Table of contents
2. Defining the Genre
2.1. History play
3. Plot Structure: Comedy or Tragedy?
3.1.1. The flesh bond plot
3.1.2. Jessica, Lorenzo and Launcelot Gobbo
3.2.1. The courtship plot
126.96.36.199. The three caskets
4. Shylock: a Changing Character
It has often been said that one can measure the quality of a dramatic piece by the feedback it evokes; the more the reactions and opinions diverge the better the play. This definitely holds true for The Merchant of Venice. Hardly any other dramatic piece has experienced so many diverse receptions during four hundred years after its publication, as the following comments of two different authors show:
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. (Graham Midgely, qtd. in Holderness: 23)
No other Shakespearean comedy before All’s Well That Ends Well (1602) and Measure for Measure (1604), perhaps no other Shakespearean comedy at all, has excited comparable controversy. (Walter Cohen: 47)
Although the original title of the play, The Most Excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice (first print 1600), suggested it to be a history play, it had been labelled a comedy until the 18th century due to its happy ending and still today the drama can be found in several reference works under the entry of ‘comedy’. In the 19th century then it was re-interpreted as tragedy, whereas a parallel tradition put the main stress on the fairy tale elements in the piece. The perception of the play in the second half of the 20th century led, for obvious reasons from World War II, to the classification as ‘problem play’ (Schülting: 135).
This paper shall try to solve the problem of assigning TMoV to a specific dramatic category by firstly giving an insight as to what criteria constitute different genres. In a second part, the plot structure will be analysed in order to illustrate that TMoV can indeed be seen as a mixture of different genres, but also to show the weaknesses of some arguments that are provided with the intention of forcing TMoV into certain schemes. The aim of a third section is to investigate the position of the Jew and Shylock, because he seems to be the key character in the reading of TMoV, as the multitude of interpretations of his role in the play demonstrate.
2. Defining the genre
As already mentioned in the introduction it is rather difficult to definitely place The Merchant of Venice among one of the various existing dramatic forms. Different experts applied different criteria to the play in order to classify it, depending on the main interpretative emphasis. It is, however, important to also take a closer look at several dramatic forms and their definitions to build the foundations for a further discussion of assigning The Merchant of Venice to a certain genre, as it is not merely content but also form that characterize a play.
2.1. History play
Today’s research describes ‘history play’, or ‘chronicle play’, as in its core based on documented historical events. In early times this implied that those forms of drama mostly included enormous battle scenes, whereas the Shakespearean era playwrights started to recount the lives of royal personages. Well known history plays by Shakespeare are for instance Richard II and Henry VIII In the case of The Merchant of Venice it can be said with great certainty that Shakespeare did not mean to dramatize history; with regard to the original title, ‘Historie’ is more likely to simply mean story, although the term ‘history’ in Elizabethan times was also applied to other plays that often included both, features of tragedy and comedy. However, the main differentiation of tragedy and history lies in the depiction of a social and political situation in a particular era in the latter, rather than focussing on a single person. This aspect, though, will not be further discussed in this paper (Cuddon: 136, Shabert: 69).
The Greek word ‘tragedy’ etymologically refers to a ritual sacrifice for the god Dionysos which came with a choral song. This tradition became the basis for the development of dramatic tragedy in Greece. The famous Aristotle described tragedy as:
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. (qtd. in Cuddon: 926) and
Plots are either simple or complex, since the actions they represent are naturally of this twofold description. The action, proceeding in the way defined, as one continuous whole, I call simple, when the change in the hero’s fortunes takes place without Peripety or Discovery, and complex when it involves one or the other, or both. These should each of them arise out of the structure of the Plot itself, so as to be the consequence, necessary or probable, or the antecedents. (ibid)
Aristotle’s tragic hero is a person who does experience misfortune by his or her own fault, through inopportune misjudgement; therefore, the plot should contain one main problem. Also quite usual for tragedies, the story commences, in contrary to comedies, with happiness and concludes in disaster which the heroes brought upon themselves. It is moreover mentioned that tragedies involve persons of high rank, that is kings or queens, and are centred upon great individuals. Quite remarkable in connection with TMoV are the changes that have taken place since the 16th century to what has been associated with the term ‘tragedy’: it is no longer kings and queens or other people in respectable positions, but the ordinary man with his tragedy in everyday life (Cuddon: 926- 933). Consequently, in case TMoV is read as a tragic drama, Shakespeare revolutionarily modified the concepts of tragedy, since there is no royalty involved in the miseries of the play.
The comedy was in the first place, comparable to the tragedy, connected with the honouring of Dionysos; however, the differences are that the comedy deals with the lives of the common people in a rather amusing way, and experienced misfortunes are are not as severe and solved in the end as it is possible to observe within TMoV (Cuddon: 148-157). Although one may have difficulty in fully accepting TMoV as a comedy, it is moreover important to mention that a comedy in Shakespearean times did not necessarily exceptionally contain humorous elements and the calamity of the flesh bond plot with Shylock was probably not of much importance