The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial

What does the title "The Merchant of Venice" signify?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The title of the play seems to refer specifically to Antonio, who is indeed the Venetian merchant of the story. This is odd, as Antonio is more of a secondary character, remaining offstage and silent through much of the story. Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, is far more central to the story. This raises the much-asked question of why Antonio is the title character and not Shylock or Portia, who also takes center stage in this play.

In fact, the play was first listed under a different title: "The Merchant of Venice, otherwise called the Jew of Venice." Perhaps the title was simplified when the play was later performed and published. It is possible that this was done to identify Antonio as the hero of the story. It has also been suggested that the title was clarified and shortened in order to avoid confusing it with Christopher Marlowe's play The Jew of Malta, which was published around the same time.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The title of the play has caused some comment in the past because Antonio does not dominate the action or claim most of the audience's attention. Shylock is really the central character in this regard until his exit at a relatively early stage, while Portia is the dominant character - or at least jointly so with Shylock - during the trial and from there to the end. Antonio is curiously muted and passive for an eponymous character and his opening words really characterise the way he is to behave for the rest of the play.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Explain The Merchant Of Venice as a tragic comedy play.

Traditionally, a comedy is loosely referred to a narrative with a happy ending (that's why Dante's Divine Comedy, though it has plenty of unhappy moments in the Inferno portion, is called a comedy in the first place). Conversely, a tragedy has an unhappy ending, and usually involves the downfall of the main character.

Let's look at The Merchant of Venice in this context. In many ways, the play has a happy ending: Bassanio ends up with Portia, and Antonio not only escapes his gruesome fate, but also finds out that he is, in fact, still rich. By all accounts, that's a classic comedic ending: guy gets the girl, nobody is poor, and everyone's having a good time. However, the play subtly disrupts this comedic ending through its treatment of Shylock; though he is ostensibly the "villain" of the play, the reader/audience tends to sympathize with Shylock, as he faces significant persecution through the story, simply because he is Jewish. As such, his downfall is not positive at all, but instead takes on tragic proportions (he doesn't even appear on-stage during the final act). The play's comedic ending is subverted by the tragic downfall of Shylock, and this is one of the main reasons why The Merchant of Venice continues to be read and studied.  

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Explain The Merchant Of Venice as a tragic comedy play.

Start with the meaning of the words. To be tragic is to be extremely sad (a bit different from a formal tragedy); to be a comedy in the Shakespearean sense, humor helps but what's necessary is for things to turn out well for the main characters, and, especially, for tensions to be successfully resolved and for lovers to get together.

Well, this is sad because of the frustration and harsh treatment of Shylock, but it is a comedy because Antonio does not lose the pound of flesh he agreed to, and because the lovers marry at the play's end.
Greg

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How is The Merchant Of Venice a tragic comedy?

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. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on