in. However, their efforts did not succeed, for The Merchant of Venice does not fall into any category of tragedy, comedy or romance or romantic tragedy that Shakespeare has written. It is because The Merchant of Venice has none of the Shakespearean features of either a tragedy or a comedy or a romance. Having three subplots woven into a major plot that revolves around the money lender Jew, Shylock, the play presents a highly complex plot of racial hatred, ethnic prejudice, love and honesty, and financial manipulation. None of the comic scenes, humorous word play, tragic hubris and hamartia occurs at any level in the situations or characters that are hallmarks of the comedies and tragedies, though some scenes and characters are very interesting. Even none of its characters have the stature of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes like Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth or Othello, or nor any other character or situation is as funny and humorous as in his comedies. For its feature of nor tragedy, nor a complete comedy, but a dramatic play, The Merchant of Venice has been termed a problem play.

A tragedy needs a hero of towering stature with a good moral standard and noble cause. What Critics such as A. C. Bradley have suggested that the Shakespearean hero must have a “greatness” though it could be tragic flaw or no flaw at all. However, he stresses upon the fundamental tragic trait that is an “interest, object, passion or habit of mind” but with “a touch of greatness” (20). None of them exists in any of the characters of The Merchant of Venice. It is true that Shylock suffers but has no error or omission on his part. Whatever he does is a well thought out and deliberate action what Bradley says is not the trait of a tragic hero (21). John Hazel Smith has rather termed Shylock a secondary character (05), making it easier to dismiss him a tragic figure or hero. However, while contrasting both Shylock and Antonio, the main figures, Smith says, is Antonio who is a bit generous (06). This belittles Shylock as compared to other characters despite his humanistic utterances “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?” (III. i. 60-61). Moreover, he has several other features that do not make him a tragic figure less alone a hero.

If Antonio is taken as such a character to evoke classical pity of fear and pity, then it is again wrong, for he borrows money from Shylock due to his financial constraints, but when his ships become late, he is forced by Shylock to pay. He cannot be termed a tragic hero, for he has no greatness that a hero should have and that he does not have to take up any responsibility of a hero that Shakespearean heroes often do, as shown by Bradley, who states that they must have some greatness and then should have an error or omission that leads to a chain of causes to their ultimate death or fall (20-21). Even if it is stated that Antonio turns to revenge as it “dramatizes the predicament of a wronged hero,” (Simpson), he does not fall on the criterion of a revenge tragedy. This makes him a common character despite displaying unusual generosity. On the other hand, if compared with Shylock, then Shylock seems a villain. Although Shylock exacts revenge and tries to hurt Antonio, he, in the end, pays in the shape of a heavy fine and his conversion to Christianity. Only this conversion makes him a somewhat tragic figure who is going to suffer which he has not deserved. There is somewhat fear and pity but there is no greatness and no omission or error which leads to his downfall. Therefore, none of them is a tragic character to transform The Merchant of Venice into a complete tragedy. In the same vein, it is not a complete comedy either.

A comedy is an action whose purpose is to make audience laugh for common errors in life. Therefore, it could be love, romance and slips of tongues and even other acts which make audiences and readers feel happy. David L. Simpson says, “A comedy is a story of the rise in fortune of a sympathetic central character” (Simpson). Does it mean that Antonio is a comic hero that makes The Merchant of Venice a comedy or a complete comedy. Not at all. The interesting point here is that he does not display any personal charm that David Simple has attributed the hallmark of a comic hero (Simpson). Perhaps, that is the very reason that Morris Carnovsky has questioned the very status of The Merchant of Venice as a comedy, quoting several legendary names as George Barnard Shaw to have termed it an “unpleasant play” (39). He gives a long list of its typical features to arrive at this Shaw’s conclusion including lyrical scenes, wastrels, business going on as usual and revenge (39).  He goes on to point out that only one utterance of Antonio, “Lord, What fools mortals be!” on the basis of which it could be termed a comedy (43). However, some of the various serious situations such as of Antonio’s punishment of his flesh to be given for fine and the condition of conversion of Shylock to Christianity seem to take this title off this play. Therefore, it cannot be simply stated as a comedy. It is rather stated as a dark comedy as J. A. Bryant has called such plays as “problem plays” or dark comedies (81). It is because they are far away from being called comedies or tragedies or romantic comedies.

In conclusion, it could be stated that The Merchant of Venice does not have any specific and exclusive features of a Shakespearean tragedy. Therefore, it would not be right to term it a tragedy despite the sorrowful events and revenge episodes. Shylock does not deserve to have caused any tragic emotion, nor is Antonio such a figure. Even in terms of pure comedy, The Merchant of Venice falls short of this title due to certain episodes of conversion of the Jew, and second of the revenge of that same Jew. Conversion also carries some anti-Semitic traces which does not make it a comedy. Therefore, it is true according to Bryant that the Merchant of Venice be termed a problem play or a dark comedy rather than a pure tragedy or a pure comedy.