The Merchant of Venice

by: William Shakespeare


The Merchant of Venice is a typical example of a Shakespearean comedy in that its central conflict finds resolution before real harm comes to anyone. As in many comedies, the conflict at the heart of Merchant has the potential to end tragically. After Antonio forfeits his deadly bond, Shylock demands the pound of flesh he’s been promised, and he almost succeeds in claiming it after making his argument in court. However, Shylock’s plan falls apart when Portia shows up in court disguised as a young male “doctor of the law.” (Incidentally, this instance of cross-dressing disguise constitutes another common feature of Shakespeare’s comedies.) Not only does Portia twist Shylock’s argument against him, but she also cites a law declaring that Shylock, an “alien” Jew, must suffer punishment for having undertaken to forfeit the life of a Venetian citizen. Despite an initial suggestion that he should be hanged for his attempt to forfeit Antonio’s life, Shylock ends up with a less serious sentence: he loses half of his fortune and has to convert to Christianity. This resolution is certainly devastating for Shylock, but nevertheless, the lack of fatalities marks the play’s ending as an appropriately “comic.”

Although Merchant shares the basic structure of Shakespeare’s other comedies, they play also makes subtle deviations from typical comedic form. Take, for instance, the play’s treatment of lovers. Like other comedies, Merchant features lovers who are initially kept apart by circumstance and family interference, but who all unite in marriage before the play ends. What is unusual, however, is the fact that the lovers overcome their obstacles and marry each other midway through the play, before the main conflict has been resolved in Act IV. In other words, the lovers occupy a much less significant position in the play’s plot than do lovers in Shakespeare’s other comedies. Furthermore, only two pairs of lovers—Portia and Bassanio as well as Jessica and Lorenzo—have any meaningful obstacles to overcome. The third pair—Nerissa and Gratiano—get married at the spur of the moment, inspired by Portia and Bassiano’s successful union. This third marriage only has significance insofar as it makes it possible for Portia and Nerissa to play a parallel trick on their new husbands in the final act.

Another twist on the typical comedy has to do with Shakespeare’s complex and ambiguous treatment of Shylock. Shylock is clearly the play’s villain, as indicated by his unrelenting insistence on taking his pound of flesh. And yet, despite the dehumanizing way other characters treat him, Shakespeare portrays Shylock as a complex and sympathetic figure. Shylock’s famous speech in Act III, when he asks, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?,” offers a powerful rebuttal to the anti-Semitism rampant in the world of the play. Modern audiences often sympathize with Shylock, who ends up alone, destitute, alienated from his daughter, and forced to abandon the faith of his “tribe.” Some critics have even suggested that Shakespeare depicted Shylock so sympathetically in order to make a plea for greater tolerance of Jews in his own day. Critics who advocate this reading point to Portia’s illegitimate courtroom performance as evidence that the verdict against Shylock is unjust. Such a miscarriage of justice is no small problem, particularly given the play’s emphasis on the sanctity of Venetian law. On this reading, Shylock’s sad end makes the play’s final act and the lovers’ quarrel at its center seem frivolous.