One aspect of Romantic Comedy is that it should contain Romance. This is evident in the fictional romance of Portia’s marriage lottery in the Three Casket Story.
Another aspect of Romantic comedy is evident when the central character Antonio is saved from Death and Disaster.
The rule of comedy is that however serious the conflict may be, it should “all end well” in a resolution. As the Italian poet Dante (1256-1326) wrote:
“A comedy is journey through hell to purgatory and up to heavens which ends well, but does not make the readers laugh.
The play is described, as a comedy obeying all the conventions its settings is urban in Venice and countryside in Belmont, its characters middle class. It uses prose and iambic pentameter, there is a clownish comic servant (Lancelot) and a jester (Gratiano) Plot confusion arises from disguise and disaster is avoided, complications are resolved, marriage concluded.
The main thematic and structural elements of the play all belong to the category of Romantic comedy rather than tragedy or history.
The basic action of the play is moved by two interconnecting stories:
1. Bassanio’s courtship to a wealthy heiress of Belmont, Portia, which is straightforward romance.
2. The story of the flesh bond is an ancient time narrative known to Shakespeare by II Pecorone (1558) set by Ser Giovanni Fiorentini and “the Jew of Malta” by Christopher Marlow.
I think to a modern day audience it is hard to classify the merchant of Venice as a comedy because the modern day audience would feel that the plot was “designed tragically”.
Elements of harsh reality includes- the sinister and ruthless plan of Shylock also; his total and crushing defeat at the end, which brings the play more close to a tragedy rather than comedy.
The play has been turned away from the conventions of Romantic comedy by the union of the, lovers in Act 3 the middle of the play, a modern day audience would have expected to see the romance of Portia earlier. The love of Portia and Bassanio is not comic, it comes about through a test devised by Portia’s father to safe guard her against unsuitable suitors.
This kind of romance is normal to Elizabethan Audience because there is no alive interfering adult, however a modern day audience would consider this kind of courtship not leading freely to choose a marriage partner as it is through a attached condition of choosing the right casket.
Portia and Bassanio’s love is outwards looking (by choosing the right casket), self-sacrificing, comprehensive and mature unlike the mad love normally associated with romantic comedy. Bassanio is helped in every way toward this marriage. Portia is naturally attracted towards Bassanio and Portia does not go against her father’s will to win him. She values her father’s will more than her love. But news of Antonio being in danger meant postponing of the honeymoon meant the harmonious society promised by the conventions of Romantic comedy is not fulfilled, and Portia suffer financially and emotionally. As later in the play Lorenzo comments on this sacrifice for love:
” You have a noble and true conceit of god like enmity, which appears most strongly in the bearing thus the absence of your lord.”
No modern day heiress as a bride would do that. I think modern day theatregoers will consider this disturbing and class it tragic rather than comedy. However the play ends on a suitably romantic comic note as Gratiano, the most humorous of the lover’s promises a good life for his wife and shadow of Shylock has passed and Antonio is safely in Belmont and atmosphere is of love and Friendship.
The plot is tied together by friendship and love of Antonio and Bassanio, which becomes the story of hatred and revenge (Antonio versus Shylock).
Bassanio’s need for money to marry Portia, leads him to borrow from Antonio, who in turn borrows from Jewish moneylender, a usurer, Shylock.
Shylock is a member of racial and religious minority of Venice, where Christians are in majority, Shylock hates Christians in general and Antonio in particular for the racial and economic enmity towards him and his business of money lending. Seeing an opportunity to gain advantage over Antonio, Shylock proposes the flesh bond, which Antonio agrees to. If the debt is not repaid in the said period, shylock will be permitted to cut off a pound of his flesh. In this we see revenge tragedy in commercial Venice is counteracted by romance in magical Belmont.
The fiction of three-casket story in magical Belmont where Portia a wealthy heiress peruses her fathers will to choose her marriage partner by a successful suitor, who chooses correctly from the three caskets. This courtship romance works out perfectly for Portia, two suitors rejected for choosing incorrectly and eventually meeting her wanted suitor Bassanio, who chooses correctly. Thus ending the fairy tail courtship romance produces the perfect result for Portia.
Immediately after the resolution of the romance plot between Portia and Basssanio, the news of Antonio’s disaster comes his loss of ships at sea, resulting in the forfeit of the bond.
Shylock proceeds with his deadly suit against Antonio; according to the Venetian Law moneylender shylock has an answerable case.
Bassanio not only has won a rich heiress as a bride but also Portia is more enterprising and intelligent than him. She disguises herself as a lawyer and defends Antonio’s case skilfully and legally by producing statutes, which not only stops Shylock from proceeding with the case but also Shylock is defeated, he becomes vulnerable to death penalty for conspiring against Antonio’s life. The Jew is then offered a merciful settlement his life is spared on condition that he becomes a Christian, and that half of his wealth is handed over to Antonio who will keep it in trust for the benefit of Shylocks runaway daughter Jessica.
The emotional power of the Shylocks story overshadows the love of Portia and Bassanio. Therefore for the modern theatregoers overall effect is tragic rather than comic, because through T.V, cinema and video modern day audience take comic as funny and tending to laughter rather than social resolution typically ending in marriage.
The three main characters that I think play a very important role in this play are Antonio, Bassanio and Shylock.
Character of Antonio is used to show the relationship of love and friendship with Bassanio. In the beginning of the play, we meet Antonio who is a rich merchant suffering from depression, “In sooth I know not why I am so sad”.
We have been introduced to a great centre of Venice, ” Rialto” through the merchant Antonio, who is shy, anxious and lacking in confidence and who is deeply involved in his personal thoughts and naivety relying on his “argosies with portly sails/ like signors rich burghers on the flood”.
He is trying to secure a credit for his friend Bassanio to send him to a “Secret Pilgrimage” and ignoring the perils at sea.
We hear of “spices scattered on the sea”, “enrobed with silk”, which is the foreshadowing of the disaster at sea which will endanger his life. Antonio is in a deep crisis of identity, ” I have much a do to know myself”.
The impression we get from other characters in the play such as Shylock, who refers to Antonio as a good man. But on the other hand, another character and a friend of Antonio interrupt Shylock, “Have you heard any imputation to the contrary?” Shylock quickly rephrases his remarks,”my meaning is that he is good man to have you understand me that he is sufficient.” Which meant that he is credit worthy. Infact Shylock was not looking for his credit worthiness he is looking for an advantage over him.
Antonio unstintingly helps to raise money for his friend Bassanio is to the extent that he is ready to put his life onto the hands of his enemy.
Antonio is a loyal friend but has a vicious side to his character as well, he is a bully hiding behind the law, we learn from Shylocks aside that Antonio is racist, “He hates our sacred nation” Antonio’s judgement of Shylock is blinded by the intense desire to help his friend Bassanio, regardless of any cost. Bassanio can see the danger in borrowing money from Shylock unlike Antonio, “I like not fair terms and A Villains mind”.
Antonio is gullible cannot see the ulterior motive of Shylock, by readily lending the money. He is taking revenge from Antonio because Antonio has mistreated him called him a “misbeliever, cut throat dog, and spat on his Jewish gabardine”. Not only this, Antonio promised to continue his racial hatred. “I am as likely to call thee so again, spat on thee again, to spurn thee to…” which reinforces the Jewish case against Christians.
Antonio faces the trial with resignation, “I am the tainted weather of the flock”, which gives us the cue as to see him this way, but does not reveal his character.
At the end of the trial, after the crushing defeat of Shylock, Antonio shows no “mercy” by converting him into a Christian and giving the money to his run away daughter. Antonio’s behaviour shows he is no better than Shylock in taking revenge. However the Christian law supports him.
Bassanio has accumulated debts mainly from Antonio. He is keeping up the lifestyle “Showing a more swelling port/ than my faint means would grant continence”
His behaviour is “prodigal” because he has borrowed money to establish a social and economic status.
Bassanio is describing to Antonio the “Wondrous virtues” of Portia to go on “Sacred Pilgrimage”, not only to gain a virtuous and loving wife but also to settle all the debts by “marring a lady richly left”.
What he explains to Antonio is not courtship but more of a business plan, “To shoot another arrow that self way which you did shoot the first/ I do not doubt, as I will watch the aim or to find both, or bring you back again, and I thankfully rest debtor for first”.
I think a modern day bank manager will see this kind of approach of Bassanio to pay debts as a Credit risk than being credit worthy.
Nerissa describes him “as a Scholar and soldier” because his thinking type of attitude made him choose the right casket. I think he is more of a fortune hunter than as a “suitor for a beautiful wife.”
Bassanio’s character develops toward the end of the play when he is honest in his love for Portia, which over takes his earlier sentiment:” To pay all the debts I owe.”
His love for Antonio brings him back to Venice where he offer’s his own life:
” The Jew shall have my flesh, blood bones and all/ Ere thou shalt lose for me one drop of blood”.
The character development emphasises that love and friendship are superior to his
Earlier self-centred greed.
Shylock is the most memorable character in the play. His name is equated with greed and miser ness. He is lonely and isolated figure, unloved even by his own daughter Jessica who implies, ” our house is hell”. She is “ashamed to be his fathers child! But though I am a daughter to his blood/ I am not to his manners.” Jessica elopes due to her authoritative father Shylock and ends her strive, becomes a “Christian” and a loving wife of Lorenzo.
Shylock is target of vicious mockery by Gratiano; he is a victim member of the oppressed minority in Venice where Christian are in majority. Shylock creates a sense of his different ethnic identity by his speech habits, he speaks of “our tribe” (Jews), and he will “not eat with you” (Christians).
The Christians in turn call him a “dog, spurn him with their feet, spat on him”, so to the Christian is a cur, a wolf, a devil, and subhuman.
Shylock reminds them of the physical basis of their common humanity ” if you prick us do we not bleed”. In return he wants blood.
Shylock is full of hatred and desire for revenge against Antonio because the environment he lives in years of ill treatment by the Christian is indicated in his outburst against the insensitivity that Christian represented in the form of anti-Semitic behaviour of Antonio:
” He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my loses, mocked at my gain, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies- and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath no the Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” (Act 3 S 1)
This uncovers understandable motive for his revengeful behaviour, which brings sympathies of audience for him, but when he insists the bond, the audience takes this sympathy back.
However, a person who has no feelings will be the only one not to move by the plight of Shylock at the hands of Christian in the end, when he is utterly crushed and leaves the courtroom in anguish. Shylock becomes the victim of his own stubborn cruelty; he loses everything even his faith.
I think few of us will feel for Shylock that he got what he deserved in the end but others will see him as a victim of his environment made cruel by the years of ill treatment by the Christians. He is driven by hatred to the extend that he tried to use Christian law against Christians:
“To have the due and forfeit of my bond, if you deny it, let the danger light
Upon your charter and your cities freedom.”
The victimised character aspect of him exposes hypocrisy of Christians and the modern day audience would sympathise with him but again when the audience learns about his attitude towards saving 9000 ducats, then 3000 ducats, when all attempts failed his dignity. I think it will bring laughter from the audience rather than sympathy.
Two important themes in the play are appearance/reality and money/wealth.
The main theme of The Merchant of Venice is appearance vs. reality. Bassanio had borrowed, and is borrowing more, money from Antonio so he can look and live on a higher level than his own income can sustain. Later, in Belmont, Bassanio must choose between caskets of gold, silver, or lead to win Portia, who he wants to marry. It turns out that lead is the correct choice. This shows that what may appear to be invaluable, can yield the best results is another example of appearance vs. reality.
Yet, another example of this theme is when Shylock is lending money to Antonio without interest, but if Antonio fails to pay back on time, he loses a pound of flesh. Shylock offers this in a way that seems generous and jokingly, but really wants to use the situation to get back at Antonio for past humiliations:
“Were he (Antonio) out of Venice, I can make what merchandise I will”
When Portia appears in the trial scene she is not what she appears to be, yet provides the play with the most interesting and tense scene when she defends Antonio against shylock’s attempts to gain his “pound of flesh”.
The second theme in the play is Money/Wealth. Money is the theme of the love plot as well as the hate plot of the Merchant of Venice. Bassanio’s need for money to win a rich heiress Portia as a bride, ” a lady richly left” is what puts Antonio in the power of Shylock. Antonio and Shylock are very different merchants, yet both trying to make money.
Jessica brings lots of money, when she elopes with Lorenzo, she throws down a casket. She then spends extravagantly the money her father had earned so carefully. Attitudes to the getting and spending of money are the important themes of the play, wealth does not make Portia happy, “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world.” She needs to love and beloved, spending money is more fun than getting it, generosity is better than meanness yet generosity is not the word for a Jessica who exchanged a turquoise ring for a monkey and spent “four score ducats in a night”. Life with Shylock must have been grim but the ring Jessica steals and then exchanges for monkey was the ring her mother gave to her father.
To a modern day audience the play is very anti-Semitic because Shakespeare age based their prejudice on religious grounds as the Elizabethan inherited the fiction, fabricated by the early Church, that the Jews murdered Christ and were therefore in league with the devil and were actively working to subvert spread of Christianity. The religious grounds of this anti-Semitism means that if a Jew converted to Christianity, as Shylock is forced to do in The Merchant of Venice, then all will be forgiven as the repentant Jew is embraced by the arms of the all merciful Christian God of love.
In fact, some Christian believed-as do some fundamentalist sects today, that the coming of the Kingdom of God was aided by converting the Jews to Christianity.
When the abuse of the Jew as usurer is combined with the Christian religious bias against Jewishness that marked Elizabethan England, this leads to a natural result in the demonisation of the Jew. This demonisation quickly leads to the image of the Jew as a wanton murderer, and is clearly revealed in the accusation of “blood libel” that arose against the Jews during their year before exile from England.
In The Merchant Of Venice the central conflict is common enough, and decidedly the stuff of romantic comedy – a young man borrows money to finance his pursuit of a beautiful and wealthy woman. But the devil is in the details as Shylock, and the details of this play are troubling, ambiguous, and risky. The borrower is a Christian, the moneylender a Jew. The “merry bond”, a pound of flesh, has overtones of the crucifixion of Christ, and in a Venetian courtroom, justice and mercy get so entangled that the final verdict seems neither just nor merciful. Therefore interpreted by a modern day audience as anti-Semitic, also because of the effects of more recent events of 20th Century such as the horrors of the holocaust, the very names of the WWII concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Dachau, and Belson remains the symbols of persecution of the Jews by Nazis.
The part of the play I would like to highlight is the trial scene; I have chosen it because of its dramatic tension, who will win the court case? Will the judge really have to let Shylock carve a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body?
Portia disguised as a man, how would she intensify the drama through the theme of appearance and reality. The evil of Shylock hidden behind the mask of friendship: “I would be friends with you and have your love”, “kind offer” is sealed as the dreadful bond.
The language used in the many speeches can be staged to highlight the conflict and rivalry between Antonio and Shylock.
The trial scene in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is one of the great scenes in Shakespeare. In the early stages of the play Shylock’s deal with Antonio seems so silly that it does not make any sense. However, when Antonio is unable to pay his debts to Shylock the conditions of the deal assume a terrifying quality, “I will have my bond! Speak not against it!” What Shylock actually wants to do here is to kill Antonio and make it legitimate by using the idea of the contract. This, of course, is a viciously cruel punishment for the non- payment of debt, no matter how much Shylock hated Antonio. It is therefore necessary for Shylock’s cruelty to be contained and this, of course, is where Portia, disguised as Balthasar comes in. Her brilliant probing attack on Shylock completely destroys his position and this is quite acceptable, given what Shylock actually deserved.
However, Shylock is stripped of his wealth for his attempted murder of a Venetian, which in the full balance of things seems harsh. The court itself, after the request of Antonio, then shows some mercy to Shylock. He will lose only half his wealth, provided he converts to Christianity.
The stage: will be an arena type in the round where audience would be sitting is semi circle around the stage in a stadium type seating arrangement for a fuller view of the court room scene for every one. The trial scene does not need to be changed so the curtain is not needed.
The Set: to make it an informal court room scene where I would be highlighting the speeches I have chosen an uncluttered room with minimum furniture and props, an oval table with some chairs around it, few chairs at the side walls for Bassanio and others. The Dukes chair would be with arms and pen holder in front of him. Another square table and a chair with a computer to record the proceedings for the Clark of the judge. The walls of the room would be fitted with bookshelves full of law reference books and some upright filling cabinets in one corner.
Costumes: Shylock dressed as modern Jew with a pinned stripped dark suit with three buttons, a Jewish skull cap, enters holding a leather briefcase containing a box of surgical instrument and digital weighing scales.
Antonio dressed up in a dark blue suit with a light blue shirt, white collars and cuffs with Christian Dior cufflinks.
Duke wearing a judge’s wig and a robe.
Bassanio and others wearing “Next” suits.
Portia and Nersissa disguised as men with moustaches wearing black gowns and white collars.
Sound system: all actors wearing small microphones.
Sound effects: through electronic tape players.
I would want Shylock to deliver this speech with strong emotions. Now Shylock look at the Duke and answer him, “what judgement shall I dread doing no wrong”.
Now with quivering muscles and altered tones move in a semi circle and point with his arms towards every one sitting in the court, “You have among you many a puchas’d slaves, you use in abject and in slavish parts, because you bought them”.
Now turn towards the Duke and say in a high pitched voice “Let them be free, marry them to your heirs? Why seat they under brethrens? Let their beds be made as soft as your:”
Now, Shylock put your hands towards your mouth ” and let their palates be season’d with such viands:” At this stage wave your arms and beat your chest with your arms and ” you will answer the slaves are ours”. In a very angry tone, ” so do I answer you”?
Shylock, looking at Antonio moves towards him, ” the pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought, this is mine and I will have it”. Turn towards the Duke and in a loud and angry tone “there is no force in decrees of Venice: I stand for judgement, answer”. Stress on “shall” and say, “Shall I have it”.
Portia, now with your back towards the Duke looking at Shylock say in an eloquent way without overstressing on the word “strain’d” speak with two syllable without distracting affect and start moving in a rapid speech form, giving it as much energy as possible, ” The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown; His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God’s.
When mercy seasons justice”. Portia start urging Shylock to offer mercy to Antonio in a pleading tone, ” When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this, That, in the course of justice, none of us. Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; and that same prayer doth teach us all to render. The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much, to mitigate the justice of thy plea; which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice”. Looking towards Antonio with anxiety and says ” Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.”
Antonio stand tall like a tower at the kneeling body of Shylock with a steady joyousness, addressing the Duke and all the court, “To quit the fine for one half of his goods, I am content so he will let me have, the other half in use”, looking down at Shylock Antonio now strike a harder blow, “upon his death”, tauntingly on “that lately stole his daughter”, and in a triumphant tone “two things provided more, that for this favour, he presently become a Christian, the other that he do record a gift here in the court of all he dies possess’d, unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter.
I believe the play is of great relevance to contemporary society. Although the play was written and performed in England in the 16th Century, the theme of prejudice and religious intolerance is still very relevant today, in the 21st Century as it was in the Shakespeare’s time. Many recent productions have focused upon the treatment of the Jews and have used ideas from this period of history. The Oscar winning Spielberg film Schindler’s List gives an account of Jewish Persecution under the Nazis and contains similar ideas at times to those in the play.
The existence of Apartheid in South Africa was the recent reminder of the behaviour like that of Antonio’s does not go away, it simply changes where it happens. Even after 400 hundred years of this play someone, somewhere will behave like the characters of The Merchant of Venice. For a modern day audience it is not possible to remain neutral about the situation, such as in Merchant of Venice, it does arouse our response and encourages the need to identify and combat anti-Semitism and all other forms of racial prejudices in our contemporary society.