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higher and lower personages of this drama are the subjects of illusion and enchantment, and love and amusement their sole occupation; the transient perplexities of thwarted passion, and the grotesque adventures of humorous folly, touched as they are with the tenderest or most frolic pencil, blending admirably with the wild, sportive, and romantic tone of the scene, where
"Trip the light fairies and the dapper elves,' and forming together a whole so variously yet so happily interwoven, so racy and effervescent in its composition, of such exquisite levity and transparency, and glowing with such luxurious and phosphorescent splendour, as to be perfectly without a rival in dramatic literature.”—DRAKE.
“A Midsummer Night's Dream ! At the sight of such a title we naturally ask-Who is the dreamer? The poet, any of the characters of the drama, or the spectators ? The answer seems to be that there is much in this beautiful sport of imagination which was fit only to be regarded as a dream by the persons whom the fairies illuded : and that, as a whole, it comes before the spectators under the notion of a dream.
"If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, (and all is mended,)
Gentles, do not reprehend.' “Shakespeare was then but a young poet, rising into notice,--and it was a bold and hazardous undertaking to bring together classical story and the fairy mythology, made still more hazardous by the introduction of the rude attempts in the dramatic art of the hard-handed men of Athens. By calling it a dream he obviated the objection to its incongruities, since it is of the nature of a dream that things heterogeneous are brought together in fantastical confusion. Yet, to a person who by repeated perusals has become familiar with this play, it will not appear so incongruous a composition that it requires such an apology as we find in the Epilogue and title. It cannot, however, have been popular, any more than Comus is popular when brought upon the stage. Its great and surpassing beauties would be in themselves a hindrance to its obtaining a vulgar popularity.
“There is no apparent reason why it should be called a dream of Midsummer Night in particular. Midsummer night was of old in England a time of bonfires and rejoicings, and, in London, of processions and pageantries. But there is no allusion to anything of this kind in the play. Midsummer night cannot be the time of the action, which is very distinctly fixed to May morning and a few days before. May morning, even more than Midsummer night, was a time of delight in those times which, when looked back upon from these days of incessant toil, seem to have been gay, innocent, and paradisaical. See in what sweet language and in what a religious spirit the old topographer of London, Stowe, speaks of the universal custom of the people of the city on May-day morning, 'to walk into the sweet meadows and green woods, there to rejoice their spirits with the beauty and savour of sweet flowers, and with the harmony of birds praising God in their kinds. We have abundant materials for a distinct and complete account of the May-day sports in the happy times of old England; but they would be misplaced in illustration of this play: for, though Shakespeare has made the time of his story the time when people went forth
• To do observance to the morn of May,' and has laid the scene of the principal event in one of those half-sylvan, half-pastoral spots which we may conceive to have been the most favourite haunts of the Mayers, he does not introduce any of the May-day sports, or show us anything of the May-day customs of the time. Yet he might have done so. His subject seemed even to invite him to it, since a party of Mayers with their garlands of sweet flowers would have harmonized well with the lovers and the fairies, and might have made sport für Robin Goodfellow. Shakespeare loved to think of flowers and to write of them, and it may seem that it was a part of his original conception to have made more use than he has done of May-day and Flora's followers."—HUNTER.
Of this popular drama two editions were published prior to its appearance in the 1623 folio. One, entitled, “ The most excellent Historie of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreame crueltie of Shylocke the Iewe towards the sayd Merchant, in cutting a iust pound of his flesh: and the obtayning of Portia by the choyce of three chests. As it hath beene diuers times acted by the Lord Chamberlaine his Seruants. Written by William Shakespeare. At London, Printed by I. R., for Thomas Heyes, and are to be sold in Paules Church-yard, at the signe of the Greene Dragon. 1600,” 4to. The other, " The excellent History of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreme cruelty of Shylocke the Iew towards the saide Merchant, in cutting a iust pound of his flesh. And the obtaining of Portia, by the choyse of three caskets. Written by W. Shakespeare. Printed by J. Roberts. 1600,” 4to.
“ The Merchant of Venice” is the last play of Shakespeare's mentioned in the list of Francis Meres, 1598; and we find, in the same year, it was entered on the register of the Stationers' Company :-“ 22. July, 1598, James Robertes] A booke of the Marchaunt of Venyce, or otherwise called the Jewe of Venyse," &c. &c. But that it was written and acted some years before there appears to be now very little doubt. Henslowe's “ Diary” contains an entry, 25th of August, 1594, recording the performance of “ The Venesyon Commodey.” This Malone conjectured to refer to “ The Merchant of Venice,” which is the more probable as it hag since been found that, in 1594, the fellowship of players to which Shakespeare belonged was performing at the theatre in Newington Butts, conjointly, it is believed, with the company managed by Henslowe.
The plot is composed of two distinct stories ;—the incidents connected with the bond, and those of the caskets, which are interwoven with wonderful felicity. Both these fables are found separately related in the Latin “Gesta Romanorum." The bond, in Chap. XLVIII. of MS. Harl. 2270; and the caskets, in Chap. xcix. of the same collection. Some of the circumstances, however, connected with the bond in “ The Merchant of Venice," resemble more closely the tale of the fourth day in the “ Pecorone" of Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, in which it is noticeable too, that the scene of a portion of the hero's adventures is laid at Belmont. The “ Pecorone," though first printed in 1550, was written nearly two hundred years before. A translation of it in English was extant in our author's time, of which an abridgment will be found in the “ Illustrative Comments” at the end of the play. Upon this translation the old ballad of “ Gernutus,” which is found in Percy's “ Reliques," entitled,—"A New Song, Shewing the crueltie of Gernutus, a Jew, who lending to a Merchant a hundred Crownes, would have a pound of his fleshe, because he could not pay him at the day apointed.—To the Tune of Black and Yellow,” —was most likely founded. Whether the fusion of the two legends was the work of Shakespeare or of an earlier writer, we have not sufficient evidence to determine. Tyrwhitt was of opinion that he followed some hitherto unknown novelist, who had saved him the trouble of combining the two stories, and Steevens cites a passage from Gosson's “School of Abuse,” 1579, which certainly tends to prove that a play comprising the double plot of “ The Merchant of Venice" had been exhibited before Shakespeare began to write for the stage. The passage is as followsGosson is excepting some particular players and plays from the sweeping condemnation of his “pleasaunt inuective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Iesters, and such like Caterpillers of a Commonwelth:"_" And as some of the players are farre from abuse, so some of their playes are without rebuke, which are easily remembered, as quickly rekoned. The two prose bookes played at the Belsavage, where you shall finde never a worde withoute witte, never a line without pith, never a letter placed in vaine. The Jew, and Ptolome, showne at the Bull; the one representing the greedinesse of worldly chusers, and bloody mindes of usurers ;” &c.
The expression worldly chusers is so appropriate to the choosers of the caskets, and the bloody mindes of usurers, so applicable to the vindictive cruelty of Shylock, that it is very probable Shakespeare in this play, as in other plays, worked upon some rough model already prepared for him. The question is not of great importance. Be the merit of the fable whose it may,
the characters, the language, the poetry, and the sentiment, are his and his alone. To no other writer of the period could we be indebted for the charming combination of womanly grace, and dignity, and playfulness, which is found in Portia ; for the exquisite picture of friendship between Bassanio and Antonio ; for the profusion of poetic beauties scattered over the play; and for the masterly delineation of that perfect type of Judaism in olden times, the character of Shylock himself.
In his treatment of the Jew, without doing such violence to the antipathies of his age as would have been fatal to the popularity of the play, Shakespeare has generously vindicated the claims of this despised race to the rights and privileges of the community in which they lived. If, in obedience to the story he followed, and to hereditary prejudice too deep-rooted and long cherished for his control, he has portrayed the Jew father as malignant and revengeful, he has represented the daughter as affectionate and loveable; and if the former is rendered an object of odium and contumely, the latter becomes the wife of a Venetian gentleman, and the companion of the nobles and merchant princes of the land. This was much. At the time when « The Merchant of Venice was produced, as for ages before, the Jews were an abomination to the people. With the exception of such truly great men as Pope Gregory, Saint Bernard, Charlemagne, and a few others, no one had hardihood enough to venture a word in their defence. They were accounted Pariahs, born only to be reviled, and persecuted, and plundered. As a proof of the abhorrence with which they were regarded in Shakespeare's day, we need but refer to Marlowe's “ Rich Jew of Malta.” “Shylock," says Charles Lamb, “in the midst of his savage purpose, is a man. His motives, feelings, resentments, bave something human in them. If you wrong us, shall we not revenge ?' Barabas is a mere monster brought in with a large painted nose to please the rabble. He kills in sportpoisons whole nunneries—invents infernal machines. He is just such an exhibition as a century or two earlier might have been played before the Londoners, by the Royal Command, when a general pillage and massacre of the Hebrews had been previously resolved on in the cabinet."
Few plays have been more successful on the stage than “ The Merchant of Venice," few are better adapted for popular reading. Dramas of a loftier kind, moving deeper feeling and dealing with nobler passions, have proceeded from the same exhaustless source ; but we question if any one more diversified and picturesque than this exists. It is full of incident, character, poetry, and humour. The friendship of Antonio and Bassanio, “strong even unto death”the love episode of Lorenzo and the fair Jewess—the quaint drolleries of Launcelot, the buoyant spirits and brusque wit of Gratiano—the beauty of the Casket scenes—the grandeur of the trial—and the tragic interest attached to the circumstances of the contract between the Merchant and his unrelenting creditor—combine to form a whole unapproached and unapproachable by any other dramatist.
DUKE OF VENICE.
Old GOBBO, father to LAUNCELOT. suitors to PORTIA.
LEONARDO, servant to BassanIO. PRINCE OF MOROCCO,
servants to PORTIA. Antonio, the Merchant of Venice.
Portia, a rich heiress.
Nerissa, waitingemaid to PORTIA.
JESSICA, daughter to SHYLOCK.
Magnificoes of Venice, Oficers of the Court of Justice, LAUNCELOT GOBBO, a Clown, servant to SHYLOCK.
Gaoler, Servants, and other Attendants.