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THE MERCHANT OF VENICE was first printed in 1600, when it appeared in
two distinct quarto editions, by different publishers, Roberts, and Hayes, with such variations of text as, although slight, clearly show that they were different editions, and printed from different manuscripts, although both of them are, in the main, correct copies. In the folio edition of 1623 the edition of Hayes is reprinted, with some corrections of its misprints, and some few slight improvements, as if from a copy revised at some later period by the author. Accordingly, with the exception of two or three obscure passages, (such as the famous one—“ Masters of passion sway it to the mood," etc.,) together with a few evident misprints, and some confusion of the names of minor characters, and of the assignment of their speeches, the text in every edition is nearly such as it came from the author's hand, and affords little room for the exercise of critical sagacity.
Although it was first printed in 1600, it has lately been ascertained from the Stationers' Register that the “Merchaunt of Venice," evidently and indubitably Shakespeare's play, was in July, 1598, entered by Roberts, who afterwards published the best early edition. This was not to be printed without lycense first had from the Lord Chamberlain.” It is also mentioned in 1598, by Meares, in his “Wit's Treasury," in a list which he gives of Shakespeare's works; placing it at tủe last of the comedies he there names—Love's LABOUR Lost, COMEDY OF ERRORS, and MIDSUMMER-Night's DREAM.
Thus it appears probable that this comedy was written not very long before
1598, and was a popular piece on the stage at the time it was entered for pub-
The internal evidence of style and thought shows that this was not one of the class of the author's earliest dram-
It has, I think, one peculiarity which has escaped critical attention. Ranking deservedly, as it does, among
with the exception of some of Shylock's scenes of fiercer passion, in its language and train of thought something inore of the tone of ethical poetry than of the drama. I do not point out these as any evidences of inferiority in this piece: they are rather to be regarded as proofs of the variety and extent of the author's genius. If he is here less like the Shakespeare of his own greater dramas, it is because he often reminds us more, at times, of Jeremy Taylor, and at other times of Edmund Spenser, than he does of himself.
SOURCE OF THE PLOT.
The story of the MERCHANT OF Venice, so far as relates to the stipulated pound of flesh, is one of the many traditionary narratives which has travelled round the world, re-appearing in varied forms, in different ages, countries, and languages. There is good reason to believe that it is originally of Oriental origin, and that it passed, with other things of the same sort, through monkish Latin literature, (and especially through the popular collection of the Gesta Romanorum,) into Italian and English legends, romance, and poetry. Mr. Collier, in his“ Introduction" to this play, thus sums up the European literary history of this story, and that of the caskets :
“ The two plots of the Merchant of Venice are found as distinct novels in various ancient foreign authorities, but no English original of either of them, of the age of Shakespeare, has been discovered. That there were such originals is highly probable, but if so they have perished with many other relics of our popular literature. Whether the separate incidents, relating to the bond and to the caskets, were ever combined in the same novel at all as Shakespeare combined them in his drama, cannot of course be determined. Stevens asserts broadly, that a play comprehending the distinct plots of Shakespeare's MERCHANT OF VENICE, had been exhibited long before he commenced a writer;' and the evidence he adduces is a passage from Gosson's. School of Abuse,’ (1579,) where he especially praises two plays showne at the Bull,' one called The Jew,' and the other • Ptolome:' of the former Gosson states, that it“ represented the greedinesse of worldly chusers, and bloody minds of usurers.' (Shakespeare Society's Reprint, p. 30.) The terms, worldly chusers,' may certainly have reference to the choice of the caskets; and the conduct of Shylock may very well be intended by the words, bloody minds of usurers. It is possible, therefore, that a theatrical performance should have existed, anterior to the time of Shakespeare, in which the separate plots were united; and it is not unlikely that some novel had been published which gave the same incidents in a narrative form. On the whole,' says the learned and judicious Tyrwhitt, 'I am inclined to suspect that Shakespeare followed some hitherto-unknown novelist, who had saved him the trouble of working up the two stories into one.'
“Both stories (that of the bond, and that of the caskets) are found separately in the Latin Gesta Romanorum, with considerable variations. The Pecorone of Giovanni Fiorentino contains a novel very similar to that of the Merchant of VENICE, with respect to the bond, the disguise and agency of Portia, and the gift of the ring. This uarrative (Giorn. iv. nov. 1) was written as early as the year 1378, but not printed in Italy until 1554; and it is remarkable that the scene of certain romantic adventures, in which the hero was engaged, is there laid in the dwelling of a lady at Belmont. These adventures seem afterwards to have been changed, in some English version, for the incidents of the caskets. In Boccaccio's Decameron (Giorn. X. nov. 1) a choice of caskets is introduced, but it does not in other respects resemble the choice as we find it in Shakespeare; while the latter, even to the inscriptions, is extremely like the history in the Gesta Romanorum.
“ The earliest notice in English, with a date, of any circumstances connected with the bond and its forfeiture, is contained in ‘The Orator: handling a hundred several Discourses,' a translation from the French of Alexander Silvayn, by Anthony Munday, who published it under the name of Lazarus Piot, in 1596, 4to. There, with the head of “Declamation 95,' we find one • Of a Jew, who would for his debt have a pound of flesh of a Christian ;' and it is followed by The Christian's Answer,' but nothing is said of the incidents, out of which these declamations arose. Of the old ballad of. The Crueltie of Gernutus, a Jewe,' in . Percy's Reliques,' no dated edition is known; but most readers will be inclined to agree with Warton, (Observations on the Faerie Queene," I. 128,) that it was not founded upon Shakespeare's play, and was anterior to it: it might owe its origin to the ancient drama of · The Jew,' mentioned by Gosson.”—COLLIER.
Most of the materials of the plot may be found, more at large, collected in Collier's Shakespeare Library, vol. II. I have nothing to add to the literary researches of the English editors, but I cannot but submit to the readers of this edition a conjecture of my own, as to the reasons which may have led to the choice of this particular subject, or at least primarily suggested it to the author's mind.
Every one, at all conversant with legal history, is familiar with the struggles between the strict and literal old common-law and the equitable doctrine, on the subject of bonds with penalty. The ancient common form of the bond for the payment of money resembled that still in use, being an obligation to pay a larger sum, generally double, unless the money borrowed be repaid at the day stipulated. The old common-law held that on the forfeiture of the bond, or a default of payment, the whole penalty was recoverable ; but here the courts of equity interfered, and would not permit the lender to take more than “in conscience he ought,” viz: the principal lent, with interest and expenses; or, in case of non-performance of some other contract, the damages sustained. (See II. Blackstone Comm. 340.) This innovation was resisted by the old-school lawyers and judges; and the struggle between the two systems, (the equitable doctrine gradually gaining ground in the courts of law,) continued from the time of Henry VIII. to the beginning of Queen Anne's reign, when it was settled, by statute, in favour of the equitable principle.
Shakespeare lived in the height of this legal controversy, and as the question was not one of those of mere technical learning, appertaining only to what Horne Tooko used to call “the Grimgribber" of the law, but entered constantly and largely into all the concerns of men of business, it must certainly have become of general interest, far beyond the confines of the Inns-of-Court. It is even highly probable that there were then many wellknown cases of hardship and oppression in enforcing penalties, perfectly familiar to the citizens of London. I do not mean that Shakespeare had the remotest intention of writing a law-lecture, or an argument upon the point, but that the subject was thus suggested to him, and that he perceived the advantage of using a traditionary plot
involving a principle, and pregnant with allusions full of immediate interest, and familiar to the minds of a large class of his audiences
The plot has been denounced by several critics as improbable. This objection assumes that absolute probability is necessary to the degree of belief required for interest in dramatic or other fictitious narrative. Now the very reverse is the case; for mere ordinary probability, or a succession of events such as are most likely to happen, puts an end at once to the excitement of unexpectedness; it shuts out all the interest of hope or fear for the personages. To obtain this interest the incidents must appear possible, and within the range of human events; yet, the more singular they are, and the less likely to happen as matters of course, if they can only be temporarily believed to have happened at all, the stronger is the interest. The incidents in the MERCHANT OF Venice are assuredly not of every day occurrence, yet they are all such as might have actually happened in the times and countries in which Shakespeare has placed his scene. Indeed, such is the poverty of human invention, as to any purely original narration of facts, beyond mere combination in new forms of old incidents, that there is in this, as in many similar traditionary stories, good ground to believe that the tale or legends may have been originally founded upon real occurrences.
SCENE OF THE ACTION AND MANNERS.
* The Venice of Shakespeare's own time, and the manners of that city, are delineated with matchless accuracy in this drama; so much so as to convince Messrs. Brown, Knight, and other critics, that Shakespeare had visited Italy. Mr. Brown has observed that. The merchant of Venice is a merchant of no other place in the world.'
“The dresses of the most civilized nations of Europe have at all periods borne a strong resemblance to each other: the various fashions having been generally invented among the southern and generally adopted by the northern ones. Some slight distinctions, however, have always remained to characterize, more or less particularly, the country of which the wearer was a native; and the republic of Venice, perhaps, differed more than any other state in the habits of its nobles, magistrates, and merchants, from the universal fashion of that quarter of the globe in which it was situate.
" To commence with the chief officer of the republic:-The doge, like the pope, appears to have worn different habits on different occasions. Cæsar Vecellio describes the alterations made in the ducal dress by several princes, from the close of the twelfth century down to that of the sixteenth, the period of the action of the play before us; at which time the materials of which it was usually composed were cloth of silver, cloth of gold, and crimson velvet, the cap always corresponding in colour with the robe and mantle.
* The chiefs of the Council of Ten, who were three in number, wore 'red gowns with long sleeves, either of cloth, camlet, or damask, according to the weather, with a flap of the same colour over their left shoulders, red stockings, and slippers.' The rest of the Ten, according to Coryat, ' wore black camlet gowns, with marvellous long sleeves, that reach almost down to the ground. The clarissimoes' generally wore gowns of black cloth faced with black taffata, with a flap of black cloth edged with taffata, over the left shoulder; and all these gowned men,' says the same author, do wear marvellous little black caps of felt, without any brims at all, and very diminutive falling bands, no ruffs at all, which are so shallow that I have seen many of them not above a little inch deep.' The colour of their under garments was also generally black, and consisted of “a slender doublet, made close to the body, without much quilting or bombast, and long hose plain, without those new-fangled curiosities and ridiculous superfluities of panes, pleats, and other light toys used with us Englishmen. Yet, he continues, they make it of costly stuff, well beseeming gentlemen and eminent persons of their places, as of the best taffatas and satins that Christendom doth yield, which are fairly garnished also with lace of the best sort. The Knights of St. Mark, or of the Order of the Glorious Virgin, etc., were distinguished by wearing red apparel under their black gowns. Young lovers,' says Vecellio, wear generally a doublet and breeches of satin, tabby, or other silk, cut or slashed in the form of crosses or stars, through which slashes is seen the lining of coloured taffata : gold buttons, a lace ruff, a bonnet of rich velvet or silk with an ornamental band, a silk cloak, and silk stockings, Spanish morocco shoes, a flower in one hand, and their gloves and handkerchief in the other. This habit, he tells 125, was worn by many of the nobility, as well of Venice as of other Italian cities, especially by the young men before they put on the gown with the sleeves, a comito,' which was generally in their eighteenth or twentieth year.
"Vecellio also furnishes us with the dress of a doctor of laws, the habit in which Portia defends Antonio. The upper robe was of black damask cloth, velvet, or silk, according to the weather. The under one black silk with a silk sash, the ends of which hung down to the middle of the leg; the stockings of black cloth or velvet; the cap of rich velvet or silk.
"Vecellio informs us that the Jews differed in nothing, as far as regarded dress, from Venetians of the same prosessions, whether merchants, artisans, etc., with the exception of a yellow bonnet, which they were compelled to wear by order of the government. We cannot imagine that a doubt can exist of the propriety of Shylock wearing a yellow, or at all events, an orange-coloured cap of the same form as the black one of the Christian Venetian merchants. Shakespeare makes Shylock speak of his . Jewish gaberdine;' but, independently of Vecellio's assurance that no difference existed between the dress of the Jewish and Christian merchants save the yellow bonnet aforesaid, the word gaberdine conveys to us no precise form of garment, its description being different in nearly every dictionary, foreign or English. In German it is called a rock or frock, a mantle, coat, petticoat, gown, or cloak. In Italian, - palandrano,' or great-coat, and gavardina,' a peasant's jacket. The French have only gaban' and gabardine,' -cloaks for rainy weather. In Spanish, - gabardina' is rendered a sort of cassock with close-buttoned sleeves. In English, a shepherd's coarse frock or coat.
* Speaking of the ladies of Venice, Coryat says, “ Most of these women, when they walk abroad, especially to church, are veiled with long veils, whereof some do reach almost to the ground behind. These veils are either black, or white, or yellowish. The black, either wives or widows do wear; the white, maids, and so the yellowish also, but they wear more white than yellowish. It is the custom of these maids, when they walk the streets, to cover their faces with their veils, the stuff being so thin and slight that they may easily look through it, for it is made of a pretty slender silk, and very finely curled. ... Now, whereas I said that only maids do wear white veils
, I mean these white silk curled veils, which (as they told me) none do wear but maids. But other white veils wives do much wear, such as are made in Holland, whereof the greatest part is handsomely edged with great and very fair bonelace."- Abridged from Knight.
SCENE I.–Venice. A Street.
Salar. Your mind is tossing on the ocean,
Salan. Believe me, sir, had I such venture forth,
My wind, cooling my broth, Would blow me to an ague, when I thought
What harm a wind too great might do at sea.
Ant. Believe me, no. I thank my fortune for it,
Salar. Why, then you are in love.
Fie, fie ! Salar. Not in love neither? Then let's say, you
are sad, Because you are not merry; and 'twere as easy