The Merchant of Venice: A Tragicomedy Patricia Green INTRODUCTION Shakespeare in the High School Classroom The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, does not fit the conventional definitions of a tragedy or a comedy. It is categorized as a comedy, although one of the two distinct plotlines is a tragedy. This play is multi-faceted and is really a combination of two plays in one; therefore it lends itself well as a source for teaching different lessons in the high school classroom. This curriculum unit can be used in conjunction with social studies, math and the arts, so it is not restricted to drama or literature in the English classroom. This unit is important because Shakespeare is an integral part of the English curriculum. Shakespeare’s tragedies are the major focus, so it would add an extra dimension if students were exposed to the comedies. The Merchant of Venice is particularly a good choice because it bridges the gap between comedy and tragedy. Shakespeare blends serious issues and values with light comedic elements in this rather complex play. The two main plots are the comedy about Portia and her marriage to Bassanio and the tragedy about Antonio, the merchant and Shylock, the Jew. BACKGROUND A brief synopsis of the play will help to clarify the ensuing details for those who are unfamiliar with The Merchant of Venice. The comedy revolves around one of Shakespeare’s strongest female characters, Portia. This plot deals with the choice of a husband for Portia. The setting is Venice and Belmont, Italy at the height of the merchant trade during the Middle Ages. Antonio is the protagonist and the merchant of Venice from whence the title is derived. He is admired for his good deeds and honor. He is melancholy because he fears the impending marriage of his best friend, Bassanio, will take up much of his friend’s time. Bassanio has the highest rank of anyone in the play with the exception of the Duke. He is a suitor for Portia’s hand in marriage and he needs to borrow money (3,000 ducats) from Antonio in order to pursue his goal. Portia is a wealthy noblewoman who has agreed to abide by the wishes of her deceased father and allow an elaborate game that he set up to find the perfect husband for his daughter. A very humorous scene ensues in which Portia and her maidservant and friend, Nerissa discuss the suitors who have attempted and failed to win Portia’s hand. Shakespeare adds foreshadowing by having Portia recall meeting Bassanio and wishing that someone like him would win the contest. The game, or contest, that Portia’s father has formulated involves three caskets (treasure chests). One is gold, one is silver, and one is lead. The 62
suitor who gets to choose does not know the choice of previous contestants. Each casket comes with a riddle that must be solved before it can be opened. Inside, if the counterfeit (picture) of Portia is enclosed, then that man will become her husband. The first man to try in Act 2 is Morocco who chooses gold and loses. Then Aragon, the Spaniard, tries after professing that if he loses then he will never marry. He chooses the silver and loses. To Portia’s surprise and delight, Bassanio is next. He chooses the lead casket and wins Portia’s hand in marriage. Since this is a comedy, the main characters live happily ever after. Bassanio’s manservant, Gratiano becomes enamored with Nerissa and the feelings are mutual, so both couples marry. Bassanio was able to woo Portia because Antonio gave him the loan of 3,000 ducats. Antonio’s ships are at sea and his fortune is tied up with them, so he goes to a usurer. During the Medieval times it was considered a sin for a Christian to lend money for interest, so the job was often performed by a non-Christian. Shylock the Jew is probably one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters. If Antonio does not pay his loan on time then Shylock will take his collateral of a pound of flesh. Antonio is generous because his friend needs the money and he is...
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