Thursday, May 24, 2007

Which Merchant Is Which?

I assigned The Merchant of Venice for one of my classes this spring. Two students made passing comments in their essays that they thought Antonio was the title character. I've always assumed it was Shylock (or, as one student insisted on writing in his essay, "the Shylock").

So that got me thinking about whether the title refers to Antonio or Shylock. And that got me thinking about the titles of Shakespeare's plays in general. It's always difficult to categorize his plays, but their ordering in The Riverside Shakespeare reveals a pattern: With the exception of Troilus and Cressida (and does that play deserve to be called a comedy?), none of the comedies have a proper name in the title. Those titles that refer to someone always have a description (e.g., The Two Gentleman of Verona, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Taming of the Shrew). But all the tragedies are titled for a particular person (e.g., Hamlet, Othello, King Lear).

(Now, I know that Shakespeare may not have been responsible for titling all his plays, but at least the tradition has settled on this pattern.)

(1) I wonder if there is any significance to this pattern. I can't think of any except that the tragedies are more arresting in their ability to teach the audience. That is, "You don't want to end up like Hamlet, do you?" On the other hand, it's difficult for audiences to take the comedies as having any didactic purpose; I say it's difficult, though I don't think Shakespeare thought of tragedies as more profound than comedy (see the end of Plato's Symposium on tragedy and comedy). Perhaps the eponymous tragic figure makes the title more appropriate.

(2) I still don't know who the merchant of Venice is. I think it's Shylock, and I think the best way to figure it out is to examine the other comedies with titles describing members of the dramatis personae. Since I'm supposed to be writing a dissertation, that extracurricular research will have to wait.

(3) But what will it matter if the merchant of Venice turns out to be Antonio and not Shylock? That seems to be the question to consider moving forward.

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