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Stationers' Hall by J. Roberts, but not actually printed till 1600. In the diary of Henslowe, actor and manager, mention is made, under the date 25 August, 1594, of The Venesyon comodey,' which may be Shakespeare's Merchant. But considering that the dramatists of that time were fond of laying their scenes in Italy, this identification is very uncertain. There are however in the play itself indications which would lead us to suppose that its first composition was earlier than 1598, such as the many classical allusions, the frequent rhymes and occasional doggrel verses. The 'fooling' of Launcelot, too, has a strong resemblance to that of his almost namesake in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. On the other hand the loftiness of thought and expression, the grace and freedom of the versification in general, point to a later time, and would lead us rather to class this play with Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and Much Ado About Nothing, than with the earlier plays, Love's Labour's Lost and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. On the whole we incline to think that the play was in great part rewritten between the time of its first production in 1594 and its publication in 1600. The slight discrepancies pointed out in the notes may be due to this cause, particularly that in Act i, Scene 2, where only four strangers are mentioned as about to take their leave, after six have been described in detail. Two may have been added in the revision.
The Merchant of Venice, if we except perhaps The Tempest, has always been the most popular of Shakespeare's comedies both with readers and audiences, and a continuous popularity of nearly three centuries may be accepted as a final judgment. The causes of this preference are not far to seek. It stands in the first rank for the almost tragic interest of its main plot, for the variety and strongly marked discrimination of its characters, for the sweetness, beauty and grace which pervade it throughout. In power it is inferior to Measure for Measure, but it is free from the grossness which sullies that otherwise noble drama. At least all that is offensive to modern taste in The Merchant of Venice may easily be removed by a few unimportant omissions, while in Measure for Measure the grossness is interwoven with the very texture of the plot.
In one respect Shakespeare would have done well if he had departed from his original. The story of the caskets, suited to the atmosphere of mediaeval romance, is singularly incongruous with the rest of the play. Ulrici, indeed, is of opinion that the author has shown consummate art in introducing one improbability, that of the caskets, to balance, and, as it were, excuse, the other improbability, that of the pound of flesh. But an audience of that day, accustomed as they were to attribute all manner of atrocities to the mysterious people whom they feared as well as hated, would see no improbability in Shylock's conduct; and if they did, it is hard to see how one improbability could be made less offensive by the introduction of another totally different in kind. But we must remember that the inconsistency is more apparent to the reader than to the spectator. Inconsistencies vanish when 'oculis subjecta fidelibus;' and the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon become as real personages as Antonio or Bassanio, when they appear in flesh and blood on the stage. Shakespeare doubtless knew what would please or displease his audience, and followed his authorities when he saw no reason to change.
Two quarto editions were printed in the year 1600, one by Roberts, one by Heyes. We have called that of Roberts the first quarto, that of Heyes the second quarto, for reasons given in the Preface to the second volume of the Cambridge Shakespeare. They were printed from different transcripts of the author's manuscript.
The text of this play, as it is given in the first folio, 1623, was printed with some alterations from a copy of the second quarto, which appears to have been kept as the acting copy in the library of the theatre.
In our Notes to this play we have referred to the Globe edition of Shakespeare.
W. G. C.
Postscript.—Add to note on ii. 5. 43, the expression 'It is worth a Jew's eye' is proverbial, and probably dates from the time when large ransoms were extorted by torture from the wealthy Jews in the middle ages by their oppressors.
SCENE I. Venice. A street.
Antonio. In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
Salarino. Your mind is tossing on the ocean;