William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is among his most well known and disputed comedies. The narrative takes place in Venice, Italy and branches off in two storylines that intertwine at the beginning and end of the play. The first reads as a romantic comedy, with light humor, witty banter, and the company of a clown. It centers around the young Bassanio and his quest for the hand of the beautiful and wealthy Portia. The second, much less cheerful, tells of the merchant Antonio and the debt of human flesh he owes to the Jewish moneylender Shylock. As is the case in many Shakespearian comedies, the play’s conflict is resolved and the story ends with a happy marriage and the satisfying finality of a rhyming couplet. However, two main characters do not share in the joy of the couples and are left out and alone at the end, their sadness glossed over by the optimistic ending of the play. Shakespeare uses symbolism, metaphor and word choice to illustrate Antonio and Shylock as the forgotten outsiders of a tragic comedy.
Antonio’s feelings for Bassanio are a main factor of what excludes him from the happy ending and sets him apart from the other characters. Although the question of whether Antonio is really in love with Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice is widely disputed among Shakespeare scholars, the existence of a strong bond between the two men cannot be denied. As Antonio awaits the beginning of his trial, he proclaims “Pray God Bassanio come/ To see me pay his debt, and then I care not,” (3.4.38-39) with all the hyperbole and desperation of a doomed lover. Another instance that implies more than a platonic fondness appears later in the play during the trial, when Antonio says “Commend me to your honorable wife,/ … And when the tale is told, bid her be the judge/ Whether Bassanio had once a love.” (4.1.285-89). Even though Antonio helped make the marriage possible, these words have a touch of competition or even rivalry in them. This points to the idea that the mysterious sadness that seemed to have no basis that Antonio expresses to his companions in the incipit of the play comes from the knowledge that Bassanio is in love with another, thus making the couple’s happy ending a painful experience for his friend. Finally, there is the fact that despite having risked his entire fortune on ships that are at sea, Antonio agrees to put himself in Shylock’s debt, even though failure to pay would mean losing a pound of his flesh and surely dying. Antonio’s willingness to risk his own life for Bassanio’s wellbeing is more evidence for the depth of Antonio’s feelings, and the motif of the “pound of flesh” alludes, somewhat grotesquely, to the idea of marriage, where two people become “one flesh”.
Moreover, when Antonio discovers that there is no escaping Shylock’s bond and no chance that he should survive the trial, his acceptance and bravery in the face of his death borders on a yearning for it. During the trial scene, he tells Bassanio “I am a tainted wether of the flock,/ Meetest for death. The weakest kind of fruit/ Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me,” (4.1.116-18). The metaphors of the “wether” (as in castrated ram) and of the “withered fruit”, which is a reversal of the usual connotation of fruit as a symbol of life and plenty, illustrate a certain otherness and difference, especially in contrast to the passion and romance present in the lover’s storyline. Antonio’s words also go beyond self-pity and low confidence, rather demonstrating a deep misery, which seems to go unresolved and doesn’t lift even by the end of the play. Upon learning that he will survive the trial after all and that he still has his fortune, Antonio’s only response “I am dumb,” (5.1.299) is heavy with disappointment, and echoes Shylock’s “I am content,” (4.1.410), ironically linking the two enemies.
In fact, by the end of the play, the moneylender and the merchant have a lot in common, as Shylock is another character whose forlorn end strongly contrasts that of the married couples’. By the end of the play, Shylock is stripped of everything that he loves or that has any meaning to him; he is left with no family, no fortune, and is forced to abandon his religion and thus a core part of his identity. The symbol of the ring that Jessica gives away in exchange for a monkey illustrates the loss and betrayal of his family. The action is especially meaningful as we learn that the ring belonged to her mother, whom we can assume is either dead or not present: “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys,” (3.1.120-22). The motif of the ring is a reoccurring one throughout the play, symbolizing faithfulness to a loved one. By giving the ring away, Jessica has abandoned her father completely and left him with no one. The loss of his religion is an obvious blow to Shylock as well, as despite his eloquence and persistence throughout the trial, all he can manage as a response to Antonio’s cruel demand of conversion is a piteous “I am content,” and “I pray you give me leave to go from hence./ I am not well,” (4.1.412-13).
The message regarding the fate of the two outsiders in The Merchant of Venice is that one person’s happy ending can be another’s anguish. In Antonio’s case, the fulfillment of Bassanio’s desire meant sorrow and heartache. For Shylock, the happiness of Jessica and Lorenzo meant abandonment. The ring in itself is a circle, paradoxically a symbol of both unity and exclusion. By giving the play a happy ending that contrasts so strongly with that of Shylock and Antonio’s, Shakespeare forces the reader (or audience) to think about the cost of the couple’s contentment, and reflect on whether ones happiness must always have a price.
In summation, though officially considered a comedy, The Merchant of Venice has quite a tragic ending for two of its characters. Antonio’s mysterious sadness is not resolved as he loses Bassanio to Portia, while Shylock’s quest for vengeance ends with the loss of his family, faith, and fortune. Shakespeare masterfully uses subtle metaphor and meaningful symbolism to paint the portrait of two unfortunate characters; their storyline ends with loneliness and sorrow, casting them as the sad role on the world’s stage.