Page images

beller, are apt to foster in them the conceit that they are so ; whereas the other, even because it does not tell them this, is more apt 10 make them so : in a word, it instructs them all the better foras much as it does not stir up in them any notion or fancy that they have been instructed.

Critics, no doubt, have too often entertained themselves and others with speculations as to the Poet's specific moral purpose in this play or that. Wherein their great mistake is the not dulbearing in mind, that the special proposing of this or that mora. lesson is quite from or beside the purpose of art. As already hinted, a work of art, to be really deserving the name, must needs be mora., because it must be proportionable and true to nature, thus falling in with the preěstablished harmonies between our inward being and the measures of external order and law: otherwise it is at strife with the compact of things; a piece of dissonance; a part all out of concert and tune with itself; a jarring, unbalanced, crazy thing, that will die with the screechings and gratings of its owu noise. If, therefore, a work be morally bad, this proves the author more a bungler than any thing else; and if any one admire it or take pleasure in it, he does so, not from reason, but from passion, or from something within him which his reason, ju so far as he hath any, necessarily disapproves : so that he is rather to be laughed at as a dunce, than preached to as a sinner.

Touching the moral design of The Merchant of Venice, critics have differed greatly, some regarding it as teaching the most large and liberal toleration, others as caressing the narrowest and bitterest prejudices of the age. This difference among the critics is a strong argument of the Poet's impartiality; for where no one view is specially prominent, there is the more room for men to attribute such as they may severally prefer, and for each to show his own mind in the work of interpretation. For our own part, we are satisfied that in this case, as in others, the choice and treatment of the subject were mainly for poetic and dramatic effect; but for such effect in the largest and noblest sense, — the sense intended by Ben Jonson in that great and most apt expression, — “ He was not of an age, but for all time.” And the highest praise that the nature of the work might allow is jusuy his, in thai he did not let the prejudices of his age sway him either way from the just meas. ures and proportions of art. On this point, therefore, we do greatly approve the remarks of Mr. Verplanck : “ When the subject ex. panded itself in his mind, he described and he reasoned from his own observation of man and society. He therefore painted men as he had seen them; - the wisest and kindlest blinded by the prejudices of their education or their country, and becoming hard ened to inflicting insolence and injury; - the injured, the insulted, the trampled upon, goaded by continual wrongs into savage malignity. Had the Poet invested the despised and injured man with the gentle and more amiable qualities of our nature, and

[ocr errors]

enlisted our sympathies wholly on his side, he would have painted a far less true view of human nature, and have conveyed a much less impressive and useful lesson of practical morality.”

In point of characterization The Merchant of Venice is excced ingly rich, whether we consider the quantity or the quality; and the more we think and study the work, the more we cannot but wonder that so much of human nature in so great a variety of development should be crowded into so small a space. The persons naturally fall into three several groups, with each its sev. eral plot and action; yet the three are most skiltully complotted, each standing out clear and distinct in its place, yet concurring with the others in dramatic unity, so that every thing helps on every other thing, without either the slightest confusion or the slightest appearance of care to avoid it. Of these three groups it is hardly needful to add that Antonio, Shylock, and Portia are respectively the centres ; while the pari of Lorenzo and Jessica, though strictly an episode, seems, nevertheless, to grow forth as an element of the original germ, a sort of inherent superfluity, and as such essential, not indeed to the being. hul to the well-being of the work : in short, a fine romantic undertone accompaniment to the other parts, yet contemplated and provided for in the whole plan and structure of the piece; itself in harmony with all the rest, and therefore perfecting their harınony with one another.

It is observable that the first entry in the Stationers' Register speaks of the play as “a book of the Merchant of Venice, or otherwise called the Jew of Venice;” as if it were then in question whether to name the piece from Antonio or Shylock. Indi. vidually considered, Shylock is altogether the character of the play, and exhibits perhaps more strength and skill of workmanship than all the others. So that, viewing the persons severally, it seems that the piece ought by all means to be called The Jew of Venice. But upon looking further into the principles of dramatic combination, we may easily discover cause why it should rather be named as it is. For if the Jew be the most important person individually, the Merchant is so dramatically. Thus it is the laws of art, not of individual delineation, that entitle Antonio to the preeminence, because, however inferior in himself, he is the centre and mainspring of the entire action : without him the Jew, great as he is in himself, had no business there ; whereas the converse, if true at all, is by no means true in so great a degree.

Not indeed that the Merchant is a small matter in himself; far from it: he is every way a most interesting and attractive personage ; insomuch that even Shylock away, still there were timber enough in him for a good dramatic hero. A peculiar interest attaches to him from the state of mind in which we first see him. He is deeply sad, not knowing wherefore : a dim, mysterious presage of evil weighs down his spirits, as though he felt afar off ibe coming ou of some great calamity :et this strange, unwonted gloom, sweetened with his habitual gentleness and good-nature bas the effect of showing how dearly he is held by such whose friendship is the fairest earthly purchase of virtue. This boding, presentimental state of mind lends a certain charm to his charac. ter, affecting us something as an instance of second-sigta, and coalescing with the mind's innate aptitude to the faith that

“ puwers there are
That touch each other to the quick - in modes
Which the gross world no sense hath to perceive,
No soul to dream of."

And it is very considerable that upon spirits such as he even ine smiles of fortune often have a strangely saddening effect; for in proportion as they are worthy of them they naturally feel that they are far otherwise, and the sense of so vast a discrepancy between their havings and deservings is apt to fill them with an indefinable oppressive dread of some reverse wherein present discrepancies shall be fully made up. So that wealth seldom dispenses such warnings save to its most virtuous possessors. And such is Antonio : a kind-hearted, sweet-mannered man; of a large and liberal spirit; affable, generous, and magnificent in his dispositions ; patient of trial, indulgent to folly, free where he loves, and frank where he hates; in prosperity modest, in adversity cheerful; craving wealth for the uses of virtue, and as the organs and sinews of friendship, so that the more he is worth, the more he seems worthy,- his character is one which we never weary of contem plating. The only blemish we perceive in him is his treatment of Sbylock : in this, though we cannot but see that it is much more the fault of the times tban of the man, we are forced to side against him; than which it were not easy to allege a stronger case of poetical justice. Yet even this we blame rather as an abuse of himself than of Shylock, and think the less of it as wronging the latter, because, notwithstanding he has such provocations, he avowedly grounds his hate mainly on those very things which inake the strongest title to a good man's love.

The friendship between Antonio and his companions is such a picture as Shakespeare evidently delighted to draw.

And so noble a sentiment is not apt to inbabit ignoble breasts. Bassanio, Gratiano, and Salarino are each admirable in their way, and give a charming variety to the scenes where they move. Bassanio, though something too lavish of purse, is a model of a gentleman; in whose character and behaviour all is order and propriety; with whom good manners are the proper outside and visibility of a fair :nind, the natural foliage and drapery of inward refinement, and delicacy, and rectitude. Well-bred, he has that in him which, even had his breeding been ill, would have raised him above it, an I made him a gentleman.

Gratiano and Salarino are two as

clever, sprightly, and voluble persons as any one need desire to be with, the chief difference between them being, that the former lets his tongue run on from good impulses, the other makes it do so for good ends. If not so wise as Bassanio, they are more witty, and as much surpass him in strength, as they fall short in beauty, of character. It is observable that of the two Gratiano is the more heedless and headstrong in thought and speech, with less subjection of the individual to the well-ordered forms of social decorum : so that, if he behave not quite so well as the others, he gives livelier proof that what good behaviour he has is his own; a growth from within, not an inpression from without. It is rather remarkable that one so talkative and rattle-longued should there. withal carry so much weight of meaning; and he often seems less sensible than he is, because of his trotting volubility. But he has 110 wish to be a reputed wise for saying nothing;” and he often makes a merit of talking nonsense when, as is often the case, nonsense is the best sort of sense ; being willing to incur the charge of folly, provided he can thereby add to the health and entertainment of his friends.

Lorenzo and Jessica are in such a lyrical state of mind as nat urally keeps their characters in the background. Both are indeed overilowing with beauty and sweetness of mind, but more as the result of nuptial inspiration than of inherent qualities; though the instrument had need be pretty well tuned and delicately strung, to give forth such tones, be it breathed upon never so finely. Jessica has been well described as a “ child of nature, hurried along by the deep enthusiasm of Eastern love and passion." Her elopement in itself and its circumstances forces us to the alternative, that either she is a very bad child, or Shylock a very bad father ; and there are enough other things to persuade us of the latter, though not in such sort but that some share of the reproach falls upon her. For if a woman have so bad a home as to justify her in thus deserting and robbing it, it can scarce be but that the qualities of its atmosphere will have wrought themselves somewhat into her temper and character; so that she will seem without spot or blemish only while in a condition to move our pity. Jessica's lover stands fair in our sight, negatively, because he does nothing unhandsome, positively, because he has such good men for bis friends. It is a curious instance of the Poet's subtlety, that what they thus do for him should be in some measure done for her by such a person as Launcelot Gobbo. The better parts of Jessica and the Clown are retjected from each other: we think the better of her that she has kindled something of poetry in such a clod, and of him, that he is raised above himself by the presence of such an object. And her conduct is further justified to our feelings by the odd testimony he furnishes to her father's badness; a testimony which, though of no great weight in itself, goes far to contirm all that is testified against him by others. We see that the Jew is much the same at home as in the Rialto , ibat let him be where he will, it is bis nature to snarl and bite. Such, in one view of the matter, is the drainatic propriety of this queer being his par', though often seouted as a hindrance by such critics as can see but one thing at a time, is necessary to the completeness of the work; since without him we could not so well have suffi. cient knowledge either of Jessica or of her father. But though his main title to the place he fills be on account of others, still he has a value in himself, quite independently of such reference; hig own personal rights enter into the purpose of his introduction, and he carries in himself a part of the reason why he is so and not otherwise : for Shakespeare seldom if ever brings in a person merely for the sake of others. A mixture, indeed, of conceit and drollery, and hugely wrapped up in sell, yet he is hy no means a commonplace butioon, but stands firm and secure in the sufficiency of his original stock. His elaborate nonsense, his grasping at a pun without catching it, yet feeling just as grand as if he did, is both ludicrous and natural : his jokes, lo be sure, are mostly failares ; nevertheless they are laughable, because he dreams not but that they succeed. Thus, as hath been well said, “ he proves that the poverty of a jest may be enriched in a fool's mouth, owing to the complacency with which he deals it out; and because there are few things that provoke Jaughter more than feebleness in a great attempt at a small matter.” In Launcelot, moreover, the principle and mother element of the whole piece runs out in broad humour and travestie ; he exhibits under an intensely comic form the general aspect of surrounding humanity ; his character heing at the same time an integral part in that varied structure of human lite, which it is the genius and office of the Romantic Drama to represent. On many accounts, indeed, he might not be spared.

In Portia Shakespeare seems to have tried what he could do in working out a scheme of an amiable, intelligent, and accomplished woman. And the result is a fine specimen of beautiful nature enhanced by beautiful art. Eminently practical in her tastes and turn of mind, full of native, homebred sense and virtue, she unites therewith something of the ripeness and dignity of a sage, a rich, mellow eloquence, and a large, noble discourse, the whole being tempered with the best grace and sensibility of womanhood. As intelligent, therefore, as the strongest, she is at the same time as feminine as the weakest, of her sex. she talks like a poet and a pbilosopher, yel, strange to say, she talks for all the world just like a woman.

Nothing can be more fitting and well-placed than her demeanour, now bracing her speech with grave maxims of moral and practical wisdom, now unbending her mind in playful sallies of wit, or innocent, roguish banter. Partly from condition, partly from culture, she has grown to live more in the understand. ing than in the affections ; for which cause she is a little more self. conscious than we exactly like ; yet her character is scarce the less

« PreviousContinue »