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Shakespeare's tomb in the church at Stratford-on-Avon,
“Good frend for Iesvs sake forbeare
To digg the dyst encloased heare
ence to it seems to establish the fact that there existed, before Shakespeare's Merchant, a play which combined the Bond Story and the Casket Story. The credit of this combination, then, belongs rather to the unknown author of The Jew than to his great successor.
It is most unfortunate that we cannot compare The Merchant with The Jew; but a resource is left us. We have the work on which The Jew is likely to have been founded.
In 1378 an Italian writer, calling himself Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, put forth a book of little novels entitled Il Pecorone. Among these stories is one which fully outlines the Bond Story, even to the circumstance of the heroine's disguising herself as a lawyer, and the complication in regard to her husband's ring. Though the three caskets are not introduced, the heroine is sought by many suitors, and she imposes upon them a singular test. Of this Italian book there was an edition published in 1565. Of course the unknown author of The Jew may have been able to read Italian; nor is it by any means certain that Shakespeare himself was unable to do so. But in
6 there is,” says Dr. Furness, “ no difficulty in supposing that a translation of ll Pecorone existed and was widely read, albeit no single copy has survived."
The student would find it highly interesting to read Dr. Johnson's epitome of the little novel in Il Pecorone, which Dr. Furness has inserted in the Appendix to the Variorum Edition of The Merchant, pp. 298–303. It would be well to note down the resemblances and the differences between the Italian story and Shakespeare's play. One would thus be enabled to appreciate the fine judgment shown, either by Shakespeare, who may have known this story as well as
, The Jew, or by the writer of the last-named play. One instance of difference will here suffice: the Italian narrator, at the end, marries Ansaldo (Antonio) to the “damsel” who fills in the story the place of Nerissa in the play.
The Casket Story was apparently adopted by the author of The Jew to fill a gap in the Italian narrative, caused by the omission of a crude and undramatic portion, the lady's test of her suitors. The English playwright found this Casket Story, no doubt, in the Gesta Romanorum, probably in Robinson's translation, issued in six editions between 1577 and 1601. Dr. Furness reprints the pertinent parts of this translation from Collier's Shakespeare's Library. .
There is another work which may perhaps have contributed to Shakespeare's Merchant. In 1596 was published a book called The Orator, “ written in French by Alexander Silvayn, and Englished by L. P.” It consists of a set of “declamations" or arguments. Declamation 95, “Of a Jew, who would for his debt have a pound of the flesh of a Christian,” puts the case of Shylock and Antonio (of course without names), first from the Jew's and afterward from the Merchant's point of view. This fact has influenced the conclusions of some editors as to the date of The Merchant; yet it seems to have no real bearing on that question, since there is nothing in the nature of the relation between the two works to determine which was the earlier.
It can hardly be said that Marlowe's Jew of Malta, written about 1590, gave Shakespeare hints for his Merchant. The plots of the two plays are very different; and Marlowe's treatment of the character of Barabas contrasts strongly with Shakespeare's presentation of Shylock. It is natural, from the similarity of the general subject, that a few terms, situations, and reflections should be common to both. The plays may be read together, to show, not Shakespeare's likeness to Marlowe, but his difference from that splendid yet misguided master.
There existed a practical reason for Shakespeare's producing The Merchant of Venice between 1594 and 1596 or at latest 1598. If the public displayed interest in a certain subject, managers and playwrights were ready, in that day as in this, to supply the demand. In 1594 Roderigo Lopez, an old Jewish physician of high standing, who had been employed by the Earl of Leicester and by Queen Elizabeth herself, was hanged in London for treasonable practices. There can be little doubt that Lopez had agreed to share in a Spanish plot against Antonio Perez, a pretender to the throne of Portugal, then living in London; but it was not really proved that he had plotted against the Queen. Lopez appears to have been a man of remarkable ability. The popular prejudice against him was very great, and many accounts of his “ treason” were published. It is possible that Shakespeare knew the man; he certainly knew intimately Lord Southampton, a friend of the Earl of Essex; and Essex had formerly been the associate, and was finally the accuser, of Lopez. Whether or not we believe that personal knowledge of one intellectual and embittered Jew assisted Shakespeare in his creation of Shylock, we may readily conclude that public interest in the affair of Lopez drew the dramatist's attention to the subject. And it may have been chiefly this which induced him to remodel the old play called The Jew.
During Shakespeare's lifetime two important quarto editions of The Merchant were published, both in the year 1600. The First Quarto was issued by James Robertes, and the Second Quarto by Thomas Heyes. In 1623 The Merchant was included in the First Folio. Examination shows the Folio text to be a reprint of the Second Quarto.
The present edition follows, except in rare cases to which attention is called in the explanatory notes, the text of the Globe Shakespeare, edited by William George Clark and William Aldis Wright, 1864. The Globe Editors have based their work on the First Quarto.