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 means
Lie 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....
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