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With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
In strong contrast to this bright, realistic picture is the astonishing outburst on the power of imagination in A Midsummer Night's Dream :
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
As has been already hinted, there is less of Shakspeare to be found in these Comedies than in the rest of his work. They display the toil of the playwright fully more than the inspiration of the poet. Some of them appear to have been written in haste, and the different parts do not hang well together. In the plots there is no great inventiveness; a few tricks of the playwright's art, such as mistaken identity and the assumption by women of male attire, are repeated to satiety; and some of the incidents, thus motived, are far from convincing. In one or two cases Shakspeare appears only to have touched up the work of older dramatists. Many pages of the dialogue in several of the plays are hopelessly obsolete, and the wit in them is as stale as exploded soap-bubbles. In the Comedies, in short, are to be found most of the withered leaves in the garland of Shakspeare's fame.
Yet there is at least one of these dramas which reaches a point of perfection attained by only three or four other plays in the poet's entire repertory. In The Merchant of Venice the execution is, as has been already hinted, as perfect as that of Julius Cæsar among the Historical Plays or Macbeth among the Tragedies.
This drama is founded, indeed, on several stories, which played their part in the literature of different countries before Shakspeare took possession of them; but he has twisted the various strands into a single thread with initimable deftness, leaving no loose ends. It is as if the subject had found the genius of the author in its happiest mood and excited his powers to their fullest exercise; accordingly, from beginning to end, everything moves with the lightness and grace of a bird on the wing; and there is nothing out of date; the colours are like those of the great Renaissance paintings—as fresh as if they had been laid on the canvas yesterday.
The theory has recently been started that the motive of this play was merely to fall in with the fury of the multitude against the Jewish race. A Jewish doctor, it seems, was executed in London for a plot against the life of the Queen shortly before its production; and, in such circumstances, any picture exhibiting a Jew in a hateful or ludicrous light was certain of popularity. The gods in the gallery would simply howl with delight at Shylock rushing through the streets shrieking :
My daughter! Oh my ducats! O my daughter !
Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter ! And jewels, two stones—two rich and precious
stones! Stolen by my daughter! Justice! Find the girl !
She hath the stones upon her and the ducats ! There may be truth in this; but, if so, it only shows how the genius of Shakspeare, when truly excited, carried him above the aims and passions of the hour. For even Shylock is much more than the monster of usury, the contemptible victim of the “hep, hep, hep" of the mob. The consciousness of a great people and the agony of a thousand years of persecution breathe in his words :
“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes ? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions ? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh ? if you poison us, do we not die? and, if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge! If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."
In Shylock's defeat and humiliation Shakspeare appears to have no pity on him; but that is a significant story which Heine, the German poet, himself a Jew, relates—that, when he saw the play acted in London, an English lady, sitting near him, burst into tears, at the end of the fourth act, and cried out, "The man is being wronged”. At certain points so keen is the pain as almost to entitle the play to a place among the Tragedies.
The Merchant of Venice is, like the Two Gentlemen of Verona, a story of friendship-but friendship on a far higher level than in the earlier play. Antonio, , the hero, is a Venetian merchant, of dignified and melancholy temperament, but full of genial humanity and
one in whom The ancient Roman honour more appears
Than any that draws breath in Italy. He is extremely rich, his wealth being, however, afloat in vessels which are scattered over all the seas.
When his friend Bassanio asks him for a loan, in order that he may go to Belmont and prosecute his suit for the hand of the heiress Portia, he never thinks of refusing, though he has no ready money on hand, but applies to the leading Jew usurer on the Rialto for the sum required. This request gives Shylock his chance; for he has against Antonio a deep and ancient grudge :