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The Merchant of Venice: A Romantic Comedy

From Insights, 1992


The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, probably written in 1596 and 1597, and forms one of a group of such comedies, along with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night.

Romantic comedy was a popular and much-preferred type in Elizabethan theatre, and all the trappings of such are present in The Merchant of Venice. First, the romantic involvement is represented not by one couple only, but by three (Portia and Bassanio, Gratiano and Nerissa, and Jessica and Lorenzo). Also Elizabethans expected in their romantic comedies certain characters and situations and a certain kind of plot development: the chief element and central motive was love; the heroine was frequently disguised as a man through part of the play, thus providing opportunities for comic misunderstanding; and comedy was also provided by the wit of the heroine herself, who was always more clever than the men in the play.

In a romantic comedy the necessary conflict is between the lovers on one hand and some barrier to the fulfillment of their love on the other. In The Merchant of Venice the barrier is, of course, Shylock’s hold over Antonio, which in turn involves his friend Bassanio. The resolution of a romantic comedy consists in overcoming the barrier, usually bringing about marriages.

Shakespeare follows this closely but has complicated the basic pattern in The Merchant of Venice, wherein he skillfully weaves together four separate stories, all interconnected.

The bond story links Bassanio and Portia to Shylock through Antonio, the merchant. Bassanio needs money in order to woo Portia, and his friend Antonio is that source, even though he must borrow from the usurer Shylock, giving as surety a “pound of flesh.” This bond is agreed upon in such away that there is question whether Antonio or Bassanio take the condition seriously.

However, it is plain to the audience that Shylock does indeed intend to take his pound “nearest the heart.” Culmination of the bond story provides the second great crisis of the play.

The casket story has to do with Portia, the “lady richly left,”and the stipulation in her father’s will that the suitor who wins her hand can only do so by choosing the right one of three caskets. Bassanio faces this task, and it provides the first great crisis of the play.

The elopement story is the first of two minor plots which fill out the action. Lorenzo,a friend of Bassanio’s and Antonio’s, elopes with Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, thus affecting Shylock’s attitude and behavior and contributing to the atmosphere at the end of the play.

The ring story is the fourth complication--most minor of all--in which Portia and Nerissa wear disguises and force their lovers to give up their wedding rings.The mirth of this confusion is pleasing to the viewers, who know the joke. Among other things, the ring story serves the function of allowing the play to end on a comic note.

The play is set in Venice, Italy, and provided Elizabethans a return to the land of the classics which held such glamour and excitement for Englishmen interested in learning new and worldwide culture. The play was acted many times previous to its presentation before King James I in 1605. He enjoyed it so much that it was again presented at court two days later. We have no record of its being performed again for almost one hundred years. From 1701 to 1741 Shylock was presented as a comic, farcical rogue; after 1741 he achieved status and depth at the hands of more perceptive interpreters. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries his role has been coveted by great Shakespearean actors. The Merchant of Venice, romantic comedy that it is, has been most popular, both with audiences and actors. Traditionally its appeal has not been questioned; why it appeals is still a matter of controversy.


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