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Shakespeare's comedies usually follow a clearly defined pattern. He presents a conflict, and the characters eventually resolve the conflict in a relatively happy ending, which involves marrying off the hero and his entourage to the heroine and her companions, leaving the villain outside the "magic circle" of protagonists. In The Merchant of Venice, Antonio is presented as the hero, and Shylock the villain, but neither is within the circle of marriages at the end of Act V. In fact, Antonio's depression exposed at the beginning of the play seems unresolved at the end, and he goes on his melancholy way, as he supposes he must. Can The Merchant of Venice, then, be considered a true comedy?
The strongest argument discounting Merchant as a true comedy is that though Antonio appears to be the major protagonist in the story, he is also as far outside the magic circle as his villain, Shylock. While Bassanio, Portia, and their associated parties marry off at the end of Act V, Antonio is left to his ships and his money, still going about his depressed way. At the beginning of the play, Antonio expresses his dissatisfaction with his situation to his friends. "I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano, a stage where every man must play a part, and mine a sad one" (I.i.81-83). Throughout the play, and Shylock's relentless pursuit of his macabre repayment, Antonio remains in this dreary, defeated state. He seems almost too eager to end his suffering at the hands of his debtors and his apparently lost business. "Grieve not that I am fall'n to this for you," he tells Bassanio in court, "for herein Fortune shows herself more kind than is her custom: it is still her use to let the wretched man outlive his wealth, to view...an age of poverty, from which ling'ring penance of such misery doth she cut me off" (IV.i.278-284). He begs the court to make no more attempts to save his life, comparing such futile endeavors to abate the flood waters or question the wolf's killing of sheep (IV.i.71-84). Completely resigned to his grisly fate, he announces, "I am a tainted wether of the flock, meetest for death. The weakest kind of fruit drops earliest to the ground, and so let me" (IV.i.116-118). Even in Act V, after the dispute with Shylock is decided in Antonio's favor, the melancholy merchant plays no role in the resolution of the play.
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The argument against Merchant's comedic nature loses sight of the parts of the play which do fit Shakespeare's customary pattern. Bassanio and Portia, the subjects of Merchant's other major plot, do experience the happy ending fit for a Shakespearean comedic hero and heroine, and are at the center of the magic circle at the end. Their meeting and marriage in Belmont traces a fairy-tale-like path through the minefield of disputes over Portia's father's conditions for her marriage. Bassanio's almost whimsical (but successful) attempt at the three chests is a fantastical, romantic tale which plays itself out far removed from the troubles in Venice. When those characters return to the city, that magical, fantastic atmosphere comes with them, providing for Antonio's sudden rescue by the wily Portia and Nerissa. Both of these women from Belmont fit Shakespeare's common "strong woman" archetype, which he uses in other comedies (like Viola in Twelfth Night). The magic circle does form around most of the protagonists, and Shakespeare throws six bachelor characters at each other and ends up with three married couples with the full intention of living happily ever after. There, the restraining forces on those marriages -- namely, Antonio's bond, Jessica's religion, and the husbands' forfeiture of their rings -- are all lifted, and the comedy comes to its expected conclusion. Likewise, Shylock, the blatantly evil villain of the play, is accordingly shunned from the magic circle and left to his own devices, stripped of his money, his assets, his daughter, his bond with Antonio, his Jewish faith, and his dignity as a Venetian merchant. Shylock is completely bereaved of everything he holds dear, and is completely excluded from the fairy tale's conclusion in Act V. Such a treatment befits the villain of a comedy. Considering these facts, and excluding the problem of Shakespeare's treatment of Antonio, The Merchant of Venice stands as a near-perfect example of Shakespeare's comic pattern.
However, the question still remains: What about Antonio? If he really is the hero of the play, and if Shakespeare's comedies are always to end on a happy tone, can The Merchant of Venice really be considered a true comedy, leaving Antonio as melancholy and alone as he began? The argument against discounting Merchant as a comedy derives its strength from the fundamental difference in the play's protagonists and their placement in the dual settings, Venice and Belmont. The suitors' relentless pursuit of Portia in Belmont, the contract of the three chests drawn up by her dead father, Bassanio's magical inspiration to pick the right chest, and Belmont's inherent obscurity (neither Shakespeare nor any of his characters give any indication as to Belmont's actual geographic location) all enhance its fantastical, romantic, fairy-tale atmosphere. Love and marriage are not the main concerns of the people of Belmont; rather, love and marriage are their only concerns. Therefore, all those characters who are married at the end of Act V have some sort of association with Belmont and its inhabitants, and their "happy ending," which could only involve marriage to their predestined spouses, is fully realized. Antonio and Shylock, however, have no association with the land of Belmont; they are cold, calculating merchants of Venice. Their sole concern is not love or marriage or any sort of romantic destiny; it is the pursuit of profitable ventures in the markets of Venice. Shylock goes so far as to miss his ducats before his daughter when both disappear, and takes only delight in Antonio's losses at sea (III.i). For the characters in Venice, then, the only way to banish Shylock the villain from society and provide for Antonio the happy ending he deserves as the hero is to use money, not marriage, as the measure of success. Already stripped of his daughter, Shylock can only be punished by depriving him of his money. "Take my life and all," Shylock hisses at the court. "You take my house when you do take the prop that do sustain my house; you take my life when you do take the means whereby I live" (IV.1.390-393). Whereas Portia lives only to be married, Shylock lives only to make money as a merchant of Venice, so separating him from his money is as effective a treatment as a villain as separation from loved ones normally is. Likewise, the resolution of Antonio's conflict comes with his release from Shylock's bond and the news that his ships have safely reached port (V.i.292-298). Thus while everyone else enjoys their marriages, Antonio receives the greatest blessing that his native Venice can give him: the safety of his assets. "Sweet lady," Antonio proclaims, "you have given me life and living; for here I read for certain that my ships are safely come to road" (V.i.306-308). Though it receives only passing mention, the success of Antonio's ships is as important a resolution as the marriages are to the couples. The Merchant of Venice provides for the customary treatment of its heroes and villains by shifting the focus from romantic to economic success for those characters who remain in Venice. Though it does not strictly fit the pattern of Shakespeare's other comedies, The Merchant of Venice remains a comedy by using its two different settings to produce two distinct goals for its heroes to reach, thereby providing for a happy ending for all the protagonists.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. Hardin Craig and David Bevington. Glenview: Scott, 1973.