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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.
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.
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"The Merchant Of Venice As A Romantic Comedy - Critical Analysis." 123HelpMe.com. 23 Aug 2014