The Merchant of Venice and Shakespeare's sense of humour(s)


  • This essay evolved out of a paper I wrote for a seminar on Shakespearean comedy during the Shakespeare Association of America conference in 2012. I extend my thanks to the session's participants, in particular Adam Zucker, for insightful commentary and criticism.


This paper examines a crucial and often overlooked dimension of The Merchant of Venice as it pertains to both its performative and critical histories; namely, how the presence of a melancholic character problematizes the play at its core. This essay argues that the tonal dissonance created by Antonio's melancholy represents an integral component of its comic progression and, in doing so, construes the play as representative of Shakespeare's idiosyncratic brand of comedy. I maintain that, in relying on a melancholic protagonist who defies comic classification – much like the play itself – the comedy eschews both the Galenic understanding of humoural theory, predicated on an imbalance of bodily substance, as well as the Jonsonian style of humour plays, where each absurd affect is expected to yield mockery and laughter. Rather than consider Antonio's melancholy as a critical springboard, however, I discuss its impact within the comedy it inhabits, reading the merchant as the dramatic intersection through which the play's multiple plots and characters converge. Though he is in no way the play's antagonistic figure, Antonio represents a considerably dissonant note that jeopardizes the concretization of the romantic plot, hence his ostensible exclusion at the end of the comedy.