« PreviousContinue »
a love suit to the daughter of Selestinus, a wise emperor in Rome, and certain strange terms are agreed upon between them as the condition of her favour. As fast as he fulfils these terms, he is yet more strangely thwarted of his purpose, until, being thereby at length reduced to poverty, he applies to the merchant for a loan of money, to carry him through one more trial. The merchant agrees to furnish him "on condition that if thou keep not thy day of payment, it shall be lawful to me for to draw away all the flesh of thy body from the bone with a sharp sword." Accepting these terms, and binding himself accordingly, the knight, thus furnished, wins the lady, and, in the sweetness of wedlock, forgets the bond till the day of payment is past. When his wife learns how the case stands, she directs him to pay the merchant whatever sum he may ask. Upon this business he departs; but the merchant, refusing the money, insists upon the covenant, and judgment is rendered in his favour. The rest of the story must be given in good old English, as printed by Mr. Douce from a manuscript written in the time of Henry VI.
"Now, in all this time, the damsel his love had sent knights for to espy and enquire how the law was pursued against him. And, when she heard tell that the law passed against him, she cut off all the long hair of her head, and clad her in precious clothing like to a man, and went to the palace where her leman was to be judged, and saluted the justice, and all they trowed that she had been a knight. And the judge enquired of what country she was, and what she had to do there. She said, I am a knight, and come of far country, and hear tidings that there is a knight among you that should be judged to death for an obligation that he made to a merchant, and therefore I am come to deliver him. Then the judge said, It is a law of the emperor, that whosoever bindeth him with his own proper will and consent without any constraining, he shall be served so again. When the damsel heard this, she turned to the merchant, and said, Dear friend, what profit is it to thee that this knight, that standeth here ready to the doom, be slain? it were better to thee to have money than to have him slain. Thou speakest all in vain, quoth the merchant; for without doubt I will have the law, since he bound himself so freely; and therefore he shall have none other grace than law will, for he came to me, and I not to him. I desired him not thereto against his will. Then said she, I pray thee how much shall I give to have my petition? I shall give thee thy money double; and if that be not pleasing to thee, ask of me what thou wilt, and thou shalt have. Then said he, Thou heardest me never say but that I would have my covenant kept. Truly, said she; and thou shalt trow me afore you, sir judge, and afore you all, with a right wisdom of that that I shall say to you. Ye have heard how much I have proffered this merchant for the life of this knight, and he forsaketh all, and asketh the law, and that liketh me much; and therefore, lord.
ings that be here, hear me what I shall say. Ye know well that the knight bound him never by letter but that the merchant should have power to cut his flesh from the bones, but there was no covenant made of shedding of blood; thereof was nothing spoke; and therefore let him set hand on him anon; and, if he shed any blood with his shaving of the flesh, forsooth, then shall the king have good law upon him. And when the merchant heard this, he said, Give me my money, and I forgive my action. Forsooth, quoth she, thou shalt not have one penny; for afore all this company I proffered to thee all that I might, and thou forsook it, and saidst with a loud voice, I shall have my covenant; and therefore do thy best with him; but look that thou shed no blood, I charge thee, for it is not thine, and no covenant was thereof. Then the merchant, seeing this, went away confounded. And so was the knight's life saved, and no penny paid."
As this work is not known to have been in print till put forth by Mr. Douce, it appears not but that the Poet may have read it in manuscript. This, to be sure, is no proof that he did so, for many things in print then have been lost altogether: but perhaps it should make men cautious how they limit his reading to such printed books of that time as have come down to us.
The same incident is again met with in Il Pecorone of Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, which was written as early as 1378, but not printed till 1550. The earliest known translation of this tale was made in 1755, which, together with the original, has been republished by Mr. Collier in his Shakespeare Library. No version of so early a date as the play having been heard of, we have no means of knowing whether the Poet read it in Italian or in English. In the novel the residence of the lady, who answers to Portia, is placed at Belmonte, an Italian seaport. Being mistress of the port and the country round, she offers herself and all that belongs to her in marriage upon certain conditions, which we cannot stay to repeat, and would not if we could. In the pursuit of this prize many gentlemen have been ruined, as all the wealth they brought with them was to be forfeited unless they fulfilled the conditions ; which her wise ladyship still disabled them from doing by giving them sleeping potions. Her last suitor is a young Florentine named Giannetto, who, first for his father's sake, then for his own, is greatly beloved by Ansaldo, the richest merchant in Venice. Three times Ansaldo fits him out with fine ships and rich eargoes to trade in company with several friends at Alexandria, and as often the young gentleman, though a miracle of virtue and talents, contrives to steal away from his companions into the port of Belmonte. Twice he falls a victim to the lady's potions, and returns poor and ashamed to Venice, but keeps up his credit by inventing such causes of his miscarriage as leave him unblamed. To com plete his third outfit, Ansaldo was forced to borrow ten thousand ducats of a Jew, and gave a bond that if payment were not made
hy a certain day, the Jew might take a pound of flesh from any part of his body he pleased. This time, upon his arrival at Bei monte, one of the lady's maids whispers in his ear how to succeed The intoxication of his new state drowns the memory of his ben efactor till the very day of payment comes. Being then by an accident reminded of it, and greatly troubled thereat, he makes known the cause of his distress, and forthwith sets out for Venice, with ten times the sam due. No sooner is be gone than his wife follows him in the disguise of a lawyer, and, arriving in Venice, gives herself out as a graduate of the law-school at Bologna. Lawyers being then rather scarce, she is called in to the trial, which under her conduct turns out much the same as in the play In his fulness of gratitude Giannetto offers her the ten thousand ducats, and she refuses them, declaring she will accept nothing but his marriage ring, which he at last gives her. Afterwards she banters him upon the loss of it, and then discloses what she has done; and finally Giannetto rewards his benefactor with the hand of the servant-maid who whispered in his ear the way of success. This outline is enough to certify the reader that Shakespeare had access to the novel in some form or other; though no one can well conceive the wealth of his adding without reading the original story. It should be remarked withal, that evident as are the Poet's obligations in this quarter, he varies from it in such a way as to show an acquaintance with the similar tale in the Gesta Romanorum; while his substituting the caskets for the unhandsome conditions, imposed by the heroine of the novel, illustrates how well he understood the moral laws of his art; that whatsoever offends against virtue and honour is so far forth offensive to nature and good taste.
The matter of the bond and its forfeiture is again found in The Orator, a book containing "a hundred several Discourses," translated from the French of Alexander Silvayn by Anthony Munday, and published in 1598. A Christian merchant owed a Jew nine hundred crowns, which he bound himself to pay within three months, or to give him a pound of his flesh. The time being passed, the Jew refused the money, and stood upon the bond. The ordinary judge of the place appointed him to cut a pound of the merchant's flesh, and, if he cut either more or less, then his own head should be smitten off. The Jew appealed from this sentence to the chief judge; and the Discourse in question is made up of the Jew's argument and the Christian's answer. Shakespeare has no signs of obligation in that quarter; so that the matter as there handled is of no consequence in this connection, save as showing the commonness of the incident. Mr. Douce indeed says, "Shylock's reasoning before the senate is evidently borrowed" from The Orator; which breeds some doubt whether he had ever read the latter.
In Percy's Reliques, among the "ballads that illustrate Shakespeare," we have "A new Song, showing the cruelty of Gernutus.
a Jew, wh., lending to a merchant an hundred crowns, would have a pound of his flesh, because he could not pay him at the time appointed." Some question has been made whether the ballad or the play were written first; but we are satisfied, for reasons which need not be stated here, that the ballad was before the play; and the first stanza suggests the novel, of which we have given an outline, as the probable foundation of it:
In Venice towne not long agoe a cruel Jew did dwell,
Here again the Poet is clearly traced by certain resemblances of expression in the play we have, -"Go with me to a notary, seal me there your single bond; and in a merry sport," &c. ; anu again,- Why dost thou whet thy knife so earnestly?" and in the ballad, -"But we will have a merry jest for to be talked long; " and again, -"The bloudie Jew now ready is with whetted blade in hand."-Some lines of the same story are traceable in various other quarters in fact, it has been seen in so many places, that nobody can tell whence it came or where it was seeu first. Probably it was of eastern origin; one of the many things which, originally set on foot by Arabian fiction or some neighbouring authority, have been happening from time to time ever since.
Thus far we have not seen the two incidents of the bond and the caskets united; yet it is by no means certain that Shakespeare was the first to unite them. In 1579, one Stephen Gosson, having, as would seem, been certified of his own election in such sort and manner as left him full ieisure to hunt up and whip the faults of others, put forte a tract entitled "The School of Abuse, containing a pleasant invective against poets, pipers, players, jesters, and such like caterpillers of the commonwealth." He was pleased, however, to except from the general censure "The Jew shown at the Bull, representing the greediness of worldly choosers and the bloody minds of usurers." No performance answering to this description has in modern times been discovered; but the expres sions, "worldly choosers" and "bloody minds of usurers," look as if the two incidents in question had been combined before The Merchant of Venice was written. The praise which has been, perhaps justly, bestowed upon this feature of the play, naturally makes us curious to know how far it was original with Shakespeare; but there is little prospect that such curiosity will ever be gratified. Most likely, however, the knowledge of the whole truth would cause no great abatement in the Poet's fame.
Mr. Verplanck has raised an interesting inquiry as to what may have put Shakespeare upon such a choice of subject. The old form of a bond for the payment of money was an obligation to pay a larger sum, generally double, unless payment were made at
the stipulated time. The common law held that on the forfeiture of the bond the whole penalty was recoverable; but here the courts of equity stepped in, and would not permit the lender to take more than "in conscience he ought;" that is, the sum lent, with interest and costs, and the damages, if any there were, caused by non-performance of some other contract. Hence a struggle between what were called the old-school and new-school lawyers, which began in the time of Henry VIII., and continued till the reign of Queen Anne, when it was settled by statute in favour of the equitable doctrine. This legal controversy was at its height in Shakespeare's time; and as it entered largely into the concerns of business, it became a matter of general popular interest. That there were many cases of hardship, in enforcing penalties, well known to the people of London, is quite probable; and something of the kind seems referred to in the ballad of Gernutus the Jew:
"Good people, that do hear this song, for truth I dare well say, That many a wretch as ill as he doth live now at this day."
Mr. Verplanck thinks, and with great apparent reason, that this controversy may have suggested the subject of the play; not indeed that the Poet had any thought of writing a law-lecture or an argument on the point, but that he saw the advantage of using a traditionary plot involving a principle familiar to the minds of his audience, and pregnant with allusions of immediate interest.
The praise of The Merchant of Venice is in the mouth of nearly all the critics. That this praise is well deserved, appears in that, from the reopening of the theatres at the Restoration till the present day, the play has kept possession of the stage, while at the same time it is among the first of the Poet's works to be read, and the last to be forgotten, its interest being as inexhaustible in the closet as upon the stage. Well do we remember it as the very beginning of our acquaintance with Shakespeare; one of the dearest acquaintances that we have ever made, and which has been to us a source of more pleasure and profit than we should dare undertake to tell. Whatsoever local or temporary question may have suggested the theme, the work strikes at once upon cords of universal and perpetual interest: if it fell in with any prejudices or purposes of the time, this was to draw men's thoughts the more surely, because secretly, into the course and service of truth; to open and hold their minds, without letting them know it, to grave, solemn lessons of wisdom and humanity; thus, like a wise masterbuilder, using the transient and popular for the building up of the permanent and beautiful. It is this power of causing that men be really elevated while thinking they are but pleased; of raising us above our self-ends by seemingly ministering to them; that often renders poetry so much more effectual for moral instruction than lectures and sermons: these, by telling men they ought to be