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MERCHANT OF VENICE.
6 THE Merchant of Venice," says Schlegel," is one of Shakspeare's most perfect works; popular to an extraordinary degree, and calculated to produce the most powerful effect on the stage, and at the same time a wonder of ingenuity and art for the reflecting critic. Shylock, the Jew, is one of the inconceivable masterpieces of characterization of which Shakspeare alone furnishes us with examples. It is easy for the poet and the player to exhibit a caricature of national sentiments, modes of speaking, and gestures. Shylock, however, is every thing but a common Jew; he possesses a very determinate and original individuality, and yet we perceive a slight touch of Judaism in every thing which he says or does. We imagine we hear a sprinkling of the Jewish pronunciation in the mere written words, as we sometimes still find it in the higher classes, notwithstanding their social refinement. In tranquil situations, what is foreign to the European blood and Christian sentiments, is less perceivable; but in passion, the national stamp appears more strongly marked. All these inimitable niceties the finished art of a great actor can alone properly express. Shylock is a man of information, even a thinker in his own way; he has only not discovered the region where human feelings dwell: his morality is founded on the disbelief in goodness and magnanimity. The desire of revenging the oppressions and humiliations suffered by his nation is, after avarice, his principal spring of action. His hate is naturally directed chiefly against those Christians who possess truly Christian sentiments; the example of disinterested love of our neighbor seems to him the most unrelenting persecution of the Jews. The letter of the law is his idol; he refuses to lend an ear to the voice of mercy, which speaks to him from the mouth of Portia with heavenly eloquence; he insists on severe and inflexible justice, and it at last recoils on his own head. Here he becomes a symbol of the general history of his unfortunate nation. The melancholy and self-neglectful magnanimity of Antonio is affectingly sublime. Like a royal merchant, he is surrounded with a whole train of noble friends. The contrast which this forms to the selfish cruelty of the usurer Shylock, was necessary to redeem the honor of human nature. The judgment scene with which the fourth act is occupied, is alone a perfect drama, concentrating in itself the interest of the whole. The knot is now untied, and, according to the common idea, the curtain might drop. But the Poet was unwilling to dismiss his audience with the gloomy impressions which the delivery of Antonio, accomplished with so much difficulty, contrary to all expectation, and the punishment of Shylock, were calculated to leave behind; he has therefore added the fifth act by way of a musical after-piece in the play itself. The episode of Jessica, the fugitive daughter of the Jew, in whom Shakspeare has contrived to throw a disguise of sweetness over the national features, and the artifice by which Portia and her companion are enabled to rally their newly-married husbands, supply him with materials."
“ The scene opens with the playful prattling of two lovers in a summer moonlight,
•When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees.'
It is followed by soft music and a rapturous eulogy on this powerful disposer of the human mind and the world; the principal characters then make their appearance, and after an assumed dissension, which is gantly carried on, the whole ends with the most exhilarating mirth.”
Malone places the date of the composition of this play in 1598. Chalmers supposed it to have been written in 1597, and to this opinion Dr. Drake gives his sanction.
It appears, from a passage in Stephen Gosson's School of Abuse, &c., 1579, that a play comprehending the distinct plots of Shakspeare's Merchant of Venice had been exhibited long before he began to write. Gosson, making some exceptions to his condemnation of dramatic performances, mentions among others,—“The Jew shown at the Bull, representing the greediness of worldly choosers, and the bloody minds of usurers.—These plays,” continues he, “ are good and sweete plays.”
It cannot be doubted that Shakspeare, as in other instances, availed himself of this ancient piece. Mr. Douce observes, “ that the author of the old play of The Jew, and Shakspeare in his Merchant of Venice, have not confined themselves to one source only in the construction of their plot, but that the Pecorone, the Gesta Romanorum, and perhaps the old ballad of Gernutus, have been respectively resorted to.” It is, however, most probable that the original play was indebted chiefly, if not altogether, to the Gesta Romanorum, which contained both the main incidents; and that Shakspeare expanded and improved them, partly from his own genius, and partly as to the bond from the Pecorone, where the coincidences are too manifest to leave any doubt. Thus the scene being laid at Venice; the residence of the lady at Belmont; the introduction of the person bound for the principal; the double infraction of the bond, viz. the taking more or less than a pound of flesh, and the shedding of blood, together with the after-incident of the ring, are common to the novel and the play.
The whetting of the knife might perhaps be taken from the ballad of Gernutus. Shakspeare was likewise indebted to an authority that could not have occurred to the original author of the play in an English form; this was Silvayn's Orator, as translated by Munday. From that work Shylock's reasoning before the senate is evidently borrowed; but, at the same time, it has been most skilfully improved.*
There are two distinct collections under the title of Gesta Romanorum. The one has been frequently printed in Latin, but never in English: there is, however, a manuscript version, of the reign of Henry the Sixth, among the Harleian MSS. in the British Museum. This collection seems to have originally furnished the story of the bond. The other Gesta has never been printed in Latin, but a portion of it has been several times printed in English. The earliest edition referred to by Warton and Dr. Farmer, is by Wynken de Worde, without date, but of the beginning of the sixteenth century. It was long doubted whether this early edition existed; but it has recently been described in the Retrospective Review. The latter part of the thirty-second history in this collection may have furnished the incidents of the caskets.
But as many of the incidents in the bond story of the Merchant of Venice have a more striking resemblance to the first tale of the fourth day of the Pecorone of Ser Giovanni, this part of the plot was most probably taken immediately from thence. The story may have been extant in English in Shakspeare's time, though it has not hitherto been discovered.
The Pecorone was first printed in 1550, (not 1558, as erroneously stated by Mr. Steevens,) but was written almost two centuries before.
After all, unless we could recover the old play of The Jew, mentioned by Gosson, it is idle to conjecture how far Shakspeare improved upon the plot of that piece. The various materials which may have contributed to furnish the complicated plot of Shakspeare's play, are to be found in the Variorum Editions, and in Mr. Douce's very interesting work.
*"The Orator, handling a hundred several Discourses, in form of Declamations, &c.; written in French by Alexander Silvayn, and Englished by L. P. (Lazarus Pyol, i. e. Anthony Munday.) London: printed by Adam Islip, 1596.” Declamation 95_" or a Jow who would for his debt have a pound of flesh of a Christian.” VOL. 11.
Duke of Venice.
LORENZO, in love with Jessica.
BALTHAZAR, } Servants to Portia.
Portia, a rich Heiress.
Magnificoes of Venice, Officers of the Court of Justice,
Jailer, Servants, and other Attendants.
SCENE, partly at Venice, and partly at Belmont, the
Seat of Portia, on the Continent.
1 This enumeration of the Dramatis Personæ is by Mr. Rowe.
MERCHANT OF VENICE.
SCENE I. Venice. A Street.
Enter ANTONIO, SALARINO, and Salanio.
Salar. Your mind is tossing on the ocean ;
Salan. Believe me, sir, had I such venture forth,
1 Argosies are large ships either for merchandise or war. The word has been supposed to be derived from the classical ship Argo, as a vessel eminently famous; and this seems the more probable from Argis being used for a ship in low Latin.