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In Steevens's and Malone's editions of Shakspeare, the reader will find a distinct epitome of the novels from which the story of this play is supposed to be taken. It should, however, be remeinbered, that if our poet was at all indebted to the Italian novelists, it must have been through the medium of some old translation, which has hitherto escaped the researches of his most industrious editors.
It appears from a passage in Stephen Gosson's School of Abuse, &c. 1579, that a play, comprehending the distinct plots of Shakspeare's Merchant of Venice, had been exhibited long before he commenced a writer, viz. “The Jews shown at the Bull, representing the greediness of worldly choosers, and the bloody minds of usurers.” “ These plays,” says Gosson, (for he mentions others with it) “are goode and sweete plays," &c. It is therefore not improbable that Shakspeare new-wrote his piece, on the model already mentioned, and that the elder performance, being inferior, was permitted to drop silently into oblivion.
This play of Shakspeare had been exhibited before the year 1598, as appears from Meres's Wits Treasury, where it is mentioned with eleven more of our author's pieces. It was entered on the books of the Stationers' Company, July 22, in 'the same year. It could not have been printed earlier, because it was not yet licensed. The old song of Gernutus the Jew of Venice, is published by Dr. Percy in the first volume of his Reliques of ancient English Poetry: and the ballad intituled, The murtherous Lyfe and terrible Death of the rich Jewe of Malta; and the tragedy on the same subject, were both entered on the Stationers' books, May, 1594, STEEVENS.
The story was taken from an old translation of The Gesta Romanorum, first printed by Wynkyn de Worde. The book was very popular, and Shak speare has closely copied some of the language: an additional argument, if we wanted it, of his track of reading. Three vessels are exhibited to a lady for her choice. The first was made of pure gold, well beset with precious stones without, and within full of dead men's bones; and thereupon was engraven this posie: Whoso chuseth me, shall find that he deserveth. The second vessel was made of fine silver, filled with earth and worms'; the superscription was thus: Whoso chuseth me, shall find that his nature desireth. The third vessel was made of lead, full within of precious stones, and thereupon was insculpt this posie : Whoso chuseth me, shall find that God hath disposed for him.-The lady, after a comment upon each, chuses the leaden vessel.
In a MS. of Lidgate, belonging to my very learned friend, Dr. Askew, I find a Tale of Two Merchants of Egipt and of Baldad ex Gestis Romanorum. Leland, therefore, could not be the original author, as Bishop Tanner suspected. He lived a century after Lidgate. FARMER.
The two principal incidents of this play are to be found separately in a collection of odd stories, which were very popular, at least five hundred years ago, under the title of Gesta Romanorum. The first, of the Bond, is in ch. xlviii. of the copy which I chuse to refer to, as the completest of any which I have yet seen. Ms. Harl. n. 2270. A knight there borrows money of a merchant; upon condition of forfeiting all his flesh for non-payment. When the penalty is exacted before the judge, the knight's mistress, disguised, in forma viri f vestimentis pretiosis indula, comes into court, and, by permission of the judge, endeavours to mollify the merchant. She first offers him his money, and then the double of it, &c. to all which his answer is—“ Conventionem meam volo habere. - Puella, cum hoc audisset, ait coram omnibus, Domine mi judex, da rectum judicium super his quæ vobis dixero. - Vos scitis quod miles nunquam se obligabat ad aliud per literam nisi quod mercator habeat potestatem carnes ab ossibus scindere, sine sanguinis effusione, de quo nihil erat prolocutum. Statim mittat manum in cum; si vero sanguinem effuderit, Rex contra eum actionem habet. Mercator, cum hoc audisset, ait; date mihi pecuniam & omnem actionem ei remitto. Ait puella, Amen dico tibi, nullum denarium habebis — pone ergo manum in eum, ita ut sanguinem non effundas. Mercator vero videns se confusum abscessit : & sic vita militis salvata est, & nullum denarium dedit."
The other incident, of the casket, is in ch. xcix. of the same collection. A king of Apulia se:ads his daughter to be married to the son of an emperor of Rome. After some adventures, (which are nothing to the present purpose,) she is brought before the emperor, who says to her, “Puella, propter amorem filii mei multa adversa sustinuisti. Tamen si digna fueris ut uxor ejus sis cito probabo. Et fecit fieri tria vasa. Primum fuit de auro purissimo & lapidibus pretiosis interius ex omni parte, & plenum ossibus mortuorum: & exterius erat subscriptio ; Qui me elegerit, in me inveniet quod meruit. Secundum vas erat de argento puro & gemmis pretiosis, plenum terra ; & exterius erat subscriptio : Qui me elegerit, in me inveniet quod natura appetit. TERTIUM vas de plumbo plenum lapidibus pretiosis interius & genimis nobilissimis ; & exterius erat subscriptio talis : Qui me elegerit, in me inveniet quod Deus disposuit. Ista tria ostendit puellæ, & dixit, si unum
ex istis · elegeris, in quo commodum & proficuum est, filium meum habebis. Si vero elegeris quod nec tibi nec aliis est commodum, ipsum non habebis.” The young lady, after mature consideration of the vessels and their inscriptions, chuses the leaden, which being opened, and found to be full of gold and precious stones, the emperor says: “Bona puella, bene elegisti --ideo filium meum habebis."
From this abstract of these two stories, I think it appears sufficiently plain that they are the remote originals of the two incidents