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Tragic Irony of The Comedy

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There are many instances where if one were not laughing, they would be crying; that is to say, the difference between the laughable and the lamentable is oftentimes narrow. In fact, the irony behind what is tragic and what is comedic is naturally linked by its relationship with pathos, insomuch that comedy dismisses empathy and pity, whereas tragedy demands it. From Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, all the way to their early beginnings with Plautus’ burlesque and often dark plays, tragicomic elements have been used in short stories, theatre pieces, and literature throughout time to provide ironic commentary on the spirit of the age and the human state of being. However, none surpass Shakespeare in their work in providing insight on the human condition and its affinity between the tragic and the comical. That is why after a review of The Merchant of Venice and its management of the bigotry towards Jews and homosexuals, the hypocrisy of the Christian’s judgment by mercy, and notably, the empathetic villainy and fate of the play’s antagonist, Shylock, it becomes clear that Shakespeare deliberately blurs the boundaries between tragedy and comedy and what is moral and immoral to provide humor, or at the very least, irony, to describe the human condition.

From the beginning with Antonio’s opening line, “‘In sooth, I know not why I am so sad,”‘ the reader is introduced into the play with an air of speculative gloom. When Solanio and Salerio insist that Antonio’s sadness could be spawned from the risky nature of his business ventures on the seas, Antonio responds with an explanation of how his estate is sound, regardless of the future of his current business prospects; however, when asked if the merchant’s misery could be related to love, Antonio snaps back with “‘Fie, fie!” The hasty retort would seem to suggest that Antonio is positive that he could not be in love, but soon after, when he and Bassanio are left alone, the two share an exchange that would seem contrary to that claim. Though their exchange is not an overt confession of homosexuality, it is undeniable that Bassanio, who says, “‘To you, Antonio, I owe the most, in money and in love,”‘ and Antonio, who pledges “‘my purse, my person, my extremest means lie all unlocked to your occasions,”‘ are in love with each other. In the very least, Antonio’s undying affection and “‘devotion to Bassanio suggests the intensity of same-sex male bonds”‘.

If Antonio has such a loving relationship, then why is he sad? It could be that Bassanio is looking to court Portia, the rich heiress of Belmont, and that the marriage could end Antonio and his relationship, but Bassanio explains that they both had expected this to happen given the disheveled condition of his estate, or in his own words, “‘‘Tis not unknown to you, Antonio, / How much I have disabled mine estate.”‘ If it were expected, than why would Antonio have stated in the play’s very beginning that he didn’t know the reasons for his sadness? A possible answer is that Antonio is conflicted with his homosexual desires for Bassanio. Antonio, a merchant with Venetian sensibilities of the time, those including homophobia and anti-Semitism, could be conflicted between his homosexual desire for Bassanio and his repulsion towards the very idea of homosexuality. The implied irony provided from a “‘homophobic homosexual”‘ certainly could be seen in a humorous light, but it is almost impossible to erase the elements of tragedy, considering how easy it is to be empathetic with the genuinely confused merchant in love.

The bigotry in the play extends much further than sexual orientation and ultimately becomes blatant prejudice and racism, or more specifically, anti-Semitism. The irony behind the Christian/Jewish opposition throughout the play is obviously the Christian message of compassion towards neighbors in conflict with the overt anti-Semitism prevalent in the Christian characters. Even more ironic, the bigotry towards the Jews is not so much a religious intolerance as it is a racial one. Though the Christians in the play are by no means to be perceived as religiously tolerant, the persecution of Shylock, as well as his daughter, is more of an xenophobic contempt for “‘the particularities of blood-lineage, and increasingly, of nation”‘. This is made evident by the exchange between Jessica and Lancelot, when Lancelot explains that Jessica by birth is inevitably “‘damned,”‘ save for a “‘bastard hope,”‘ explaining that Jessica “‘may partly hope that your father got you not, that you are not the Jew’s daughter. In other words, the persecution of Jessica is not necessarily because she shares her father’s religion, but his blood, which in turn, produces a tragicomic irony, insomuch that the Christian characters feel no qualms about persecuting the Jews, even in the name of Christianity, a religion that preaches the very opposite.

It would be unfair to say that only Lancelot expresses an anti-Semitic attitude; in truth, almost all the Christian characters express at one point in the play some form of Jewish racism. Gratiano, one of “‘the play’s most outspoken anti-Semites”‘ epitomizes many of the character’s prejudices, even at the extent of radically orating lengthy hate speech against Jews. Gratiano, in one of these tirades, comically hints at questioning his faith, a notion that is ironic considering his anti-Semitism does not coexist with his Christian beliefs in the first place, when he says to Shylock, “‘Oh, be thou damned, inexecrable dog, / And for thy life let Justice be accused! / Thou almost mak’st me waver in my faith”‘ Whether or not Shakespeare is consciously providing irony as commentary towards the injustice of the Christian racism or is simply cultivating “‘the soul of English culture”‘ and “‘long history of Jewish suffering,”‘ is debatable. Either way, it is impossible to remove the tragic quality of the Jew’s situation, even when illustrated in such an overblown and possibly, humorous fashion.

Christian foul play continues throughout the play, notably with the trial of Shylock. Throughout the trial, Portia pleas to Shylock that he shed mercy on Antonio, stating “‘then must the Jew be merciful,”‘ but when Shylock questions why he must, she recants with “‘The quality of mercy is not strained.” Later, she implies that mercy in law “‘is not possible for anyone—but only in and by Christ.” Her “‘capitalization”‘ of Christian principles to gain advantage over the Jewish Shylock in the trial could be rendered as “‘psychospiritual usury,”‘ especially considering the hypocritical ending of the trial, where mercy isn’t exercised fully with Shylock’s sentence. If mercy was the Christian character’s intention, then why publically humiliate Shylock by forcing him to convert to Christianity, obviously going against his own beliefs and family tradition?

The use of Christian ideologies in the trial is not only ironic but also hypocritical, since the espousers of the ideology do not even uphold to their own preaching, even to the extent that Antonio’s words earlier in the play, that even “‘the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose”‘ could be used against them. Be it subliminal or deliberate, there is no doubt throughout the trial that the Christian characters show “‘hypocrisy in projecting their own worst traits onto the scapegoated figure of the Jew”‘. Because Shakespeare writes the play with the intention of the Christian characters identifying with the audience, the subtle irony behind the Christian hypocrisy is ambiguous; however, if one puts an emphasis on “‘the importance and centrality of the irony,”‘ it becomes clear that the play describes “‘the manner in which the Christians succeed in the world by not practicing their ideals of love and mercy.” The justice at the hand of the Christians is completely arbitrary, and not at the mercy of Christ (the only just mercy according to Portia earlier), but solely to Antonio’s liking when Portia passes the sentence to him asking, “‘What mercy can you render him, Antonio?”‘ The procedure is nothing short of “‘mercenary justice”‘ and “‘does not celebrate the Christian virtues so much as expose their absence,”‘ which ultimately does not portray “‘justice by love and mercy,”‘ but becomes “‘something of a parody of heavenly harmony and love.” The irony behind the court scene, and certainly the potentially deliberate pathos rendered by the mistreatment of Shylock, is quickly brushed off as Shakespeare immediately shifts the focus from Shylock to the lovers and their rings at the end of the first scene in Act IV, furthering the elements of romantic comedy throughout the play. But even though the irony is deliberately placed aside to continue the comedic narrative, one can not deny its presence throughout the entire trial and the hypocrisy and complacency of the Christian characters that let it prosper.

Perhaps the most complicated element towards critically interpreting The Merchant of Venice is the ambiguity surrounding Shylock’s character. One inclination is to present Shylock as “‘a potentially good man twisted by malignant social and religious prejudice, an approach that can only mean Shakespeare intended the play to be “‘deeply ironic”‘ and about “‘hypocritical Christians,”‘ but in the “‘other direction,”‘ Shylock simply could have been like any villain in a “‘typical romantic comedy, which only by historical accident has a Jew occupying the position otherwise filled by (say) a killjoy steward.” In critique to the latter case, if Shylock were simply a generic villain, then why are there so many complications and instances of pity throughout the play towards his character? It could be possible that Shylock deliberately has characteristics of both, a sympathetic character and a typical villain. For how else could Shylock be “‘portrayed not as a hateful character, but as one who commands our sympathies,”‘ and “‘a comic, even a farcical figure, greedy to the point of the ludicrous, whose every line and mannerism is intended to evoke belly-laughs,”‘ if it were not for him to be an ideal platform to provide irony throughout the play?

It only seems possible that Shylock was created to embody contradicting characteristics. Why else would the most emotionally poignant and sentimental lines in the play be uttered by the man who when asked by Salerio, “‘thou wilt not take his flesh. What’s that good for?”‘ responds coldheartedly with “‘To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.” With those words, something is revealed “‘far more than the mere desire for revenge,”‘ and an “‘element of wild desperation”‘ created by the frustration from years of persecution, comes out in Shylock’s character, so that as one sees “‘there is a despairing sense of the futility of the revenge, since the pound of flesh cannot heal the real hurt,”‘ they realize that Shylock has become maddened to the point of deep agony, and through this realization are compelled to sympathize with him. If not those words, than certainly the rest of Shylock’s discourse, especially him questioning, “‘If you pick us, do we not bleed? / If you tickle us, do we not laugh?”‘ and definitely his comparison to a Christian in respect to retribution with “‘If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge,”‘ could only be interpreted as a cry for sympathy and understanding.

When creating Shylock, Shakespeare “‘knew the Jews of medieval and passion plays and Corpus Christi pageants”‘ were portrayed as “‘an incarnation of the devil himself,”‘ and also understood the animosity towards Jews at the time because of their practicing of “‘usury, that is, the lending of money for gain, giving not for love but for gain,”‘ an animosity so great, that the “‘word “‘Jew”‘ was synonymous with evil.” So by providing a second layer, the sympathetic and tortured side of Shylock, Shakespeare deliberately created a character to contrast the Elizabethan single-sidedness of Jewish perception. In a sense, he asks one to give sympathy to the devil, a notion overtly ironic; however, Shylock also plays to the perception of the Jews at the time by adding the simple and ridiculous form of a money mongering Jew. This is made apparent when he says things (according to Solanio) as ludicrous as “‘My daughter! Oh, my ducats! Oh, my daughter!”‘ Shakespeare plays to the audience’s likely prejudices towards the Jews implying that Shylock, a simplistic avaricious usurer, who would equate his own daughter to his ducats. In doing this, he openly provides comedy where the other elements of tragicomic irony throughout the play might not have been interpreted by the masses, but that is not to say he is simply reducing Shylock to a simplistic villain. On the contrary, it just adds another layer to the already complex web that is Shylock’s character.

By employing irony throughout The Merchant of Venice with the anti-Semitic and homophobic bigotry of the supposedly moral characters, the overall hypocrisy practiced by the followers of Christianity, and most importantly, the empathetic and tragic condition of the villain, Shylock, Shakespeare asks the audience not to lament, but to laugh at the discrepancy between the intellectual and emotional sides of humanity. It is true that comedy uses “‘wit”‘ and “‘spectacle”‘ to “‘appeal”‘ to the brain, and that tragedy “‘engages before anything else our feelings of terror and pity,”‘ that is, the responses of the heart. However, the line is fine between what engages the mind and what pleas to the heart. The Merchant of Venice embraces this notion of unintelligibility, blending the elements of tragedy and comedy in order to provide instances of irony, something intrinsically comic. For without the play’s irony, it would be Shakespeare, not Shylock, that demanded a pound of flesh – straight from the reader’s heart.

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Tragic Irony of the Comedy. (2018, May 29). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 21, 2022, from
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