In theatrical performance, the fictional realm of drama is aligned with the factual, or “real” world of the audience, and a set of actors feign re-creation of this factual world. At the same time the audience, by participating as spectators, feigns believability in the mimic world the actors create. It is in this bond of pretense between the on-stage and off-stage spheres of reality—the literal and the mock-literal—that the appeal of drama is engendered. The Merchant of Venice then, like any effective drama, ostensibly undermines realism by professing to portray it. The work contains no prologue to establish dramatic context; it offers no assertion of its status as imitation, a world separate from our own. And yet, the bond of pretense forged between actors and audience prevents the line between the fictional and the factual from being blurred completely. This division allows the device of metatheatricality to emerge as a means by which the play can ally itself with realism, rather than undermining it, by acknowledging its own status as drama.
It is arguably in comedy that metatheatricality emerges most strongly, allowing a play to parody its own status as drama. But while The Merchant of Venice does employ metatheatrical elements, its classification as comedy is both problematic and unsettling. Ultimately, metatheatricality imbues the story with tragic thematic undertones, and consequently a comic structure gives way to the tragic . It is in considering the play as a written work that such undertones seem to emerge most strongly. Ironically, the accumulation of words—the physical construction of lines within scenes—reveals a pattern in which words themselves emerge as the tragic threat. Speech and language become a precarious foundation upon which the very lives, both symbolic and literal, of Shakespeare’s characters rest. By creating a world in which words alone can have such symbolically tragic impact, The Merchant of Venice refuses a pretense of realism and welcomes, instead, the supermundane possibilities that literature allows.
The written word extends an inordinate influence over the events of the play and the actions—or inaction—of its characters. In his will, Portia’s father entrusts Portia’s conjugal happiness to the fortuitous outcome of a game, so that she herself “cannot choose one, nor refuse none” (I.ii.26). In this way, Portia’s right of choice is transferred to a series of strangers. And yet, although she laments this loss of free will, she vows, “If I live to be as old as Sibylla, I will die as chaste as Diana, unless I be obtained by the manner of my father’s will” (I.ii.106-108). While admittedly the scene also satires the various nationalities of her suitors, essentially the hallowed sacrament of marriage has deteriorated into a tragic circumstance of constraint.
But when this first predicament resolves itself happily, it is again a written document that prevents the characters’ full indulgence in celebration....