For this past semester, I have focused my blog posts on the question that has interested me the most about Shakespeare’s tragedies: Is tragedy is fated? [The fault dear Brutus, is not in our tragedies, but the stars that cause everyone to violently die in the end.]
We saw the metaphors of fate begin the two tragedies (Hamlet and Richard III) that we’ve read. In Richard III, Richard’s introductory monologue provides a backstory of tragedy to continue the tragedy that ensues. Richard talks about how he’s killed someone and by the end of the play, we witness Richard’s ugly death as well. For Richard, it seems as though his death is a consequence of his wrong doing. Nevertheless, his speech foreshadows the tragedy right from the get-go. Here, we can see how tragedy is fated in speech. The end (Richard’s death) is not necessarily declared, but the speech gives us enough knowledge to understand that Richard cannot stop the tragedy that is coming to him. His death is fate. Shakespeare doesn’t work as hard to reveal to us how Hamlet’s death is fated. The heavy-handed symbol of death (King Hamlet’s ghost) is a literal and figurative method that Shakespeare used to declare Prince Hamlet’s fate from the Act 1 Scene 1.
Now, we have arrived at another comedy: The Merchant of Venice. In contrast to the tragedies we’ve seen, this play does not open with any kind of daunting metaphors, stories or signs of any kind. But neither did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest or Twelfth Night. So what’s so different about the comedies? Why hasn’t Shakespeare given us any hint at all to where this play is going?
With Literary Hindsight, we already kind of know that this play will end with a marriage. All of the other comedies have ended that way, so this one must as well. Besides that bit of knowledge, we actually have no idea know how The Merchant of Venice is going to end. I think the answer lies outside of the metaphor. Shakespeare gives us the answer, but not in the same way he does with tragedy.
The answer lies in formula. We don’t even need to read the rest of this comedy to know that, just like all comedy, that there will be an inevitable happy ending. I think this is somewhat of a simplistic answer, though. The tragedies have such dark symbolism in the text that it is hard to miss the foreshadowing of death. In Twelfth Night and The Tempest, the event of the shipwreck gives us a sense of ambiguity. A shipwreck, unlike a ghost, does not foreshadow, but it just doesn’t do anything at all in regard to literary modes. It is merely a plot device to imply an ambiguous story, but other than that, it gives us no hint at all to where the plot is going to end.
But maybe that’s the point of comedy, and not of tragedy. In tragedy (and well in life) death cannot be stopped. But in a comedy (and uh life again) happiness and order comes in time. I think I’m gonna go write my paper about this actually. Give me a minute and I’ll get back to you about it.