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6. THE MERCHANT OF VENICE-MEASURE FOR
“ The Merchant of Venice," one of the most popular, and, at the same time, noblest productions of our great master, unites all the charms and excellencies of Shakspeare's style. First of all, as to the characterization: overlooking the well-conceived and ably worked-out peculiarities of the other personages, who in organic contrast nicely balance and set off each other ;—the noble, highminded, but passive and melancholy Antonio, weary, and ill calculated for the burthen of an active bustling life, who is best described in the few, but striking words, “ a princely merchant;"' -his gay but sincere friend, the frivolous but amiable and considerate Bassanio, who is an Italian gentiluomo in its best sense, with his friends Lorenzo and Gratiano ;-the no less amiable than roguish and intellectual Portia, with her delightful attendant Nerissa, and Jessica the child of nature, hurried along by the deep enthusiasm of Eastern love and passion;-overlooking all these, down to the silly Launcelot Gobbo and his doting childish father-we meet in Shylock the Jew a masterpiece of characterization. It is a most successful portrait of the Jewish national character generally ;- not indeed of that noble and high-minded, but exclusive spirit, which in the times of Moses, David, and the prophets, still animated the people, but of the low and unworthy sentiments into which this degenerate and fallen nation had gradually sunk during the thousand years of persecution and oppression which marked its dispersion over the face of the earth. During these long years of ignominy, their firm endurance and strict adherence to their national religion, morals and law, had been degraded into conceit and stiff-neckedness—their acute intellect into subtlety and finesse, the inspired view of the prophet into superstition, the love of their inheritance (which in so far as it was united with devotion to the land which God had given them, was praiseworthy,) was corrupted into a sordid and loathsome avarice, and the sense of superiority which their separation from all other nations and kindred had engendered, had sunk into bitter and contemptuous hate, and, whereever possible, into unfeeling and cruel revenge of their persecutors.
Nothing had escaped the universal degradation, except the invincible perseverance, and the dry mummy-like tenacity of their Jewish nature. Shylock looks like a mournful relic of a great and glorious past, the still glimmering spark of a dying splendour, which though it warms and nourishes no more, can yet burn and destroy. We can more refuse our pity than repress our horror at his conduct and sentiments.* The general character of the Jewish people is, however, distinctly individualized in Shylock, and endued with concrete vitality. The spirit of revenge and hatred is in his case directed chiefly against the Christian merchants, who are willing to lend their money without security or interest, in order to assist the oppressed and unfortunate debtor, and who in his opinion injure him thereby more deeply than they ever can do by the contemptuous and dog-like treatment which they show him. It is simply on this account that the princely Antonio is a real thorn in his side. His hatred overcomes his avarice, and he plays the part of a high-minded and generous character in order to set at work a devilish design; attachment to religion, caste, and natural rights, expresses itself in Shylock merely in the most rigid and stiff-necked adherence to the letter of the law. He is not without intelligence and natural shrewdness, which reveal themselves in the peculiar humour, and the biting sarcastic wit, which he has freely at command. It is by such special motives of action and delicate touches that Shakspeare has saved his portrait from being but a caricature, and stamped the individuality of life on the abstract generalities of national peculiarity.
But not merely does Shakspeare's wonderful skill in delineating character shine forth in this piece in the most brilliant light; the composition, arrangement, and unfolding of the intricate plot are equally wonderful. The invention, it is true, is not altogether his own property : the most part is borrowed from a novel of Giovanni Florentino (written in 1378, but first printed in 1558), who again had borrowed it from the “ Gesta Romanorum.” Nevertheless, the English sources, which alone our poet probably made use of—at all events it is very questionable whether the unprinted piece “ The Jew,” mentioned by Gosson in 1579 was on the same subject, or even in existence twenty years after that date-furnished him little more than a skeleton, which he himself had to furnish out with flesh and blood. Besides which, he has with his usual freedom enriched the original with several additional characters, and enlarged the plot by interweaving into it a new episode. Thus we have three knots, each complicated enough, tangled together in the present fable: the money affair between Shylock and Antonio; the weddings of Bassanio and Portia, and of Gratiano and Nerissa ; and lastly, Jessica's love for, and elopement with, Lorenzo. These several events and interests are disposed with remarkable clearness and precision ; each proceeds so naturally of itself, and alongside the others, that we never lose the thread, but the several parts are kept perfectly distinct, while at the same time a living, free, and organic principle pervades them all, and rounds them off into a well-organized and perfect whole. As Schlegel justly remarks, in the same way that the noble Antonio is placed in delightful contrast to the hateful Shylock, so the strange bargain between them—which, although not absolutely impossible, is to the highest degree extraordinary—has its counterpart in the no less singular story of the courtship of Portia and Bassanio. The one is rendered less improbable by the other. So, again, as Portia's free choice is restrained by an odd whim of her deceased father, her attendant Nerissa voluntarily makes her own happiness to depend on the fate of her mistress. To this constraint of will and inclination, the violation of all respect of law and custom by the free choice of Jessica forms again a decided contrast. Thus are the manifold interests and situations of the plot skilfully disposed, so as to shew forth in strong light that contrariety from which life and movement uniformly issue. The next question, however, is, where then are we to look for that intrinsic unity of idea which alone can justify before the tribunal of criticism the combination in a single drama of so many different elements ? Notwithstanding all this skill of characterization and development, there is a seeming want of consistency, and the whole consequently appears to fall in pieces. No doubt we can see clearly enough an external bond holding together the several parts; Antonio falls into the Jew's power by his self-sacrificing devotion to his friend, and he is rescued by the wit and shrewdness of Portia, and with these two the heroes of the other love-stories are no doubt more or less intimately connected. This tie, however, is altogether external and accidental. In its essential and intrinsic signification, what has the business transaction, which turns out so gloomily and almost tragically, in common with the cheerful happy wedding of Portia and Bassanio ? None: on the contrary, by such external juxtaposition their intrinsic dissimilarity becomes only the more apparent. Such a connection is in truth null; and a composition of which the parts are so loosely held together is not to be dignified with the title of a work of art. The æsthetical judge finds it impossible to deliver a different sentence, whenever he cannot discover a truly organic and artistic unity between the different components of a great whole; and as hitherto this has not been shown in the case of the “ Merchant of Venice," it must be pronounced unworthy of the high encomiums and reputation which it has hitherto enjoyed. Indeed, the question may justly be propounded, whether it is of right to be regarded as a comedy, a spectacle, or a tragedy? and as long as the intrinsic central point is left undiscovered, no answer can be given to the question.
* The part of Shylock was sustained by Burbage with a red beard and a long fa’se nose.-Collier, New Partic. p. 36.
In many of Shakspeare's dramas the leading fundamental idea in which the whole centres, is, no doubt, often intentionally withdrawn from sight, and deeply hidden under the surface; occasionally a part makes its own interest to be felt so decidedly, and comes forward so freely and independently, and stands so fully and roundly out of the picture, as to fix the eye and attention upon itself. This circumstance at once accounts for the objection to Shakspeare's compositions, as frequently urged as it is groundless, of want of plan and connection. But, in truth, Shakspeare is always so fully possessed with his own idea, he stands so firmly at the very centre and focus of his art, that he can safely allow all the different rays to play at liberty in the fullest and brightest colours; he holds the reins so firmly in hand, that he can appear to give perfect liberty to his poetic coursers. The critic, therefore, must forcibly withdraw his eye from the graceful movement of the several figures, and from the beautiful hues and lovely play of light and shade, if he would hope to discover the invisible thread, which, like the eternal plan of the world's history, runs through the whole, a mystery and a wonder. And, on the other hand, we find occasional hints scattered through the whole in sufficient number to prevent any one who has penetrated the least into the profound mystery of Shakspeare's art from going altogether astray. The idea which lies at the bottom of the transaction between Antonio and Shylock, is evidently the old juristic maxim, “Summum jus summa injuria,” which is again founded on that high dialectic principle, which the experience of life enforces, that every onesided and exclusive right produces in this world of limitation its direct negative, and necessarily passes into its opposite. Shylock has evidently the material right on his side, but by taking it, and following it out in its mere letter and one-sidedness, he falls into the deepest and foulest wrong, which by intrinsic necessity, and agreeably to the essential nature of sin, recoils fatally on his own head. The dead letter of the law can but kill. But the same dialectic, and the same view which is here presented in its sharpest and unqualified extreme, shine through all the other parts in various shades and refractions. The whim of Portia's father, which fetters her free-will and robs her of all participation in the choice of her husband, rests, no doubt, ultimately on parental rights and authority; but this extreme right is even extreme wrong, and Portia has good ground for her complaint :
“O! these naughty times
Act III, Scene 2.
Even if she had broken her oath, and by signs and hints had guided her well-beloved, amiable, and worthy lover to a right choice, would any of us have been ready to cast the first stone at her? The wrong which was involved in this capricious exercise of parental rights, might have issued in tragic misery, had not chance—again a lucky thought of the moment-led to a happy result. The flight and marriage of Jessica against her father's will is itself also a decided wrong. And, yet, who will condemn her for withdrawing herself from the rule, and for despising the rights of such a parent, who, if she had remained obedient to him, would