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MERCHANT OF VENICE.
It is generally believed that Shakspeare was indebted to several sources for the materials of this admirable play. The story of the bond is taken fronı a tale in the Pecorone of Ser Giovanni, a Florentine novelist, who wrote in 1378, three years after the death of Boccace. This book was probably known to our author through the medium of some translation no longer extant. The coincidences between these productions are too striking to be overlooked. Thus, the scene being laid at Venice; the residence of the lady at Belmont; the introduction of a person bound for the principal ; the taking more or less than a pound of flesh, and the shedding of blood ; together with the incident of the ring, are common to the novel and the play.
The choice of the caskets, in this comedy, is borrowed from chapter 49 of the English Gesta Romanorum, where three vessels are placed before the daughter of the king of Apulia for her choice, to prove whether she is worthy to receive the hand of the son of Anselmus, emperor of Rome. The princess, after praying to God for assistance, rejects the gold and silver caskets, and chooses the leaden, which being opened, and found to be full of gold and precious stones, the emperor informs her that she has chosen as he wished, and immediately unites her to his son.
The love and elopement of Jessica and Lorenzo have been noticed by Mr. Dunlop as bearing a similitude to the fourteenth tale of Massuccio di Salerno, who florished about 1470. In that tale we meet with an avaricious father, a daughter carefully shut up, her elopement with her lover by the intervention of a servant, her robbing her father of his money, together with his grief on the discovery ;- :-a grief, divided equally between the loss of his daughter and the loss of his ducats.
Of this play Dr. Johnson remarks, that the style is even and easy, with few peculiarities of diction or anomalies of construction. The comic part raises laughter, and the serious fixes expectation. The probability of either one or the other story cannot be maintained. The union of two actions in one event is in this drama eminently happy. Dryden was much pleased with his own address in connecting the two plots of the Spanish Friar, which yet, I believe, the critic will find excelled by this play.'
A rich and beautiful beiress residing at Belmont, named
Portia, is compelled by the will of her deceased father to subject every suitor to the choice of a golden, silver, or leaden casket : in the latter is enclosed a portrait of the lady, who is to become the wife of its fortunate possessor. Bassanio, a young Venetian gentleman, at length obtains the prize, and is scarcely united to his bride, when he receives intelligence from Venice that his dear friend Antonio, from whose liberality he has procured the means of prosecuting his suit, is completely ruined ; and that a bond, which he has executed with a Jew for the payment of a sum of money within a certain period, on forfeiture of a pound of flesh nearest his heart, is now demanded by his inexorable creditor. After receiving a ring from his bride with professions of constancy, Bassanio flies to the relief of his patron : the lady, in the mean time, procures letters of recommendation from an eminent civilian, and, in the disguise of a doctor of laws, is introduced to the Duke, as a person well qualified to decide the cause pending between the merchant and the Jew; and at length, by her ingenuity, the unfortunate debtor is delivered from his savage persecutor. The disguised lawyer persists in refusing all pecuniary recompense, and entreats from Bassanio the ring which she had presented to him at his departure, which he reluctantly yields : the same expedient is successfully tried by the waiting-maid, disguised as a lawyer's clerk. The lady and her attendant now hasten home; and, on the arrival of their husbands, amuse themselves with witnessing their confusion at the loss of their love tokens, till the stratagem is at length fully explained. The remainder of this play is occupied with the elopement of Jessica, the daughter of the Jew, with a young man, named Lorenzo, who procures from his father-in-law the reversion of his whole property.