William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a romantic comedy also known as a tragicomedy. This literary device is unique in that it not only contains traditional lighthearted, humorous, romantic ideas, but also the elements of tragedy, more specifically, serious dramatic circumstances causing human suffering.
In the first three Acts of the play, Shakespeare builds the details required of a romantic comedy genre, to wit, a love theme plagued by unforeseen complications. Of course, to qualify as a tragicomedy, the dramatist must also present tragic events by introducing tragic characters who threaten human life.
In The Merchant of Venice, Antonio is the protagonist whose life is on the line because he makes a loan arrangement on behalf of his friend, Bassanio. He agrees with the central tragic character, Shylock, to guarantee Bassanio’s loan of “three thousand ducats.” However, should Antonio fail to repay the loan within the agreed-upon three month period, tragedy will befall the protagonist. Shylock sets the terms of the loan:
Go with me to a notary, seal me there
Your single bond; and in a merry sport
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express’d in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.
Once the deal is sealed, a series of comic errors causes Antonio to default on the loan. Shylock promptly demands his pound of flesh, which brings the drama to a climax in Act IV and would seem to be leading to a tragic conclusion. However, in a romantic comedy, the playwright must provide a happy ending. Bassanio’s betrothed, Portia, disguises herself as Balthazar, a young doctor of law and appears before the Duke in a Venetian court of justice on behalf of Antonio. She argues her case to the Duke insisting that Shylock be able to take his pound of flesh, but only if he spills no blood since that was not part of the bargain. She convinces the Duke that Shylock should also be punished for attempting to take Antonio’s life in such an evil way. Thus, Shylock is initially forced to give up all his property.
In Act IV, the parties work out their differences and unravel some of the other complications, such as Bassanio’s humorous giving up of his wedding ring to pay his debt, since he had been unaware of Portia’s deception. In the end, the tragic beginnings of the story bring good fortune to all and a happy conclusion to the tale.