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This article explains the nature and characteristics of Shakespeare’s tragicomedy. It gives an overview of the concept of tragicomedy before concentrating on the Shakespeare type of the genre. Finally, The Merchant of Venice (1596) is examined as an example of Shakespeare’s tragicomedy.

What is Tragicomedy?

Tragicomedy is a dramatic genre in which there is a juxtaposition of tragic and comic elements. It is a synthesis which, according to Wilson (2005), produces “a view in which one eye looks through a comic lens and the other through a serious lens; and the two points of view are so intermingled as to be one, like food which tastes sweet and bitter at the same time”. A drama of mixed feeling, tragicomedy compels us to

“weigh in one scale”, the multi coloured world of society, or soul” as well as “the unstable public or private temper” (Styan, 1967). It draws equal “vacillating response” of tears and laughter from the audience because it is a drama in which “one pattern of feeling dramatised” is countered by another different pattern.

Styan argues that the delicate balance between the comic and the tragic, between happiness and sadness in a play keeps man in a state of wakefulness. In a tragicomedy, “we are specifically asked not to be fanatics” (Styan, 1967) because of the ambivalent nature of existence. According to Eze (2011), tragicomedy is a reconciliation drama which strikes a balance between tragedy and comedy in its narrative paradigms. It takes one to a tragic height and lowers one into a happy comic environment. This is exactly what makes the play, eminently, satisfying and of popular taste.

Tragicomic drama is very ancient in its origin. According to Styan (1967), tragicomedy was the staple of “Athen’s declining years, England at the turn of the sixteenth century, Moliere’s France under Louis XIV, Russia at the turn of the nineteenth century and Western Europe as a whole, after the two world wars”. The mystery cycle plays of the middles ages were equally tragicomic in perspective. The absurdist play probes deeply into human problems and casts a cold eye on the world, yet it is also imbued with a comic spirit” (Wilson 2005).

Characteristics of Shakespeare’s Tragicomedy

On Shakespeare and tragicomedy, Ben Jonson observes that he “caught his ideas from the living world”. Life, as Soren Kierkegaard would say, “is a striving and is both pathetic and comic in the same degree”. Shakespeare seeks to reflect the world as the living encounters its emotional vacillating tendency. In his tragicomic plays, one encounters shifting layers of narrative pattern which leads to events obtruding into one another without warning. Some of the characteristics of Shakespeare’s tragicomedy include the following.

  • In terms of plotting, Shakespearean tragicomedy employs complex narrative strategies. In The Merchant of Venice, we have about eleven different fables. It is the manner in which Shakespeare makes these fables obtrude into one another without warning that makes the play extremely fascinating.
  • Characterisation is protean. This refers to a situation where one character exists in several narrative planes. Shylock, for example, is portrayed as an odious usurer as well as a tragic figure of loss. Portia is both a lady and an intelligent male lawyer, etc.
  • Shakespearean tragicomedy, usually, presents two contrasting worlds. In The Merchant of Venice, these worlds are Venice – an aggressive business community with all manner of scheming, and Belmont – a green world that functions as an Arcadia.
  • In this type of play, the presence of evil, according to Frye (1982), “serves as a foil to set off the beauty of virtue, and misery is the soil out of which goodness grows”. The effort is, usually, to bring order out of chaos; to replace malice with mercy; and vengeance with forgiveness; to bring opposing forces into a more humane social arrangement.
  • In Shakespeare’s tragicomedy evil impresses us as more challenging than is typically found in the comedies, though it does not reach the staggering proportion to which evil grows in the tragedies” (Frye 1982: 126). Suffering is not always allowed to stretch too far. Evil is defeated at the end and the protagonist has the prospect of living happily in the end. However, it is not always a happy ending for all the characters.

A Synopsis of The Merchant of Venice

In The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio wants to go to Belmont to woo a very rich lady, Portia, but he being a spendthrift is unable to do so because he does not have the money. However, a generous friend by name Antonio whose wealth are all at the high sea at the time, decides to stake a pound of his flesh to an old business rival, Shylock, in order to raise money for Bassanio’s trip. He will only loose his pound of flesh to Shylock if he is unable to repay the money at an agreed time. After obtaining the money, Bassanio travels to Belmont, wins Portia after solving the casket riddle; but before their solemnisation, a message comes that all of Antonio’s ships are doomed in the sea and Antonio is unable to pay back the money at the appointed time. However, Portia disguises as a male lawyer and wins Antonio’s freedom after a brilliant display of his mastery of the law. Shylock looses half of his wealth to the state and is equally compelled to convert to Christianity.

Critical Analysis of The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is a thrilling dramatic piece, but its portrayal of a Jewish money lender has made it the most controversial of all Shakespearean plays. “Shylock has swollen our imaginations to become a star of a show in which he was written as a small part” (Lester, 1999). The uncharitable depiction of the Jew as a Machiavellian is totally unacceptable to the Jewish people, and their critical and physical rejection of the play has been aggravated by the holocaust of the Second World War. The personage of Shylock ignited Nazi persecution during the war. Anti – Defamation League sees it as inciting racial hatred against the Jews and frequently goes to court to stop its production.

Gideon Lester states that Arnold Wester wrote an article in the Guardian about the play, describing it as “a hateful, ignorant portrayal” that “confirms and feeds those whose anti – Semitism is dormant”. Due to bitter criticism about the portrayal of the Jew in the play, several attempts have been made to revise and produce the play in a manner that is ideologically acceptable. Lester (1999) states that:

There is, for instance, a strong tradition of Hebrew and Yiddish productions that portray Shylock as a misunderstood victim of anti – semitic persecution. One of the finest actors of the Yiddish theatre in New York, Jacob Adler, played Shylock as a noble patriarch; a man “who is rooted in life and has grown strong in it”.

However, it is necessary to point out that the play, according to Lester, is a balanced “act that suggests the operation of narrative strategies more complex than might be implied by the heavy – handed approach of recent Shylock – centered productions”. Shylock only appears in five out of the 20 scenes of the play. Antonio’s story is the principal fable and we have as Lester reckons about 11 different sub – plots in the text, including the “fable of the servant who flees his master to seek employment from a young nobleman, the recognition plot, where the blind old Gobbo is finally reunited with his son Lancelot”… the casket plot, where Bassanio speaks lofty poetry, the disguise plot, where Portia becomes a brilliant male lawyer, in order to rescue Antonio, the ring trick and the revenge plot “in which a wronged man, his daughter and wealth stolen from him and his faith reviled seeks a terrible revenge from his aggressors” (Lester, p.257).

It is the Antonio plot that determines the principal direction of the play. His is the one who makes Bassanio’s trip possible. He is the one who stakes his life and clarifies part of Shylock’s personality. He is equally the one who makes Portia’s cross – dressing possible. He is the Merchant of Venice whose fortune determines the pace of the play. It is certainly because of the human’s fascination for the disagreeable that critics and directors tend to make Shylock the epicenter of the play.

Two things make the play very fascinating. The first is the shifting narrative strategies and the second is the protean nature of characterisation. A major thrilling thing about The Merchant of Venice is the rapid way in which different fables are mingled, making events to obtrude into one another without warning. For example, immediately Bassanio solves the riddle of the caskets, “and no sooner have he and Portia, Nerissa and Gratiano sworn “to solemnise/The bargain of (their) faith” than Salerio enters with the news from Antonio “that steals colour from Bassanio’s cheek” and suspends the action of the scene” (Lester, 1999). One is impressed by the quality of surprise, the twists and turns in the play. The entrance of Salerio is like invading a temple and disrupting a profound ritual. It immediately turns a sweet soup sour.

The shifting tendency of narrative strategies promotes protean characterisation where characters assume different postures in different narrative realms. Lester argues rightly that “Shylock is portrayed, for example, as a malevolent usurer, cackling with pleasure as he plans to “plague” and torture Antonio, then the wretched broken old man, abandoned by his daughter and utterly alone in a bigoted, hostile world” (p.257). This suggests that Shylock performs double dramatic function as “the odious caricature of a grasping mercenary that feeds the claim of the play’s anti-semitism” as well as “the tragic figure of loss and despair” (Lester, 1999).

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