« PreviousContinue »
Shylock. [Aside.] How like a fawning publican he looks! I hate him for he is a Christian.
ACT i. Sc. 3.
Merchant of Venice.
"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 characterisation 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 neighbour 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 honour of human nature. The judgment scene VOL. III.
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 afterpiece 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 elegantly 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 commenced writer. 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