The Contradiction of Tragedy within Comedy: A Doppelgänger Pairing of Antonio and Shylock
[There are errors in this paper. One must know that I have been at Oxford studying (and playing) since July 7, 2017.]
The common definition of a comedy is Aristotle’s in which at least one marriage ends the play. By that definition, Shakespeare’s A Merchant of Venice is a comedy; three pairings occur at the end of the play (though the marriages occur earlier): Lorenzo / Jessica, Gratiano / Nerissa, and Bassanio / Portia. But not all is comedy. While three marriages occur and the participants happily make their way to bed (Barton 253), Antonio and Shylock technically have each been left without a human partner. Antonio lost his partner, Bassanio, to Portia during Bassanio’s successful trial of the casks and subsequent marriage (III.ii) while Shylock, a widower already bereft of a wife, loses his daughter, ducats, and doctrine by the end of the trial (IV.ii). How then is this a comedy when the idealized world of Belmont and the generous (Barton’s term) Portia forget about Shylock and seem unconcerned with Antonio after Portia rescues him for Bassanio’s sake? It isn’t. If one pays attention to the interwoven plots, one registers that Merchant reflects the complexities of life - including the good, bad, and indifferent. It is through the lens of a benevolent ending for the Christians that Merchant appears as comedy because those who are Christian (at least in name) benefit by marrying, happily, for love or by retaining, as in Antonio’s case, one’s profession.
Even through that lens of a happy ending for the Christians, one must wonder about what will become of Antonio. He is no longer needed as Bassanio’s benefactor as Portia is wealthy enough to provide their income, though Bassanio appears quite capable of going through wealth rather quickly (“I have disabled mine estate,” he tells Antonio when he asks for a loan (I.i.126). Antonio’s fate is questionable. Does he find a new bachelor to mentor? Does he hang around Belmont as a spare wheel for Portia and Bassanio to entertain since Portia indicates that Antonio is welcome to her house (V.i.288) and part of the comedic happy ending? Antonio must follow the couples alone off the stage (Barton 253), but what is his future? He remains a merchant named in the list of persons (“ANTONIO, a merchant of Venice”) and perhaps not the merchant of the title. But in a format where comedy is defined by a love match, Antonio only fits that definition if his love match is his work (class lecture, 7/10/17).
Though Antonio’s fate is undecided but leans towards happiness at the end of Merchant, Shylock’s fate is decidedly tragic and leans toward misery. Aristotle’s definition of tragedy involves the death of at least one major character, usually at the very end of the play. But Shylock does not die in the course of the play. Much as Antonio was resigned to death in III.iv, Shylock is resigned to death in IV.i as his accumulated wealth and source of income are taken from him as a result of his “indirect attempt … [to] … seek the life of any citizen” of Venice results in the judgment that half his estate go to the state and half to the victim (IV.i.360-367). Antonio amends the judgment, and the duke agrees, that half shall become the state’s and half shall go to Shylock’s christianized daughter, Jessica, after his death, but Shylock must immediately convert to Christianity (IV.1.392-401). Shylock exits alone thirteen lines later in misery, not death, more than a full scene before the play’s end.
Through the lens of the Christian viewpoint, Antonio may be remembered by his friends even as he follows them out singly, but Shylock is quickly forgotten in the joyous reunions and revealings of V.i. at Belmont. Antonio, who loaned money without interest contradicts Shylock’s usury and even shows a generosity that Shylock does not have; he does not hesitate to loan Bassanio money though it could cost him his own life while Shylock despairs of his daughter and his ducats (II.viii.15-16). For Antonio, potential happiness, the heart of comedy, is possible, but it is not so for Shylock who is left without those things which defined his character, his wealth and business as a merchant in money lending, which as a Christian he would no longer be permitted (Class Lecture, 7/11/17). This play, then, does pair all of its major characters. Antonio and Shylock are paired as doppelgängers in the manner of their acceptance of death and their love for their professions, but their attitudes towards their friends, family, and society require that Shakespeare render a potentially happy ending for Antonio who grasped at nothing and gained almost everything and a definitely tragic ending for Shylock who grasped hold of anything he could and lost it all.
Barton, Anne. “The Merchant of Venice.” The Riverside Shakespeare, edited by G. Blakemore Evans, 1974, pp. 250-253.
“Class Lectures” with Mark Lussier on 10-11 July 2017. The Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Oxford Study Abroad, Summer 2017.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Norton Critical Edition, edited by Leah S. Marcus, pp. 3-75.