The Merchant of Venice is technically classified as a comedy, but it's sometimes referred to as a "problem comedy" (mostly because it's so controversial) or a "tragicomedy," because it shares features in common with comedies but also contains the kind of dark elements we typically find in tragedies. (Shylock's desire for a pound of flesh is pretty intense, wouldn't you say? And the way Shylock is treated by the Christian characters is pretty sickening and, well, tragic.)
All of this can get a little confusing, so let's take a look at our Shakespearean comedy checklist to see how and why the play fits into the genre.
Light, humorous tone: Check. Sort of. There are definitely moments of levity in this play (especially when Lancelot the clown is involved and when Shylock is played as a buffoon) but, like we said earlier, the play's tone can be pretty dark at times, especially when it comes to the whole "pound of flesh" thing.
Clever dialogue and witty banter: Check. Just check out the scenes involving Lancelot and Gobbo.
Deception and disguise: Check. Jessica deceives her father when she disguises herself as a boy and runs off to marry Lorenzo. Portia cross-dresses as a male lawyer and shows up in the courtroom to defend Antonio.
Mistaken identity: Check – see "deception and disguise," above.
Love overcomes obstacles: Check. What better way is there for Jessica and Lorenzo to overcome the obstacle of Shylock than to elope? Plus, once Portia saves Antonio's life in the dramatic courtroom showdown, Bassanio is free to return to Belmont, where they can get busy being man and wife.
Family drama: Check. Jessica runs away from her dad's house and says she's ashamed to be his daughter. Lancelot plays a really cruel joke on his blind father. And Bassanio is more loyal to his BFF than his wife. Sounds like family drama to us.
Multiple plots with twists and turns: Check. The play has two main plots: Bassanio's adventures playing the lotto to win a rich wife and Shylock's pursuit of Antonio's "pound of flesh."
(Re)unification of families: Check. This is true for the newly married couple Portia and Bassanio, but not for Shylock, who, tragically, never gets a family reunion with his daughter Jessica. She has run away and converted to Christianity in one fell swoop.
Marriage: One of the biggest clues that you're reading a Shakespearean comedy is that the play ends in a marriage (or the promise of one). By the time The Merchant of Venice is over, just about everybody is married (except Shylock and poor Antonio, who has just lost his best pal to Portia).