William Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice' - Comedy, tragedy or problem play?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Defining the genre
2.1 Comedy
2.2 Tragedy
2.3 Problem play

3. Comic and tragic aspects in The Merchant of Venice
3.1 Venice: The flesh-bond plot
3.2 Belmont: The courtship plot

4. Shylock: comic villain or anti-Semitic victim?
4.1 The comic portrayal of Shylock
4.2 The mistreatment of Shylock in the trial scene

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1 Introduction

The first question that Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice raises is “What kind of play is this? Is it a comedy, a tragedy or a problem play?”(cf. Halio 2000: 1). The Merchant of Venice is believed to be written between 1596 and 1598. Already from the very beginning, hardly any other play has experienced so many diverse receptions after its publication. In his essay on The Merchant of Venice, Walter Cohen comments that “no other Shakespeare comedy before All’s Well That Ends Well (1602) and Measure for Measure (1604), perhaps no other Shakespeare comedy at all, has excited comparable controversy.” (Cohen 1982 qtd. in Holderness 1998: 47).

Although the title page of the first edition of the play “The Most Excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice” (first print in 1600) suggested it to be a history play, it had initially been classified as a comedy. In 1623, Heminges and Condell placed The Merchant of Venice among the comedies in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works (cf. Holderness 1998: 23).

However, many readers, actors, directors and playgoers still argue about the genre of the play. They have difficulties in defining The Merchant of Venice as a comedy as the following quotation shows: “Indeed, seen from any angle, The Merchant of Venice is not a very funny play, and we might gain a lot if, for the moment, we ceased to be bullied by its inclusion in the comedies.” (Midgley 1960: 121). Today, The Merchant of Venice is often read and played more like a problem play or even a tragedy. (cf. Holderness 1998: 23).

The following term paper deals with the classification of the literary genre of The Merchant of Venice. Does the play belong to the category of comedies or shall it rather be identified as a tragedy or problem play? To assign the play to a specific category, it is necessary to shortly present the criteria of the genres comedy, tragedy and problem play. In chapter 3, the play will be analysed in terms of comic and tragic aspects. The focus is put on the flesh-bond and the courtship plot, the first having its setting in Venice, the second in Belmont. The aim of this chapter is to illustrate that The Merchant of Venice contains both comic and tragic elements. Chapter 4 deals with the complex character Shylock whose perception has changed through the centuries. Is he still the comic villain of the Elizabethan time or can he rather be seen as a victim of extreme anti-Semitism?

By giving an insight into comic and tragic aspects in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, this term paper shall try to solve the problem of assigning the play to a specific literary genre.

2 Defining the genre

As already mentioned in the introduction, it is difficult to define the genre of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. When the play was first produced and published, it was classified as a comedy since its “[…] main thematic and structural elements […] seem to belong to the category of romantic comedy rather than elsewhere.” (Holderness 1998: 24).

In the 19th century, an emphasis was put on the fairy tale elements in the play. Harley Granville-Barker is among those who characterized The Merchant of Venice as a “fairy tale”. To his mind “[…] the play ends, pleasantly and with formality, as a fairy tale should.” (Granville-Barker 2007: 121). Critics in this field refer to the multiple marriages at the end of the play.

However, The Merchant of Venice is perhaps more remembered for its dramatic scenes, which lead to interpret the play as a tragedy. In 1839, the German poet Heinrich Heine classified Shakespeare’s play as a tragedy: “I must include The Merchant of Venice among the tragedies, although the frame of the work is a composition of laughing masks and sunny faces […] as though the poet meant to write a comedy.” (Heine 1839, qtd. in Wilders 1969: 29).

Even in the late 19th century, in a pre-Holocaust world, The Merchant of Venice seemed to be read and played as a tragedy. Theatre productions of that time often ended on a tragic note upon Shylock’s departure at the end of the trial scene. Hence, many people felt that the play succeeded better as a tragedy than a comedy.

In 1869, the critic Frederick Samuel Boas coined the term “problem play” and classified Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice into this category. After the events of World War II, many people could hardly see any comedy in the humiliation, mockery and forced conversion of the Jew Shylock. The Merchant of Venice was therefore perceived as a problem play in the second half of the 20th century. (cf. Schülting 2000: 135).

Since the aim of this term paper is to classify the genre of Shakespeare’s play, it is first of all necessary to shortly define and present the criteria of a comedy, tragedy and problem play.

2.1 Comedy

[…] the Comedy is an imitation of the common errors of our life, which he [= the Comick] representeth in the most ridiculous and scornefull sort that may be; so as it is impossible that any beholder can be content to be such a one. (Sir Philip Sidney qtd. in Suerbaum 1980: 214)

The above-mentioned quotation from Sir Philipp Sidney shows that a comedy is the mirror of our life. Traditionally, comedies deal with the concerns and exploits of ordinary people. The aim of a comedy is to leave a feeling of satisfaction at the end of the play when the reader or spectator witnesses deserving people succeed. (Simpson 1998).

In his Speculum Maius, written in 1250, Vincent de Beauvais defines comedy as follows: “Comedy is a kind of poem which transforms a sad beginning into a happy ending” (Beauvais 1250 qtd. in Janik 2003: 120) This definition is according to Nevill Coghill the “true basis of Shakespearean comedy.” (ibid). It is important to mention, that in the Elizabethan time, the term “comedy” had a very different meaning from modern comedy. Holderness assumes that the concept of comedy in the 16th century was broader and more elastic than it is today. (cf. Holderness 1998: 24). A Shakespearean comedy is nowadays understood as a play in which the central character is in the end saved from death or a catastrophe. Comedies do not necessarily have to be funny or evoke laughter. Nevertheless, it has to be considered that particular matters, such as social and moral questions, might have been funny for the readers and spectators of that time. (cf. McEvoy 2000: 125). Moreover, the conventions of comedy require a happy ending. A Shakespearean comedy is one that has a happy ending, usually involving marriages between the unmarried characters.

In the introduction to the New Cambridge edition, M. M. Mahood classifies Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice as a Renaissance romantic comedy, a genre that had become highly popular in the two decades before Shakespeare wrote the play. In general, romantic comedies portray love and virtue triumphing over evil.” (Janik 2003: 121) as it is the case in The Merchant of Venice.

In his book “Shakespeares Dramen”, Ulrich Suerbaum divides Shakespeare’s comedies into different groups. The first group contains the early comedies such as The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love’s Labour Lost. To the group of mature comedies belong the plays A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Finally, there are romantic comedies like Perciles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. (cf. Suerbaum 1980: 215ff).

What most of the above-mentioned comedies have in common are the following four criteria:

First of all, comedies often contain a multiple plot structure. They are divided into main- and subplots which are structurally and thematically linked (cf. Muir 1979: 52). In terms of content, these plots are intertwined and produce complexity.

Another typical element for all kinds of comedies is music. The technique of music is used to create a harmonic atmosphere. According to Muir, music underlines romantic actions and establishes a fictional fairy-tale atmosphere: greenworld-like and full of harmony and order (cf. ibid: 51).

One of the most common features in comedies is love and its glamour of romance. The theme of love is particularly picked out in a romantic comedy in which young and likeable characters, meant for each other, are kept apart by some complicating circumstance. They often pass trough a phase out of their parental control and into love and marriage (cf. McEvoy 2000: 126). Thus, in comedies, young lovers often have to challenge certain obstacles until they are finally wed. According to Holderness, courtship romance is used to create a romantic atmosphere and operates as predictably as fairy-tales (cf. Holderness 1998: 25).

The last characteristic, which is common to all kinds of comedies, is the act of disguise. In Shakespeare’s comedies, particularly young women disguise themselves as men and therefore create confusion. The technique of cross-dressing is often used by women in order to achieve a happy ending, usually a marriage, at the end of the play. (cf. McEvoy 2000: 126).

To sum up, the Shakespearean term of comedy can be divided into different subcategories such as mature or romantic comedies. All of Shakespeare’s comedies have common features like multiple plot structure, music, love and disguise. With the help of these four criteria, the comic aspects in The Merchant of Venice will be analysed in the third part of this term paper.

2.2 Tragedy

Many readers and theatregoers consider The Merchant of Venice as a tragedy, especially with regard to the treatment of the Jew Shylock during the whole play. The following section presents the criteria of a tragedy. In his Poetics, Aristotle defines the term “tragedy” as follows:

The imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions. (Aristotle qtd. in Cuddon 1976: 926)

In essence, a tragedy is the mirror image or negative of comedy. In contrast to comedies, tragedies are more serious in subject. It is quite usual for tragedies that the story begins with happiness and ends in disaster. The aim of a tragedy is to evoke pity and fear on the part of the audience. (cf. Simpson 1998).

According to Aristotle a tragedy depicts the downfall of a great person through some fatal error or misjudgement . The great person is usually the “tragic hero” who must be essentially admirable and good. The change to bad fortune which the tragic hero undergoes is not due to any moral defect or flaw, but a mistake of some kind. The hero’s downfall is understood by Aristotle to arouse pity and fear that leads to an epiphany and a catharsis both for the hero and the audience. In his “Poetics”, Aristotle also claims that “[…] the structure of the best tragedy should be not simple but complex and one that represents incidents arousing fear and pity - for that is peculiar to this form of art.” (Aristotle qtd. in Fyfe: 1932).


Excerpt out of 20 pages


William Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice' - Comedy, tragedy or problem play?
RWTH Aachen University  (Institut für Anglistik)
Hauptseminar Shakespeare's Comedies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
640 KB
Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, Genre, comedy
Quote paper
Anni St. (Author), 2010, William Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice' - Comedy, tragedy or problem play?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/189478


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: William Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice' - Comedy, tragedy or problem play?

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free