Problem Plays Law, Comedy, and the Project of Genre in The Merchant of Venice

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Katherine DeCoste

Abstract

William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is typically identified in scholarship as a comedy. However, the play’s fourth act is troubling, as Shylock loses his wealth and is forced to convert from his ancestral Judaism to Christianity, undermining the play’s comic nature. In this essay, I examine what are called surface and fundamental conventions of comedy to discuss whether The Merchant of Venice can be classified as a Shakespearean comedy. Surface conventions appear regularly in comedies, but are not necessary to classify a play as a comedy; fundamental conventions are less immediately obvious. Although the play subscribes to surface conventions of comedy, it fails to present the fundamental conventions of a just universe or comically satisfying ending, particularly in the legal proceedings of both the trial scene and the protagonists’ marriages. Noting comic tropes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in contrast to The Merchant of Venice, I argue that Merchant is, in fact, a “problem play” that does not fit neatly into any generic classification. While typical comedies offer justice in the sense that characters achieve deserved outcomes, justice in The Merchant of Venice is undermined through Portia’s intervention in the trial. Ultimately, I aim to understand with more nuance the complex role that the legal system plays in constructing genre in The Merchant of Venice, and to question the play’s traditional, though not universal, classification in Shakespeare scholarship as a “comedy.”

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Social Sciences & Humanities