The Merchant of Venice is perhaps the greatest and indubitably the most controversial of Shakespeare’s comedies. It has been misunderstood and misconstrued to such a degree, however, that it is often seen as a tragedy, not a comedy. Such is the critical blindness of the age in which we find ourselves.
Prior to a discussion of this critical blindness and the reasons for it, let’s look at the play itself.
The Merchant of Venice is a tensely-wrought and yet delightful comedy centered on the necessity of self-sacrificial love. In terms of its form, it works in two distinct ways, which might be perceived visually as the horizontal forward movement of the plot and the vertical moral movement between the virtuous precepts of Belmont and the venal viciousness of Venice. With respect to the horizontal forward movement of the plot, it has three distinct focal “knots,” each of which is a moral test: the test of the caskets, the test of the trial, and the test of the rings. In each case, the passing of the test signifies a movement heavenward from the City of Man (Venice) to the City of God (Belmont).