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The Merchant of Venice as a Romantic

Comedy - Critical Analysis

Shakespeares early comedies were classical in spirit but the later ones were more emotional, fanciful and humorous. The
Merchant of Venice falls between their 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 ardour and hopefulness of youth. There is loftiness of thought and expression.
Romance was an old tradition and Romantic ideas were common during Shakespeares 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 audiences 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 Antonios 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
Antonios. 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, Jessicas 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 fathers 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 Jessicas. However one
might argue that Lorenzo right from the start talks about how I shall take her from her fathers 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 loves 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 plays 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 suspected. 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 loves 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 true 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 Shylocks wealth and Belmonts music and this harmony seem to be appropriate resolutions of the plays disharmonies.