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Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter !
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:
Signior Antonio, many a time and oft,
He agrees, however, not only to lend the money, but to do so without taking interest. Only he adds, as if by way of pleasantry, that he will take a bond
from Antonio, binding him, in case the money be not repaid, in three months, to give the lender, in lieu of interest, a pound of flesh from his body. To this condition Antonio laughingly assents, knowing that, long before this date arrives, several of his ships will have come into port.
The best laid schemes of mice and men, however, “gang aft agley"; and at the expiry of the time Antonio has no money; for not one of his ships has come in, one after another of them having suffered misfortune. Shylock has been keeping his eye on the possible chance of the bond being forfeited ; his temper has meantime been rendered savage by the elopement of his daughter with a Christian, a friend of Antonio's; and, as the time draws near and he hears of Antonio's losses, an inhuman fever begins to burn in his blood.
At length, the date having expired and the bond being forfeited, he has Antonio in court and is demanding the pound of flesh. In one hand he carries the scales, to weigh it, and in the other the knife, ready to cut it off. To all entreaties he is deaf, declaring that he will take nothing else than what is in the bond. By the law of the city, it seems, he cannot be denied; and the minds of those with whom the court is crowded are on the rack to witness the horrible denouement-when a new advocate appears upon the scene, to plead the cause of the accused.
This is Portia, the bride of Bassanio, for whose
necessities the borrowed money was procured. Bassanio's suit has prospered; he has successfully passed through the ordeal of choice appointed by Portia's dead father for the wooers of his daughter; and he has won not only her hand but her heart. In the very crisis of his happiness, however, he hears of the peril of his benefactor, and instantly hurries off, to see if he can succour him. Portia, left behind, is visited by a bright inspiration : she will be the advocate of Antonio, the friend of her husband, and deliver him from the grasp of Shylock. She hastily consults a friend, a renowned doctor of law, and, having received instructions from him, appears in the court in the nick of time, so well disguised in the gown and wig of an advocate that even Bassanio does not recognise her.
Portia is one of Shakspeare's most charming creations. Among his other women he has divided his gifts, but to her he has given them all. She is fresh, simple and gay, refined and sincere, and gifted with unmatchable eloquence. Her appearance in court casts a spell over the audience; and slowly she proceeds to unfold her plea. She admits that the bond is forfeited, and that the law cannot refuse the pound of flesh. It looks as if she were giving the case away. Then she makes an overwhelming appeal to Shylock to have mercy; but he is as obdurate as the flinty rock. At last she discloses her line of argument: Shylock has been promised a pound of flesh; but in