How is The Merchant Of Venice a tragic comedy?

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iandavidclark3 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In one sense, Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is certainly a comedy. Good largely triumphs over evil, and all of the main "good guys" end up with a happy ending: Bassanio and Portia live happily ever after, and Antonio finds out that his lost fortune is not so lost after all. That said, a persistent tragic streak runs through the play. For instance, the Jewish Shylock is forced to give up his fortune and convert to Christianity. While the moneylender certainly commits some acts of villainy in the play, he's also an oppressed Jew, and his Christian tormenters effectively succeed in beating him into submission. Shylock hardly gets a happy ending, and this fact has lead several readers to suggest that Shylock is something of a tragic figure.

Since Merchant employs this complex blend of comedy and tragedy, it's often known as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays." It might end with an ending typical of Shakespeare's comedies, but it deals with some pretty serious themes (such as anti-Semitism and racism) and leaves some plot threads (most notably Shylock's life after the trial) unresolved. As such, it's hard to classify Merchant, and its complex themes continue to beguile audiences and readers alike.