Shylock is the role which has attracted great actors from Charles Macklin to Henry Irving to
Laurence Olivier. In fact, some productions (e.g., Irving's in 1879) ended the play with
Shylock's final exit, turning Shakespeare's comedy into the tragedy of Shylock.
On what grounds is The Merchant regarded as a romantic comedy? Primarily because the line of action involving Portia makes her a captive princess who can be released only by
Prince Charming (Bassanio). She is imprisoned by the will of her dead father, condemned to marry any man who has the kind of insight that distinguishes between a deceptive appearance of worth (the gold and silver caskets) and true worth (the lead casket). That
Bassanio should succeed is dictated by the romantic nature of the plot, not by any qualities apparent in his character. Fortunately it is clear that Portia is in love with Bassanio, and in
Shakespeare's romantic comedies lovers always have their way, as do Gratiano and Nerissa and especially Lorenzo and Jessica (whose elopement is quintessentially romantic).
But the title character, Antonio, belongs in a quite different kind of play. His mysterious sadness and his apparent willingness to die to prove his love for Bassanio suggest the world of tragedy. The bond he signs with Shylock is unromantically explicit about the threemonth term and the consequences of forfeiture. His contempt for Shylock finds no comic expression, and at the end of the play he is the odd man out among the pairs of happy lovers.
As for Shylock, he is sui generis. He is too powerful for a romantic comedy and too grotesque for a tragedy. He has been hindered and insulted by Antonio, for which he wants to kill the merchant. Is he a man of great soul or a greedy miser? His thirst for revenge suggests an anger that a petty spirit could not feel. But his unwillingness to pay the price for that revenge, his bargaining instead for as much money as he can get, reduces his stature. And his confused lament over his daughter and his ducats suggests a grotesque inability to distinguish between them. Above all, he is a Jew. In his most famous speech he asserts the fundamental humanity of his nation, but the Christians persist in calling him ``the Jew''