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ALTHOUGH “The Merchant of Venice” was written and on the stage at an earlier date, possibly as early as 1594, it appeared for the first time in print in 1600, two editions having been published in that year. We know nothing of any other edition of the comedy till it is met with in the collection of Shakespeare's plays published seven years after his death, known as the “First Folio," or“ Folio of 1623." This is the volume to which modern editors and commentators look mainly for the authentic text of the poet's dramas.
The plots on which the genius of Shakespeare wrought in the production of his plays were rarely original with him. Both the tory of the bond and that of the caskets, which occur in “The
(erchant of Venice,” were old and accessible to him at the time that play was written. They are found, one or both of tem, in one shape or other, in the “Gesta Romanorum,” comled in the latter half of the thirteenth century; in “Il Pecoone,” a novel by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, composed in 1378; in Gower's “Confessio Amantis ;” in the ballad of “Gernutus ;'' and in “The Jew and Ptolome,” a play mentioned by Stephen Gosson in his “Schoole of Abuse," put forth in 1579, as a drama free from the grossness and immoral tendency of so many of the lays on the contemporary stage, against which licentiousness his book was directed. There is little doubt that Shakespeare had from this play hints for the framing of “The Merchant of Venice.”
As Jews were banished from England in 1290, and were not readmitted till Cromwell's time (1650), it may well be asked how it was that this antiquated story of the Jew and "the pound 4 of hesh” should have been made the groundwork of a drama written for the stage, and to interest an audience of Shakespeare's day.
It seems, however, that, notwithstanding the interdiction, there were Jews in England in Elizabeth's reign, and at least one holding a high official position. In a paper
In a paper in the “Gentleman's Magazine" for February, 1880, Mr. S. L. Lee tells the story of a certain Dr. Roderigo Lopez, a Spanish Jew, who in 1559 was sworn physician to the Queen, and was subsequently tried, convicted, and in 1594 finally executed, on the charge of being bribed by the King of Spain to poison her. That popular prejudice against the race had not died out, or was easily revived, was manifested at his trial. Coke, the solicitor-general, laid special stress on the fact that Lopez was a Jew. “This perjured and murdering traitor and Jewish doctor," he said, "is worse than Judas himself.” His judges spoke of him as "that vile Jew;" and "wily and covetous,” “mercenary and corrupt,” were the mildest of the epithets that assailed him. At the gallows the doctor made an endeavor to address the vast mob that had collected to see him die ; but his first utterances were interrupted with the cruelest jeers, and, as the bolt fell, the people shouted, “He is a Jew !”
It may be added, that the intense excitement produced in London by this trial probably influenced Shakespeare to write “The Merchant of Venice" at this time, that it might be brought out at his theater, when it would be an attractive card.
At the opening of the play, to outline it briefly, Antonio, one of the "merchant princes" of Venice, conversing with two of his friends, Salarino and Salanio, admits a feeling of sadness, which they had noticed, but he can assign no reason for it; when Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano enter. Bassanio, a young gentleman of Venice, somewhat more extravagant in his style of living than his income justifies, is already indebted to Antonio, and having been to much expense in prosecuting his suit for the hand of Portia, a noble heiress, “richly left,” living at Belmont near by, now comes to ask further aid from his friend. This Antonio
is glad to render, but having no ready money, his means being largely with his ventures at sea, suggests that they try what his credit can do to raise the needed sum. In the second scene, at Portia's villa in Belmont, a conversation between Portia and Nerissa (her waiting maid) develops the device of the caskets. By the terms of her father's will, Portia's choice of husband is constrained; and she is to accept the man who, of three chests, - made of gold, silver, and lead respectively, - selects the one containing her picture. With the third scene we are again in Venice, and find Bassanio and Shylock (a rich Jew) discussing the terms of a loan from the latter by Bassanio, for which Antonio is to be bound. While they are talking, Antonio himself comes in.
As he is one who lends money without charging interest, and is withal a Christian holding the Jew in much disdain, Shylock bears him no good will. Dissembling his feelings, however, Shylock offers to lend him three thousand ducats, with “ doit” of interest, but in "merry sport" to take his bond, that, if
“ the sum be not repaid on a certain day, the forfeit shall be a pound of Aesh to be taken from what part of Antonio's body it pleases the lender. Bassanio objects; but Antonio, confident that his ships will come in long before the time of payment, readily agrees to the proposition; says there is much kindness in the Jew; and they part, to meet at the notary's to execute the bond.
In the first scene of the second act we are at Portia's house. The Prince of Morocco has arrived to try his fortune with the caskets, but after some conversation with that lady the trial is delayed. Returning to Venice, there is a humorous scene of Launcelot Gobbo debating with himself whether or not he shall run away from his master, Shylock, and serve Bassanio, which gentleman coming in, he is accepted. Gratiano now enters; and his earnest request to accompany Bassanio in a proposed visit to Belmont is granted, with a caution that he “allay with some cold drops of modesty his skipping spirit," for Gratiano is a "gay companion,” somewhat “rude and bold of voice.” “Now follow