Literary and Dramatic
The first question that The Merchant of Venice raises is, What kind of play is this? Is it a comedy, tragedy, tragi-comedy (a play that starts tragically but ends like a comedy), or what? Written in the mid-1590s, when Shakespeare's art was rapidly maturing, it shows the playwright experimenting with a variety of forms. He had just written the three plays of his "lyric period": a comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream; a romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet; and a history play chronicling the rise and fall of King Richard II. Some aspects of The Merchant of Venice derive from all three of these plays: its beautiful lyric poetry, found, for example, in Lorenzo's monologues in act 5; the comic antics of the clown, Lancelot Gobbo; and the downfall of Shylock. For modern audiences, however, the play raises certain issues that have led some critics to regard this play as a "problem play"; that is, a drama that raises significant moral questions that it fails satisfactorily to resolve, as in Shylock's forced conversion at the end of act 4, scene 1.
Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice at a time when few Jews lived in England, from where they had been forcibly expelled in 1290 by Edward I. Nevertheless, the Jew remained a powerful image in English literature and drama throughout the succeeding ages (see, Chapter 3). The trial and execution of Queen Elizabeth's physician, Dr. Roderigo Lopez, in 1594; the revival of Marlowe's