« AnteriorContinuar »
and insults which they are thus led to practise have the effect of goading the sufferers into savage malignity and revenge. Had he so clothed the latter with gentle and amiable qualities as to enlist the feelings all in their behalf, he would have given a false view of human nature, and his work would have lost much of its instructiveness on the score of practical morality. For good morals can never be reached by departures from truth. A rule that may be profitably remembered by all who are moved to act as advocates and special-pleaders in what they think a good
The leading incidents of the play are soon told. Antonio, the Merchant, has a strange mood of sadness upon him, and a parcel of his friends are bending their wits to play it off. Among them, and dearer to him than any of the rest, is one Bassanio, a gentleman who, young and generous, has lavished his fortune. Bassanio's heart is turning towards a wealthy heiress who, highly famed for gifts and virtues, resides not many miles off; and from whose eyes he has received “fair speechless messages.” But he wants “ the means to hold a rival place” among her princely suitors. Antonio's wealth and credit are freely pledged to his service. His funds, however, being all embarked in ventures at sea, he tries his credit with a rich Jew, whose person he has often insulted, and whose greed his Christian liberality has often thwarted. The Jew, feigning a merry humour, consents to lend the sum, provided Antonio sign a bond authorizing him, in case of forfeiture, to cut a pound of flesh from whatever part of his body he may choose. Antonio readily agrees to this, and so furnishes his friend for the loving enterprise. Bassanio prosecutes his suit to the lady with success. But, while yet in his first transports of joy, he learns that Antonio's ventures at sea have all miscarried, and that the Jew, with malignant earnestness, claims the forfeiture. Leaving his bride the moment he has sworn the sweet oath, he hastens away, resolved to save his friend's life at the expense, if need be, of his own.
Thereupon his virgin wife forthwith gets instructions from the most learned lawyer in those parts, and, habiting herself as a doctor of laws, repairs to the trial. To divert the Jew from his purpose, she taxes her wisdom and persuasion to the utmost, but in vain : scorning the spirit of Justice, and deaf to the voice of Mercy, both of which speak with heavenly eloquence from Portia’s lips; rejecting thrice the amount of the bond, and standing immoveable on the letter of the law; he pushes his revenge to the very point of making the fatal incision, when she turns the letter of the law against him, strips him of penalty, principal, and all, and subjects even his life to the mercy of the Duke. As the condition of his life, he is required to sign a deed securing all his wealth to his daughter who, loaded with his ducats and jewels, has lately eloped with another of Antonio's friends, and is staying at Portia's mansion during her absence. The play winds up with the hastening of all the parties, except the Jew, to Portia's home. When all have met, Portia announces to Antonio the safe return of his ships supposed to be lost, and surprises the fugitive lovers with the news of their good fortune.
In respect of characterization this play is exceedingly rich, and this too both in quantity and quality. The persons naturally fall into three several groups, with each its several plot and action; yet the three are skilfully complotted, each standing out clear and distinct in its place, yet so drawing in with the others, that every thing helps on every thing else; there being neither any confusion nor any appearance of care to avoid it. Of these three groups, Antonio, Shylock, and Portia are respectively the centres; while the part of Lorenzo and Jessica, though strictly an episode, seems nevertheless to grow forth as an element of the original germ; a sort of inherent superfluity, and as such essential to the well-being of the piece. But perhaps it may be better described as a fine romantic undertone accompaniment to the other parts; itself in perfect harmony with them, and therefore perfecting their harmony with each other.
In the first entry at the Stationers, the play is described as “ The Merchant of Venice, or otherwise called The Jew of Venice.” This would seem to infer that the author was then in some doubt whether to name it from Antonio or Shylock. As an individual, Shylock is altogether the character of the play, and exhibits more of mastership than all the others; so that, viewing the persons severally, we should say the piece ought to be named from him. But we have not far to seek for good reasons why it should rather be named as it is. For if the Jew is the more important individually, the Merchant is so dramatically. Antonio is the centre and main-spring of the action : without him, Shylock, however great in himself, had no business there. And the laws of dramatic combination, not any accident of individual prominence, are clearly what ought to govern in the naming of the play.
Not indeed that the Merchant is a small matter in himself; far from it: he is a highly interesting and attractive personage; nor am I sure but there may be timber enough in him for a good dramatic hero, apart from the Jew. Something of a peculiar charm attaches to him, from the state of mind in which we first see him. A dim, mysterious presage of evil weighs down his spirits, as though he felt afar off the coming-on of some great calamity. Yet this unwonted dejection, sweetened as it is with his habitual kindness and good-nature, has the effect of showing how dearly he is held by such whose friendship is the fairest earthly purchase of virtue. And it is considerable that upon tempers like his even the smiles of Fortune often have a strangely saddening effect. For such a man, even because he is good, is apt to be haunted with a sense of having more than he deserves; and this may not unnaturally inspire him with an indefinable dread of some reverse which shall square up the account of his present blessings. Thus his very happiness works, by subtle methods, to charge his heart with certain dark forebodings. So that such presentiments, whatever the disciples of positivism may say, are in the right line of nature :
“ Oft startled and made wise
Of bitter contraries." But the sorrow can hardly be ungrateful to us, that has such noble comforters as Antonio's. Our nature is honoured in the feelings that spring up on both sides.
Wealth indeed seldom dispenses such warnings save to its most virtuous possessors. And such is Antonio. A kind-hearted and sweet-mannered man; of a large and liberal spirit; affable, generous, and magnificent in his dispositions; patient of trial, indulgent to weakness, free where he loves, and frank where he hates; in prosperity modest, in adversity cheerful; craving wealth for the uses of virtue, and as the sinews of friendship; - his character is one which we never weary of contemplating. The only blemish we perceive in him is his treatment of Shylock : in this, though evidently much more the fault of the times than of the man, we cannot help siding against him; than which we need not ask a clearer instance of poetical justice. Yet even this we blame rather as a wrong done to himself than to Shylock; inasmuch as the latter, notwithstanding he has had such provocations, avowedly grounds his hate mainly on those very things which make the strongest title to a good man's love. For the Jew's revenge fastens not so much on the man's abuse of him as on his kindness to others.
The friendship between the Merchant and his companions is such a picture as Shakespeare evidently delighted to draw. And so fair a sentiment is not apt to inhabit ignoble breasts. Bassanio, Gratiano, and Salarino are each admirable in their way, and give a pleasing variety to the scenes
where they move. Bassanio, though something too lavish of purse, is a model of a gentleman; in whose character and behaviour all is order and propriety; with whom good manners are the proper outside and visibility of a fair mind, — the natural foliage and drapery of inward refinement and delicacy and rectitude. Well-bred, he has that in him which, even had his breeding been ill, would have raised him above it and made him a gentleman.
Gratiano and Salarino are two as clever, sprightly, and voluble persons as any one need desire to be with; the chief difference between them being, that the former lets his tongue run on from good impulses, while the latter makes it do so for good ends. If not so wise as Bassanio, they are more witty; and as much surpass him in strength, as they fall short of him in beauty, of character. It is observable that of the two Gratiano, while much the more prone to flood us with his talk, also shows less subjection of the individual to the common forms of social decorum; so that, if he behaves not quite so well as the others, he gives livelier proof that what good behaviour he has is his own; a growth from within, not a piece of imitation. And we are rather agreeably surprised, that one so talkative and rattletongued should therewithal carry so much weight of meaning; and he sometimes appears less sensible than he is, because of his galloping volubility. But he has no wish to be "reputed wise for saying nothing"; and he makes a merit of talking nonsense when, as is sometimes the case, nonsense is the best sort of sense: for, like a prime good fellow, as he is, he would rather incur the charge of folly than not, provided he can thereby add to the health and entertainment of his friends.
Lorenzo and Jessica, the runaway lovers, are in such a lyrical state of mind as rather hinders a clear view of their characters. Both are indeed overflowing with sweetness and beauty, but more, perhaps, as the result of nuptial inspiration than of inherent qualities. For I suppose the