Question 1.The Merchant of Venice: A Romantic Comedy
From Insights, 1992
The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, probably written in 1596 and 1597, and forms one of a group of such comedies, along with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like It, andTwelfth Night. Romantic comedy was a popular and much-preferred type in Elizabethan theatre, and all the trappings of such are present in The Merchant of Venice. First, the romantic involvement is represented not by one couple only, but by three (Portia and Bassanio, Gratiano and Nerissa, and Jessica and Lorenzo). Also Elizabethans expected in their romantic comedies certain characters and situations and a certain kind of plot development: the chief element and central motive was love; the heroine was frequently disguised as a man through part of the play, thus providing opportunities for comic misunderstanding; and comedy was also provided by the wit of the heroine herself, who was always more clever than the men in the play. In a romantic comedy the necessary conflict is between the lovers on one hand and some barrier to the fulfillment of their love on the other. In The Merchant of Venice the barrier is, of course, Shylock’s hold over Antonio, which in turn involves his friend Bassanio. The resolution of a romantic comedy consists in overcoming the barrier, usually bringing about marriages. Shakespeare follows this closely but has complicated the basic pattern in The Merchant of Venice,wherein he skillfully weaves together four separate stories, all interconnected. The bond story links Bassanio and Portia to Shylock through Antonio, the merchant. Bassanio needs money in order to woo Portia, and his friend Antonio is that source, even though he must borrow from the usurer Shylock, giving as surety a “pound of flesh.” This bond is agreed upon in such away that there is question whether Antonio or Bassanio take the condition seriously. However, it is plain to the audience that Shylock does indeed intend to take his pound “nearest the heart.” Culmination of the bond story provides the second great crisis of the play. The casket story has to do with Portia, the “lady richly left,”and the stipulation in her father’s will that the suitor who wins her hand can only do so by choosing the right one of three caskets. Bassanio faces this task, and it provides the first great crisis of the play. The elopement story is the first of two minor plots which fill out the action. Lorenzo,a friend of Bassanio’s and Antonio’s, elopes with Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, thus affecting Shylock’s attitude and behavior and contributing to the atmosphere at the end of the play. The ring story is the fourth complication--most minor of all--in which Portia and Nerissa wear disguises and force their lovers to give up their wedding rings.The mirth of this confusion is pleasing to the viewers, who know the joke. Among other things, the ring story serves the function of allowing the play to end on a comic note. The play is set in Venice, Italy, and provided Elizabethans a return to the land of the classics which held such glamour and excitement for Englishmen interested in learning new and worldwide culture. The play was acted many times previous to its presentation before King James I in 1605. He enjoyed it so much that it was again presented at court two days later. We have no record of its being performed again for almost one hundred years. From 1701 to 1741 Shylock was presented as a comic, farcical rogue; after 1741 he achieved status and depth at the hands of more perceptive interpreters. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries his role has been coveted by great Shakespearean actors. The Merchant of Venice, romantic comedy that it is, has been most popular, both with audiences and actors. Traditionally its appeal has not been questioned; why it appeals is still a matter of controversy. We can trace the origin of Comedy to Dionysis- the Greek God of Wine who was hilarious, satirical and irreverent in spirit. Ben Jonson in ‘Volpone’ (1605) that is considered to be the greatest comedy in English epitomized the classical spirit of comedy. Shakespeare was aware of the classical tradition by the chose to follow the Roman tradition of Petrarch and Boccacio. Shakespeare’s early comedies were classical in spirit but the later ones were more emotional, fanciful and humorous. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ falls between there two categories. It leads the list of mature comedies; has more Romantic characteristics than classical. It is also one of the earliest productions of the middle period. In this play Shakespeare seems to have obtained the highest use of his powers as a playwright, his faculties as a poet and philosopher seem to be approaching their grand maturity without losing the ardor and hopefulness of youth. There is loftiness of thought and expression. Romance was an old tradition and Romantic ideas were common during Shakespeare’s time. Romantic Comedy in the 16th C was meant for the Aristocracy and the comic relief in the plays was meant for the groundlings. There were many differences between the Romantic Comedies and classical comedies. In the classical tradition, the characters were presented with ruthless force and the plays were realistic, spiritual and critical. But in Romantic comedies that Shakespeare wrote there was plenty of with but there was also an appeal to the emotions rather than the intellect and they were also less critical in purpose. Like Meredith said, they are “thunders of laughter clearing the air and heart.” It is a comedy of emotions, which wins the audience’s sympathy with the woes and exhalations of the characters. The various characteristics of Romantic comedies are present in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. The leading themes of most of these plays were Love and Friendship. These comedies were an exposition of Love and its manifold modifications. And on one level ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is also a play about friendship and love. In the first scene itself Antonio displays the nature of love and friendship that he feels for Bassanio,“My purse, my person, my extremest meansLie all unlocked to your occasions.”The love of friendship seems to dictate most of Antonio’s actions. He signs the Flesh Bond and it can be seen as the ultimate gesture that he can make for the sake of friendship. Bassanio also reciprocates, but his feelings are not on par with that of Antonio’s. And there seem to be several levels of friendship represented throughout the play. The friendship of Bassanio and Antonio is contrasted with that of Shylock and Tubal. The play opens with a friendship scene, friendship is an important factor in the trial scene and the play ends demonstrating what friendship will do.Different kinds of love as also presented in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. The love of a father for a daughter and here again there is a contrast in the way The Lord of Belmont displays his love (though indirectly) for Portia and later on in the play the way Shylock behaves with Jessica. His possessive nature is shown and one wonders what hurt him more, Jessica’s elopement or the loss of his money when he chants “My daughter! O my Daughter! O my daughter!My ducats and my daughter!”Although Portia admits that the “will of a living daughter” is curbed by the “will of a dead father” respect for him is evident when she says “I will die as chaste as Diana unless I be obtained the manner of my father’s will.” Jessica on the other hand is ashamed of her father and is a daughter only by blood and not by manners. She breaks all custom and elopes and hurts Shylock the most by marrying a Christian. Still one might find it hard to censure Jessica and we justify her actions because of the treatment met out to her by Shylock. The emotional depth of feeling that Bassanio feels for Portia is slightly different from that of Lorenzo and Jessica’s. However one might argue that Lorenzo right from the start talks about “how I shall take her from her father’s house, What gold and jewels she is furnished with”, while Bassanio talks about a “fair lady richly left” to whom he “swore a secret pilgrimage”. Later his speech does raise a lot of questions when he says that plainness moves him and we are all ware of his love for show. The impulse of true loves moves his to choose the lead casket! But we should not use too much of logic and accept it as part of a ‘Romantic Comedy.’ ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is informed with the idea of love’s wealth and how love is about giving away and not shutting and rejecting. There was also a predominance of young people in Romantic comedies and many pairs of lovers and multiple marriages were present. Most of them were set on a foreign canvas and dealt with either business or domestic affairs of the Merchant class. Venice was probably an evocative name for the Elizabethans and was a source of inspiration. Shakespeare presented a Venice that lived in the Elizabethan mind and it was a city of rich merchants and gentlemen in silks. And then he gave the picturesque environment of Belmont and the starlit garden at the play’s end. The exotic locations could also be a reflection of the tremendous development that was talking place in navigation and exploration during the European Renaissance.The Shakespearean ‘Romantic’ heroine combined a heart of exquisite sensibility and high spirits and acted as a saviour in a crisis. Portia here is the epitome of wit, courage and adventure. She is presented as the repository of true values, the preserver, and the healer and as the vehicle of all generous qualities of Love. The hero played a secondary role to that of the heroine and in this play also we see Bassanio playing second fiddle to Portia who dominates. But there is ambiguity as to who is the hero of the play. There is Antonio, who is ‘the merchant’ and then Shylock. Is Bassanio really a hero? But then again we have to accept certain things, if Portia is the heroine then Bassanio would by default becomes the hero. There is also the use of disguise and music in Romantic comedies. Disguise was used to generate humour. And during the 16th C there were no female actors. The males enacted all the female roles, and when they disguised themselves as males it was bound to be extremely funny. Here Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves and it is also a form of dramatic irony. The hero of the Flesh Bond story is rescues by the heroine of the Casket story who was in the first place the reason that the flesh bond was signed. Audiences tend to get restless with too much of speech and music was used to alleviate this condition. But music also adds another dimension to the play and conveys ideas, which cannot be well put forth in the verbal form.Music was used for ‘stage music’ i.e. as in an action on the stage that required it or as ‘magic music’ i.e. to make someone fall in love with someone or miraculously heal someone. And it was also used as ‘character music’, to portray or reveal the character of one of the protagonist. Shakespeare felt that those who did not appreciate music were like animals. There is beautiful use of music and song in all his plays. In ‘The Merchant of Venice’ the song serves the purpose of giving Bassanio a clue about the casket. As Shelly remarked “Our sincerest laughter with some pain is fraught/ Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts”, most of these comedies had a quality of serene happiness that was likely to develop into merriment in the conclusion but it also threatened to become serious. They also had a tragic strain in them. With the intrusion of melancholic characters there is a tragic possibility in most comedies. Here Antonio has a melancholic humour. He considers his part in world as “a sad one.” Shylock also strikes a tragic note, at the end of the play he is left without the props of his life and although he is considered to be the villain, one cannot help feeling sorry for him.However there are certain differences in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and the other Romantic comedies of Shakespeare. Firstly, Love is not the only dominant interest of the play unlike as it is in “Twelfth Night.” The play could easily be one that is dealing with issues of Jewry and Usury that were very contemporary. Bassanio as the Romantic hero is not a lovesick languishing figure and his motives are rather suspect. The couples also in this play are matured as compared to others but Lorenzo and Jessica could fit the bill of being fancifully Romantic. The climax of the play is not the love story as it should be in a romantic comedy but in the Trial scene that comes rather late. The marriage also take place in the middle of the play and though it gives time to show love’s wealth it is not in keeping with the other plays. Nevertheless most of the characteristics of a Romantic comedy are present in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and regarding the ending of the play as E.K. Chambers said it is like “a sweet dream come rue or a bad dream gone.” As Stephano announces the return of Portia from her ‘pilgrimage’, Antonio is told of the safe return of his ‘argosies’, Lorenzo and Jessica are informed of their inheritance from Shylock’s wealth and Belmont’s music and this harmony seem to be appropriate resolutions of the play’s disharmonies.