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THE MERCHANT OF VENICE.
IN 1598, under date of July 22, the following entry was made in the Stationers' Register by James Roberts: "A book of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, or otherwise called the Jew of Venice. Provided that it be not printed by the said James Roberts, or any other whatsoever, without licence first had from the right honourable the Lord Chamberlain." It was also included in the list given the same year by Francis Meres in his Wit's Commonwealth. These are the earliest certain notices of the play that have come down to us; though there is some ground for thinking that it was on the stage four years earlier. In Henslow's Diary, under date August 25, 1594, occurs an item relating to the performance of a play called The Venetian Comedy, which Malone conjectured might be the same as The Merchant of Venice. In 1594 the company to which Shakespeare belonged was playing at the theatre in Newington Butts; and, so far as can now be learned, Henslow's company was playing there at the same time: which lends some support to Malone's conjecture.
Touching the entry in the Stationers' books, it should be noted that the purpose of the proviso was, to prevent the printing of the play, till the company's permission were given through their patron "The book of the Merchant of Venice" was again entered in the same Register, by Thomas Heyes, October 28, 1600, the Lord Chamberlain's licence having probably been obtained by that time. The same year two editions were put forth, in quarto pam phlets, one of which had thirty-eight leaves, and a title-page reading as follows: "The most excellent History of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreme cruelty of Shylock the Jew towards the said Merchant, in cutting a just pound of his flesh and the obtaining of Portia by the choice of three chests. As it hath been divers times acted by the Lord Chamberlain his servants. Written by William Shakespeare. At London: Printed by J. R. for
Thomas Heyes, and are to be sold in Paul's Church-yard, at the sign of the Green Dragon. 1600." The other quarto was "printed by J. Roberts; the same J. R., most likely, who printed the edition for Heyes. But though both were by the same printer, and issued the same year, they were entirely distinct impressions. Of course Roberts was both printer and publisher; Heyes only the latter. Of these two editions it seems questionable which is to be preferred: both appear to have been equally authorized, and were probably from different manuscripts; at all events. neither was printed from the other. There was no other issue of the play, that we know of, till the folio of 1623, where it stands the ninth in the list of Comedies. The repetition of various misprints shows the folio to have been printed from the edition of Heyes. Two other contemporary notices of the play are found in the account of expenses for the year 1605, as kept by the Master of the Revels, and preserved at the Audit Office: "By his Majesty's Players. On Shrove-Sunday a play of the Merchant of Venice." And "on Shrove-Tuesday a play called the Merchant of Venice again, commanded by the King's Majesty." Which argues that the play gave good satisfaction at court. Shaxberd is set down as "the poet which made the play;" the name having been written by the same hand, no doubt, which gave us a like specimen of orthography in the case of Measure for Measure.
The Merchant of Venice, then, was certainly written before the Author's thirty-fifth year, perhaps before his thirty-first. If it were clear that the notice in Henslow's Diary referred to this play, that of course would settle the question in favour of the earlier date. But the best that can be said on that side is, that no other play has come down to us which answers so well to the title there given;-a thing of little weight, considering how many dramas of that period are known to have been lost. And the play exhibits throughout such variety and maturity of power, as make strongly for the later date: the style is every where so equal and sustained; every thing is so perfectly in its place and fitted to its place; the word and the character are at all times so exactly suited to each other, and both to the paramount laws of dramatic proportion; and the work is so free from any jarring, or falling-out; or flyingoff from the due course and order of art, as almost to compel the belief that the whole was written in the same stage of intellectual growth and furnishing. And the play evinces in a remarkable degree the easy, unlabouring freedom of conscious mastery; the persons being so entirely under his control and subdued to his hand, that he seems to let them talk and act just as they have a mind to.
Perhaps there is no one of his plays in which the Poet has drawn more largely from preceding writers: novelty of plot or story there is almost none; his mind being apparently so drawn off in creative exercise as to generate an utter carelessness of what is
usually termed invention. If any one infer from this that the play is lacking in originality, we can only advise him to think again and not to speak until he thinks differently. Some of the materials here used were so much the common stock of European literature before his time, and had been run into so many variations, that it is not easy to say what sources he was most indebted to for them. The incidents of the bond and the caskets are found separately in the Gesta Romanorum, a very ancient and curious collection of tales. To set this matter clear, it must be noted that there were two collections bearing this title, the one in Latin, the other in English; and that the incidents in question occur in both, though with considerable variations. Of the Latin Gesta no printed copy of so early a date as the Poet's time has been discovered; but Mr. Tyrwhitt gives some extracts from a manuscript in the British Museum, which he thinks may have been the remote originals of the play. The immediate originals were probably in the English Gesta. Of the story containing the choice of caskets a version was put forth by Robert Robinson as early as 1577, and has been lately reprinted in the Shakespeare Library. The Poet is clearly traced in this quarter, as will appear from the following abstract of so much as relates to the matter in hand, and especially from the inscriptions, which we give just as they stand in the old copy.
A marriage was proposed between the son of Anselme, emperor of Rome, and the daughter of the king of Ampluy. On her way to the prince's country the young lady was shipwrecked, none of the crew but herself escaping. In this condition an earl, named Parris, found her as he was walking by the sea-shore, and took her under his protection, and, having heard her story, made it known to the emperor. To ascertain whether she were worthy of his son, he set before her three vessels; the first of gold, filled with dead men's bones, and bearing the inscription,. "Whoso chooseth me shall find that he deserveth;" the second of silver, filled with earth, and inscribed, "Whoso chooseth me shall find that his nature desireth;" the third of lead, full of precious stones, and having the motto, -"Whoso chooseth me shall find that God hath disposed to him." He then told her to choose one of the vessels, and that if she made choice of that wherein was profit to herself and others, she should have his son; if not, she would lose him. After praying to God for assistance, she made choice of the leaden casket. He then told her she had chosen wisely, and immediately gave order for the marriage.
There is also a choice of caskets in Boccaccio's Decameron, though not much like that in the play; nor does any one pretend that Shakespeare made any use of it.
In the story of the bond as told in the Gesta, the parties are simply a knight and a merchant, and therefore act from no such prejudices as move Antonio and Shylock. The knight undertakes
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 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 prof. fered this merchant for the life of this knight, and he forsaketh all, and asketh the law, and that liketh me much; and therefore, .ord