A happy ending, love coming true, and light-hearted jokes are all elements that go in to concocting a comedy, and are present in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. However, if we look at this play from several different points of views, many unseen elements of a tragedy are revealed. These elements of tragedy overpower the comedy factor of this play. Comic relief in between scenes, Shylock the Jew’s tragic ending, and the overarching theme of human greed and corruption are several of the components that make The Merchant of Venice a tragedy.
The several comical scenes that make this play seem like a comedy actually serves a very special purpose in the making this play a tragedy. A common element of tragedy in Shakespeare’s plays is comic relief. He enters little scenes of humor and somewhat light-hearted jokes to lift up the dreary atmosphere of tragedies, so that the audience don’t start to suffer from depression. There are examples of this in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s nurse provides comic relief by making inappropriate remarks and speeches. In Hamlet, a scene with gravediggers and their logic and conversation with Hamlet brought lots of laughter to the audience. In King Lear, and several other Shakespeare tragedies, the fool plays a crucial role in setting the appropriate mood and making certain inappropriate comments that no other character could say. Just like these other tragedies, The Merchant of Venice also has these scenes of comic relief. Here, the clown named Launcelot Gobbo plays this role of lightening up the mood. A prime example would be a scene from Act II, Scene II: Launcelot runs into his father who is nearly blind. Being the clown, he decides to play a trick. He pretends to be a stranger giving ridiculously difficult directions to a blind man. Later, after the father finds out the real identity of this stranger, he decides to give him a blessing. Launcelot crouches down, but facing away from his father, that when his father reaches out to touch his face, it seems like Launcelot has grown a forest of facial hair. Little intervals of humor like this helped make a dismal plot more bearable and interesting for the audience.
Many people seeing The Merchant of Venice for the first time would view the so-called protagonists’, Antonio and Bassanio’s ending as a well-deserved triumph and the fate of Shylock the Jew, as a justified end. What some people don’t see at first is that Antonio and Bassanio’s happy ending came at the expense of Shylock’s life. Shylock could very much be the protagonist of this play as well. He was a hard working man who was mistreated and mocked for his faith by the Christians. All he could do was hold in the anger and pain of being treated like an animal. Finally, he gets a chance to show those who hurt him what he had to go through, but this plan gets thwarted and his enemies get away without a scratch while he loses everything. His wealth, property, and faith are taken away from him and he is forced to take up the beliefs of the Christians that ruined his life. Not only that, but his daughter and only family left, chooses a Christian man over Shylock. The Merchant of Venice is a story of a hero that tried to demonstrate equality, who was brought to ruins as a consequence of discrimination and prejudice in the society.
There is an underlying theme of human corruption and evil all throughout the play. This representation of what people have become can strike as a tragedy of the downfall of people. The Merchant of Venice is made up of deeds of greed, discrimination, and deception. For example, the reason for Bassanio wanting to get married to Portia was because of the money. He deceives Portia by appearing to her as a man of riches, with wealth that wasn’t even his. Portia deceives everyone at court by appearing as a man, and gets away with it. Shylock wanted equality by paying the Christians back with the same pain that he suffered, but the Christians ridicule him and take away even more from him, leaving him with nothing, and themselves with more. Many of the main events of this play is triggered by the acts done out greed. The Merchant of Venice clearly reflects how low humans have fallen on the ladder of morality, and this is certainly a tragedy.
The Merchant of Venice does indeed have comical scenes and a seemingly straightforward resolution of conflict, but by having delved deeper into the plot, we discover that there are more elements like comic relief, the ruin the Shylock, and the corruption of humans that certainly make this play a tragedy. These elements of tragedy leave a more dramatic, lasting impact in the audience that overpower the light elements of comedy, allowing this play to remain in our memories as a tragedy.