The overall tone of The Merchant of Venice is ambiguous, split between despair and celebration, seriousness and playfulness. Although many of Shakespeare’s comedies feature negative emotions at some point, it is rare for a comedy to have as its defining moments such powerful rhetoric as that which appears in Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech. The emotional resonance of Shylock’s speech makes it difficult to discern whether he’s a villain or a victim. It is also rare to find negative and positive emotions woven together as tightly as they are in Merchant. Take, for instance, the play’s second scene, which begins with Portia despairing because her late father used his will to dictate the terms of his daughter’s future marriage. Portia feels trapped, not to mention overwhelmed by the number of suitors hoping to win her hand. But her despairing tone quickly transforms into a playful sassiness, as she and her attendant, Nerissa, proceed to make fun of the suitors visiting her residence in Belmont. She speaks with a quick-witted but cutting snarkiness, and though hilarious, her harsh words also clearly mask her anxiety about the possibility of being forced to marry someone she doesn’t love.
The ambiguous tone of the play carries important thematic weight, insofar as characters’ emotional lives remain closely bound up with the sudden reversals of fortune that accompany risk-laden financial dealings. Antonio makes this connection between emotions and finance evident when he opens the play with an expression of melancholy: “In sooth I know not why I am so sad” (I.i.1). Salarino suggests that Antonio must just be anxious because his thoughts are with the fleet of merchant vessels he recently invested in. Although Antonio denies Salarino’s theory, it later becomes clear that his friend was right. Antonio’s emotions therefore rise and fall anxiously in parallel with the ships that ride the ocean’s turbulent swells. Tellingly, Antonio’s melancholy clears once he and Bassanio strike a deal with Shylock, allowing for renewed anticipation. As he assures Bassanio at the end of Act I: “In this there can be no dismay. / My ships come home a month before the day” (I.iii.175–76). By Act III, though, Antonio once again finds himself in dire straits. His ships have not returned, and Shylock demands his fatal bond.
Due to the play’s ambiguous tone, which seems darker than befits a comedy, scholars sometimes consider The Merchant of Venice among Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays.” These plays earned their name for a couple of reasons. For one thing, they pose a problem related to genre classification, since traditional features of both tragedy and comedy coexist uneasily within a single play. Such an uneasy coexistence of the tragic and the comic may leave the audience with mixed feelings, rather than the clearer-cut feelings of catharsis or resolution that typically accompany tragic and comic endings, respectively. Problem plays are also so named because they tend to address contemporary social problems. In the case of Merchant, Shakespeare addresses the problem of usury—that is, the practice of lending money at high rates of interest. Some scholars have argued that Shakespeare also specifically addresses the problem of anti-Semitism, though it remains unclear whether he intended to demonize Shylock or defend him. Jews in Shakespeare’s time were often stereotyped as usurers, and Shylock clearly participates in the practice. If the play stigmatizes usury, does that mean that it also stigmatizes Shylock and the Jews?