William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are two comedies. A comedy is a “drama that provokes laughter at human behaviour, usually involves romantic love, and usually has a happy ending” (Boyce 119). While both plays have romance and happy endings, they differ in the mood they set throughout the play. William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are different because The Merchant of Venice is a dark comedy because of the anti-semitism, Antonio’s close call with death, and Shylock’s tragic ending whereas A Midsummer Night’s Dream is light-hearted because it involves fairies, has a funny climax, and everyone has a happy ending.
The Merchant of Venice has very anti-Semitic undertones. Shylock, the moneylender, is Jewish, greedy, and seen as murderous and inhuman. Throughout most of the play, Shylock is referred to as “the Jew” but he is also referred to as an animal. Gratiano refers to Shylock when he says, “O be thou damned, execrable dog!” (IV, I, 128) and is also referred to as “currish spirit govern’d a wolf” (IV, I, 133-134) and whose “desires are wolfish, bloody, starved, and ravenous” (IV, I, 137-138). Stirling says, “These labels that are applied to shylock effectively strip him of his humanity, and his religious identity. He becomes reduced to something less than human” (Stirling).
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Shylock is also portrayed as murderous. People don’t like Shylock because of the way he deals with people. This is shown through his lines against Antonio because he knows Antonio is trapped in a contract with him and Shylock intends to kill him. Shylock’s daughter Jessica tells Antonio that she overheard her father say, “When I was with him I have heard him swear to Tubal and to Chus, his countrymen, That he would rather have Antonio’s flesh than twenty times the value of the sum” (III, ii, 248-2488). He is so intent on Antonio’s ruin that when he hears of Antonio’s financial disappointment, he says, “I’m very glad of it. I’ll plague him, I’ll torture him, I am glad of it” (III, I, 116-117). During his trial, at the end of the play, the Christians finally take half of his money and force him to convert. Boyce comments on Shylocks fate saying, “He is deprived of his life’s earnings and coerced into renouncing his religion by avowed anti-Semites who preach justice and mercy all the while” (417). The people in the play were prejudice against Shylock because he was Jewish and they were hypocritical in talking about justice and mercy when they intended to show none on Shylock. These ideas represent the fact that everyone in the play was against Shylock because he was a Jew and was often harsh in the way he dealt with people.
In the play, Antonio comes close to being killed by Shylock because of a contract between them. In the trial, Antonio expected to have a pound of flesh cut from him because he could not pay a debt. Grant Stirling suggests, “The progressive abuse of Shylock as a usurer, which leads to the reduction of his humanity to a demonic form, should fully prepare us for the revelation in The Merchant of Venice that Shylock’s motive for the entire bond with Antonio is murder. By murdering Antonio, Shylock will be rid of a bothersome business rival” (Stirling). Shylock made it very clear that he would accept no amount of money over Antonio’s flesh. In the trial, Shylock remarks to the judge, “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of the bond” (IV, i, 205-206). When the judge gives Shylock permission to cut Antonio’s flesh, Antonio says to Bassanio, “I am armed and well prepared. Give me your hand, Bassanio; fare you well… For if the Jew does cut but deep enough, I’ll pay it instantly with all my heart” (IV, I, 263-264, 279-280). Antonio prepares for death because Shylock will stop at nothing to get his pound of flesh. Antonio is targeted by Shylock to reduce a business competitor.
Shylock has a tragic ending because he is completely embarrassed and made to give up his religion which he believes in so much. Shylock loses the trial because the contract says Shylock can only take a pound of flesh but not a drop of blood can be shed because it wasn’t in the contract. Because Shylock was not a citizen of Venice he cannot try to take the life of another citizen. As a penalty, Shylock must give up half of his fortune and beg for his life. It is decided that he can live and half of his fortune goes to Antonio. Portia explains this to Shylock when she says, “It is enacted in the laws of Venice, if it is proved against an alien that by direct or indirect attempts he seek the life of any citizen, the party ‘gainst the which he doth contrive shall seize one half his goods…and the offender’s life lies in the mercy of the Duke only, ‘gainst all other voice” (IV, I, 346-356). Antonio also insists that Shylock become a Christian when he states, “That for this favour he presently become a Christian” (IV, I, 385-386). This is the ultimate punishment for Shylock but he can say nothing because he has already been shown mercy by the court for letting him live. Shylock has to plead for sympathy. He begs, “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed?” (III, I, 50-54). Shylock tries to explain that Jewish people are the same inside and outside as Christian. It doesn’t make it a tragedy though because Shylock does not die and he also provides some comic relief. Shylock’s sad ending shows how the play is a dark comedy.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is more light-hearted than The Merchant of Venice because it involves mythical fairy characters that control the human world. It is funny and does not deal with any serious issues such as death. As Boyce point out, “the characters are stylized and unrealistic: they do not interact as people normally do” (434). Puck is the king of fairies’, Oberon, jester and lieutenant. Oberon commands Puck to make Demetrius fall in love with Helena. Puck accidentally causes Lysander and Demetrius to fall in love with Helena. He puts the love juice in Lysander’s eyes, mistaking him for Demetrius, and he falls in love with Helena. When he first sees Helena he says, “And run through fire for thy sweat sake. Transparent Helena! Nature shows art, That through thy bosom makes me see thy heart” (II, ii, 103). Now Helena thinks Lysander is playing a trick on her and runs away. They also cause the Queen of the fairies, Titania, to fall in love with an ass. Puck puts an ass head on Bottom, a human, to play a trick on the men who are practising for a play. Once the men see Bottom, they all get scared because they believe has turned into an ass. They yell, “O monstrous! O strange! We are haunted. Pray, masters! Fly, masters! Help!…O Bottom, thou art changed! What do I see on thee?” (III, I, 91, 101). This is comical because, as one author put it, “’Bottom’, is transformed into an ‘ass’ and becomes the ‘butt’ of jokes. What could be ‘behind’ this?” (Friedlander 1). Throughout the play, the fairies control humans through their mystical means.
The play is comical because it also has an amusing climax because everyone is chasing each other around in love with the wrong people. Puck put the love juice in all the wrong people’s eyes and caused much confusion. Demetrius and Lysander both fall in love with Helena. Helena is extremely mad because she believes everyone is mocking her. She says to them, “I see you all are bent to set against me for your merriment. If you were civil and knew courtesy, you would not do me thus much injury. Can you not hate me, as I know you do, but you must join in souls to mock me too?” (III, ii, 145). She is angry that they both profess their love to her when she knows they both hate her. This causes a fight between Hermia and Helena to break out. Hermia blames Helena for taking Lysander away when she says, “You juggler! You canker-blossom! You thief of love! What, have you come by night and stol’n my love’s heart from him?” (III, ii, 289). Hermia is mad because she believes her friend, Helena, has tried to steal her Lysander. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is very comical because Puck has caused them all to fight by accident and he was really supposed to be helping them.
At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, everything works out and everyone marries the right person. When Oberon finds out how bad Puck has messed up the couples lives, he forces him to fix it. With the use of the love potion, Puck makes Lysander fall back in love with Hermia and Demetrius to fall in love with Helena. Oberon tells Puck, “And from each other look, thou lead them thus, till o’er their brows death-counterfeiting sleep with leaden legs and batty wings doth creep. Then crush this herb into Lysander’s eye, whose liquor hath this virtuous property, to take from thence all error with his might, and his eyeballs roll with wonted sight. When they next wake, all this derision Shall seem a dream and fruitless vision; And back to Athens shall all lovers wend, With league whose date till death shall never end” (III, ii, 363). Oberon is telling Puck to put the juice in Lysander’s eyes so he will fall in love with Hermia and then all of the humans can go back to Athens and be married and in love forever. They all go back and are married along with the king and queen. This makes it a comedy because it has an ending that ends in marriage and no one dies.
The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are both two of William Shakespeare’s comedies. They differ in the fact that one is a dark comedy because it deals with more serious issues and one is a light-hearted fantasy because it deals with fantasy and humour.
Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Plays, His Poems, His Life And Times, and More. New York: Roundtable, 1990.
Friedlander, Ed. Enjoying “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, by William Shakespeare.
January 1999. http://www.pathguy.com/mnd.htm
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. New York: Signet, 1963
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Methuen: Arden Shakespeare, 1979
Stirling, Grant. Shakespeare and Anti-Semitism: The Question of Shylock. February 1997
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