Happiness and Sadness in The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare is a play that contains a bizarre blend of happiness and sadness. The main characters experience conflicting emotions that change quickly from one scene to another. This essay will discuss this strange mixture. The play starts with the merchant of Venice, Antonio, discussing his melancholy with his friends Solanio and Salarino. This sadness seems to haunt him throughout the play, as he is always presented as rather morose and is even resigned to his death – he wants the court to stop arguing with Shylock and to let him take his pound of flesh (Act 4 Scene 1 Line 83 “Let me have judgement, and the Jew his will”). This melancholy is also strange, however, as it’s cause is never given. After he is free, which should be cause for happiness and celebration, he remains depressed. The merchant should be happy, as he gets to live another day, but instead he’s silent and rarely says anything, other than to blame himself for Bassanio and Gratiano giving away their wives’ rings. Even though all his friends receive happy endings in the play, Antonio is still plagued by his earlier sadness. No matter what happiness befalls Antonio in the play, it is still tinged with this lingering depression.
Another element of happiness tinged with sadness is the nuptials of Portia and Bassanio, and Gratiano and Nerissa. Although this was most likely a joyful event in the lives of the two Venetian men, they were surely worried about Antonio and his impending trial. Indeed, as soon as their wedding was over, they left Belmont and their wives immediately to save their friend. Bassanio and Gratiano were portrayed as happy in that scene, but then suddenly switched to a more melancholic attitude and seemingly cease to care about their wives, who are the ones who made them happy in the first place (Act 4 Scene 1 Line 280-1 “But life itself, my wife, and all the world, are not with me esteemed above thy life”). The two men also give away their wedding rings, although they were unsure at first, which brings them happiness as they have “properly repaid” the men who saved Antonio, but also sadness as it causes trouble with their wives.
Similarly, the events on Shylock’s side of the story are also a mixture of happiness and sadness. He has the opportunity to get revenge on Antonio, who has wronged him in the past, and almost achieves his goal of killing him, which would bring him joy. However, Shylock loses everything that is dear to him. Firstly, he loses his daughter, Jessica. Although this is a happy moment for her and her husband, as well as Bassanio’s group, it is a sad moment for Shylock, as she was the only person he had left. Jessica also takes Shylock’s ducats and the ring given to him by his late wife. This is what makes this example a bizarre mixture of happiness and sadness. The reader is presumably supposed to be happy for Jessica, as she’s escaped the clutches of her overbearing father and marries the man she loves. However, sympathy can be felt for Shylock as, although he was misguided, he absolutely did not deserve what happened to him. Secondly, he loses the opportunity to kill Antonio. During the trial, Shylock was quite joyful that he was going to be granted the pound of flesh. However, the situation quickly turned sour as murder is illegal, and if Shylock were to take his forfeit, he would have to do so without spilling a drop of blood (Act 4 Scene 1 Line 305-7 “if thou dost shed one shed of Christian blood, thy land and goods are by the laws of Venice confiscate”). The Jew is then punished for attempted murder and is forced to give half of his money to the state of Venice and the other half to Antonio. To add insult to injury, Antonio then decides that, instead of receiving the money himself, Shylock would give it to Jessica, the very daughter who betrayed him, and forces him to convert to Christianity. This is again a strange mixture of happiness and sadness, as the “good guys” get their way in the end with love, friendship, and money, but Shylock, who simply wanted justice for the wrongdoings against him, loses everything he has. Once again, Wotan if this in the right word – the question being of course whether his idea of justice is actually good! The reader is compelled to feel sympathy towards Shylock, but is somehow still expected to be happy for Bassanio and Antonio’s crew.
Given these points, it can safely be stated that the Merchant of Venice is an odd combination of happiness and sadness created by blending the joy and misery of different characters in different scenarios.
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