The Merchant of Venice & King Lear: Shakespeare on Comedy & Tragedy

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NOTE: This 2-lecture course is excerpted from the 8-lecture course Shakespeare's Catholicsm: A Critical Analysis of the Bard's Life and Plays taught by Joseph Pearce. Click here to purchase the full course.

Comedy, Tragedy and the "Tragicomedy"

"The Bard", William Shakespeare, was a master playwright of the comedy and the tragedy. But what is the true nature of a comedy versus a tragedy? Are the two so distinctly different? And how are we to interpret plays that feature elements of both theatrical genres?

The Merchant of Venice: Shylock, Martyrdom & Mercy

In Shakespeare's renowned comedy The Merchant of Venice, Professor Joseph Pearce tackles topics such as antisemitism and the nature of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who is presented as the antagonist-turned-antihero. So strongly influenced by the horrors of the Third Reich's persecution of the Jews in the 20th century, modern readers are often outraged by the depiction of Shylock as the villain of the play. But Professor Pearce deftly deconstructs this modernist perspective, presenting the true source of enmity between Christian and Jew in the play: theology, not racism.

While called a "tragicomedy" by some, all of Shakespeare's comedies end with the characters in communion with each other. And, so, once we set aside our preoccupation with Shylock, we can easily see that the play is a true comedy, and not the tragedy of the Jew of Venice.

King Lear: Tragedy or Divine Comedy?

Professor Pearce's analysis of The Merchant of Venice beautifully contrasts Shakespeare's well-known but commonly misinterpreted play King Lear. This "tragedy" does not end with the triumph of tyranny but the triumph of humility, sanctity, and a powerful witness to the Catholic Faith—in other words, a "divine comedy," as Pearce elucidates.

The play's overarching tension resides between sanity and madness and the true and false perceptions of each. For the worldly-minded, the self-abasement and self-sacrifice that characterize Christian virtue are mere madness, and the selfish gratification of desire is sanity. To the Christian, on the other hand, selfishness and pride are the epitome of madness, whereas living a selfless life of grace is the very essence of sanity. As we experience Lear’s final delirious vision of Cordelia on his deathbed, there's the hint of promise that their lips are about to taste the eternal reward of their virtue.

It is ironic and paradoxically perplexing that this play is usually considered a tragedy, even though, for those who see with the eyes of Lear, or Edgar, or Cordelia, or Shakespeare, it has a happy ending. Perhaps the real tragedy is that so many of those who read Shakespeare do not possess the eyes of Lear, Edgar, Cordelia, and Shakespeare.

Join Professor Pearce for this journey into "madness" and the heart of Christian virtue, and see King Lear with the eyes of Shakespeare.

Joseph Pearce