Comic Elements in The Merchant of Venice

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s comedies. It is surprising that it is called so considering that it is full of sadness, sacrifices, and difficulties. Yet, the elements of Shakespearean comedy are too strong to deny. In fact, the play is a comedy is some scenes and a tragedy in others. Read on to find out what these elements are and how strong they are.

The playbill from a 1741 production of The Merchant of Venice performed at the Theatre Royal of Drury Lane.
Even though The Merchant of Venice is sad in many ways, it is categorized as a comedy due to its strong comic elements. (Image: Folger Shakespeare Library/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

The Merchant of Venice starts with the sadness of a leading character called Antonio. Many scenes look far away from comedy, either with modern criteria or with Shakespearean ones. Still, it was grouped with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night as comedies when Shakespeare presented it in 1623.

Shakespeare’s comedies may not make the modern audience laugh, but they have certain elements that attest to the comic sense of the play.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Block to Young Love

The first element of understanding Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies is the block to young love. If the block is overcome, then it is a comedy; if not, then it is a tragedy. In The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio and Portia’s love is blocked by her dead father’s will, but they finally get married. Bassanio has to solve the riddle of caskets to marry Portia, and he does. The block is overcome, so the play is a comedy.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Blake, c. 1786
An important element of comedy in Shakespeare’s works is how the block to love is overcome and the lovers get together. In tragedy, the block cannot be overcome. (Image: William Blake/Public domain)

Another love story is the love of Lorenzo and Jessica, where, again, her father is the block to love. He does not let his daughter marry a Christian. They also manage to overcome the block, even though they make sacrifices to do so. They run away and manage to be together by the end of the play.

The play looks like a comedy so far, but on the surface. Not everyone gets a happy ending, which makes it a tragedy for those characters.

Learn more about the arc of character in The Merchant of Venice.

Friends to Lovers

The friends to lovers tool is another tool for analyzing comedy: is there a shift from sisterly/brotherly bonds to a heterosexual marriage resolution? Portia is as close as a sister to her waiting-woman, Nerissa, but when they choose to marry, they give up the sisterly bond for a male husband.

Another example is Antonio, Bassanio’s friend, who feels sad and lonely after Bassanio and Portia get married. Bassanio borrows money from Antonio, which he originally got from Shylock, Jessica’s father. Antonio’s great sadness is one of the mysteries of the play. He sees Bassanio as a son, a friend, a boon companion, and perhaps, a lover.

The Green World

Comedies have an escape from the harsh world of human law and justice, called the green world. Venice is undoubtedly the place of law, while Portia’s home of Belmont is the exact opposite, with beauty, repose, music, and nature. Law is ignored or overcome there, like the law of father’s will. Here is where love grows.

The Cross-Dressing Dynamic

The cross-dressing dynamic is a strictly comedy-centered tool. It does not occur in tragedies, and all comedies have used it. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia tries to save Antonio’s life by dressing as a judge while Nerissa is dressed as her clerk.

They successfully fool everyone and outsmart all the male legal authorities in the play, even the Duke of Venice. This means that Shakespeare is placing a woman’s reasoning and argumentation abilities higher than men, which is strictly in contrast to the belief of his time. It is an element of comedy here, especially when the two women reveal their disguises to their husbands, who were totally fooled by the costumes.

Painting of a scene from The Merchant of Venice.
Portia and Nerissa dress as the judge and clerk to save Antonio’s life, and the fact that they successfully deceive all the men in the court contributes to the comic side of the play. (Image: Francis Wheatley/Public domain)

Another example is when Shylock’s daughter dresses as a boy to run away with Lorenzo, the Christian lover. This shows how she falls into the corruption and materialism of what Shylock scornfully calls “the Christian husbands”.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s theater and stagecraft.

The Figure of Sacrifice

The last element is the figure of sacrifice, also known as the scapegoat. Along with it comes the punishment of the opponent of laughter. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock takes all these elements in the sacrifice category.

The audience needs someone to laugh at, to mock, to cast their own sins upon so that they can walk away free and clear. While the play has clear comic elements and structure, the other side of the play makes it too bitter for a laugh. Sadly, that is beyond the scope of this article.

Common Questions about The Merchant of Venice

Q: Is The Merchant of Venice a comedy or tragedy?

The Merchant of Venice has elements of both comedy and tragedy. The block to love is overcome, which is a comic element, but the happy ending comes at a high cost for some characters, which is tragic.

Q: What comic elements are used in The Merchant of Venice?

In The Merchant of Venice, the block to love is overcome, and the friends to lovers tool is present – where friends of lovers are left behind after the block to love is overcome. The figure of sacrifice, or the scapegoat, and along with that, the punishment of the opponent of mirth are a few of the other comic elements in this play.

Q: Is there a love story in The Merchant of Venice?

There are two main love stories in The Merchant of Venice, both of which end happily, but at great costs to some characters of the play.

Q: Are there any elements of tragedy in The Merchant of Venice?

The Merchant of Venice is both a tragedy and a comedy. Despite the obvious comic elements, there are some tragic elements and structures in the play too.

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