The Merchant of Venice is one of the plays which does not fit into the three primary categories of Shakespearean drama. Those categories are comedy, tragedy, and history. The Merchant of Venice is absolutely not a comedy, and it is certainly not a history. However, it doesn't quite fit into the mold of "tragedy" because the main characters do not die. Everyone lives...but not everyone lives happily. Today, it is likely that it would fall into the category of "drama," a serious play which may or may not have an uplifting denouement.
Like Othello, The Merchant of Venice deals with race, one of the few of Shakespeare's plays to do so. At its heart is the long-standing conflict between the Christians and the Jews of medieval and Renaissance Europe. The contrast between the two peoples becomes very stark when one examines the character of Shylock, a money-lender. He is wealthy, yet, like the rest of his people, he is forced to live in the ghettos of Venice. Because of his profession, he is necessary to the Christian businessmen, who were not permitted to lend money with interest. They despise him, not just because he is Jewish, but also because they are forced to depend on him. Finally, Shylock sees an opportunity to get his own back on the men who oppress him. He takes what sounds like an extreme measure, demanding that a default on a client's loans will be paid, not with higher interest rates on the loan, but with a pound of his own flesh. The man laughs at the demand and agrees to it, since he's never had a problem repaying money, and the ships carrying his investments are due in a full month prior to the end of the loan period. This stipulation sets in motion the rest of the plot.
The story goes thusly: Bassanio wishes to court Portia, an heiress whose father devised a test for her suitors, to ensure their worthiness. He needs money to do so. His friend Antonio offers to supply the money, despite his funds being invested in ships that are currently at sea. He goes to Shylock to borrow the money, and strikes the aforementioned bargain with him. Shylock hates Antonio in part because Antonio hates the Jews, but also because he lends money without interest.
Bassanio wins Portia's hand, but Antonio's ships do not come in when expected and are rumoured to be wrecked, so he is faced with paying Shylock a pound of his own flesh. Naturally, he takes the man to court. Shylock, in the aftermath of his daughter eloping with a Christian and taking much of the treasures of their house with her, insists upon his rights. The agreement was notarized and is legal. Although Antonio now has the money, the period for the loan has elapsed and Shylock doesn't want his money. The witty Portia, disguised as a man, steps in to argue on Antonio's behalf. When her plea for mercy goes unheeded, she takes another view: Shylock has, in demanding a pound of Antonio's flesh, threatened him with death, and as a non-citizen, now owes Antonio half his possessions. The tables turn. Antonio demands that, in addition, Shylock must leave the rest of what he owns to his daughter and her husband, and that he must also convert. All this he must concede, or he faces death himself. So he gives in.
A more traditional reading of the play would see Shylock as the villain, a monster so consumed with rage that he neglects mercy and true justice. His punishment, the loss of his money and daughter, and his forced conversion, is only just. The more modern reading of the story sees a different man entirely, one who is driven to the edge by the society in which he lives. He takes a wild, desperate chance to seize some sort of justice for himself, and ends up bereft of family, money, his community, and his livelihood (as a convert, he is estranged from his people and no longer permitted to be a money-lender). Henceforth, he will be an outcast among both the Jews and the Christians.
I suppose it's obvious that I prefer the latter reading. It makes the entire story more complex. Shylock is not entirely a villain, and Antonio is not entirely blameless. Antonio practically revels in stripping Shylock of what little he has left to him. Portia, for all her talk of mercy, shows Shylock little of it. True, she is rescuing her husband's best friend from a probable death, but she doesn't stop to think of Shylock's perspective. I suppose it's odd that I think more about the so-called villain of the piece, when one of Shakespeare's prime female roles is also in this play, but the truth is that I find Shylock a more interesting character to explore. Portia is interesting enough, but she's not the complex mix of good and bad that Shylock seems to be.
Our next stop will be As You Like It. We move from the darkness of Merchant of Venice to the bizarre and light-hearted Forest of Arden.
"How every fool can play upon the word! I think the best grace of wit will shortly turn into silence, and discourse grow commendable in none only but parrots." Lorenzo, The Merchant of Venice III.5.48-51
"The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction." Shylock, The Merchant of Venice, III.1.76-78
"The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o'er a cold decree." Portia, The Merchant of Venice, I.2.19-20