Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Heavier than You'd Expect from a Comedy…
Shakespeare is supposedly writing about comedic characters in a comedic situation (see our discussion on "Genre" for more on this), but the plot of the play—and its constant closeness to danger—forces the reader to recognize that much more is going on than what's on the surface. Characters are always hinting at their own complexity: Portia is obedient but devious, Antonio is self-sacrificing but self-pitying, and Shylock is cruel but also a victim of great cruelty. Check out this hi-larious (so much sarcasm) exchange:
You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,
And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,
'Fair sir, you spet on me on Wednesday
You spurned me such a day; another time
You called me dog; and for these courtesies
I'll lend you thus much moneys'?
I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too. (1.3.121-122; 135-141)
Yikes, right? That's not exactly a knee-slapper.
The real focus of the play is the prejudice against and oppression of minorities, whether by gender, sexual orientation, or class. Shakespeare chooses not to deal with these hot-button issues in a heavy-handed way, so he errs on the side of laughing at life's absurdities.