Most of William Shakespeare’s plays may be clearly classified as comedies, histories, or tragedies. The Merchant of Venice, however, poses more of a challenge. Though essentially a romantic comedy about the wooing of Portia, it also tells the dark story of Shylock and Antonio, a tale with tragic elements that has fascinated generations of readers and has made the play more popular today than it was in its own time. In addition, the play is unusually specific and realistic in its portrayal of Venetian commerce and justice in the 1500s.
For those of us who toil in the financial world, the play is compelling for other reasons. The overriding theme of the play—through all of its plots and subplots—is risk. Merchants send precious cargo worth fortunes to sea. Noblemen borrow money they can’t repay. Suitors play games of chance to win a wife. If The Merchant of Venice defies categorization as comedy, history, or tragedy, perhaps it’s better considered as a financial drama.
This article appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of Contingencies, a bimonthly magazine published by the American Academy of Actuaries.
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