The Merchant of Venice


William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice: Genre 1 key example

Read our modern English translation.
Explanation and Analysis:

The Merchant of Venice is often classified as comedy because it ends in marriage rather than death. However, the play can more appropriately be described as a tragicomedy, as it combines humor with devastation. Shakespeare creates a complex balance between levity (particularly for past audiences) and severity by including lighthearted moments—like Bassanio choosing the correct casket in Act 3, Scene 2— and very serious ones, like Shylock's emotional "if you prick us" speech and Antonio's brush with death.

While the play technically ends on a comedic note, with the lovers convened and their conflicts resolved, Shylock surely meets a tragic fate in Act 4, blurring the lines between joy and sorrow in the final moments. This complex interplay between tragedy and comedy has led some modern critics to classify Merchant as a "problem play": a play that has strong tragic and comedic elements, and that deals with controversial social issues.  

The lovers' non-central role in the plot further supports the idea that Merchant strays from comedic conventions. Lovers and their struggles are usually the focus of Shakespeare's comedies. In Merchant, however, couples' interactions are in the background more than the foreground—an ironic fact, considering that three marriages occur during the course of the play. At the heart of the play are notions less lighthearted than love: religious differences, prejudice, money, and revenge.