Furness's Merchant of Venice

THE literature of The Merchant of Venice, which is reviewed and summarized in this new volume of Mr. Furness’s invaluable edition,1 is less in amount than has gathered about the former plays of the series ; but in some respects the questions which it starts are among the most interesting of Shakespeare study. The ordinary topics — the textual commentary, the date and sources of the play, its stage history, and the literary and philosophical commentary — are treated with the fullness and precision to which the editor has accustomed us, and in a spirit of caution and tolerance ; he himself contributes but rarely to the discussion, and there is little need that he should, for the play is comparatively free from great difficulties. He adopts the Folio text, and agrees with the opinion that places the composition of the drama shortly before 1598, and regards it as founded upon a previous work, now lost, with possible obligations to the Italian novel II Pecorone and to Silvayn’s Orator. He discusses especially the timeduration of the play with reference to the theory of Shakespeare’s double-time, and seeks by an ingenious comparison with the method of Æschylus in the Agamemnon to show that the two great masters of drama used the same means of making time illusory instead of real. There is little else in detail that calls for particular mention.

The interest of this comprehensive survey of one of the most popular and most beautiful of the works of Shakespeare’s early manhood lies in its broad features. Its one leading topic is the mediæval race - type. It is a striking Jew; not Shylock in particular, but the quality in the immortality of this play that it has survived a change in the public mind in its attitude toward the Jewish people. To the Elizabethans, and Shakespeare among them, the Jew was hateful. It may well be questioned to what extent Shakespeare himself, with all the tolerance that his understanding of the springs of human nature gave him, felt the pity in the dramatic situation of Shylock that a modern audience must feel. Booth’s conception of Shakespeare’s creation is too direct and natural not to justify itself to the student, — “ ‘ an inhuman wretch, incapable of pity, void and empty from any dram of mercy.’ It has been said that he was an affectionate father and a faithful friend. When, where, and how does he manifest the least claim to such commendation ? Tell me that, and unyoke ! ’T was the money value of Leah’s ring that he grieved over, not its association with her, else he would have shown some affection for her daughter, which he did not, or she would not have called her home ‘ a hell,’ robbed and left him. Shakespeare makes her do these un-Hebrew things to intensify the baseness of Shylock’s nature. If we side with him in his self-defense, ’t is because we have charity, which he had not; if we pity him under the burden of his merited punishment, ’t is because we are human, which he is not, except in shape, and even that, I think, should indicate the crookedness of his nature.” Booth goes on to justify this traditional conception by an easy argument against the notion of “ the heroic Hebrew,” the type of the vengeance of a persecuted race, whose wrongs justify its acts. He refers to the “ dangerous ‘ bit of business ’ ” when Shylock whets his knife. “ Would the heroic Hebrew have stooped to such a paltry action ? No, never, in the very white-heat of his pursuit of vengeance ! But vengeance is foreign to Shylock’s thought; 5t is revenge he seeks, and he gets just what all who seek it get, — “ sooner or later,’ as the saying is.”

This characterization is not too vigorous, nor does it go too far. We may find it not only in Shylock as Shakespeare drew him, but reflected also from Antonio. It is in Antonio personally that the attitude of the mediæval Christian toward the Jew is found. The unexplained melancholy of Antonio, his fidelity in high-minded friendship, and the dignity of his bearing under the cruelty to which he is exposed have obscured to us the other side of his character as the Rialto merchant. We see more of Bassanio’s Antonio than of Shylock’s: the man who had interfered with the usurer in every way and personally maltreated him, and was as like to do the same again; the proud, hard-hearted, and insulting magnifico whom Shylock hated for himself. Antonio is every whit as heartless to the Jew in the hour of his triumph as Shylock was to him when the balance leaned the other way. His cruelty is lacking only in the physical element ; it is not bloody, but it goes to the bone and marrow of Shylock’s nature none the less. There is no sign that Shakespeare saw any wrong in all this. It was thus that the Christians looked upon the Jews, and they thought such treatment right. Shakespeare differed from others — from Marlowe, for example, in his delineation of the Jew of Malta — in one point only : he was able to take Shylock’s point of view, to understand his motives, to assign the reasons with which revenge justified its own motions ; in a word, to represent Shylock’s humanity. The speeches he puts into the Jew’s mouth are intense and eloquent expressions of the rationale of that “ lodged hate ” in his bosom ; they are true to fact and to nature ; on our ears they come with overwhelming force, and it is impossible to our thoughts that Shakespeare could have written them without sympathy for the wrongs that they set forth with such fiery heat. But when from this it is argued that Shakespeare, in writing this play, made a deliberate plea for toleration, and carried it as far as the necessities of his plot and the temper of his times permitted, then it is needful to remind ourselves of what Booth calls “ the baseness of Shylock’s nature.” Shakespeare did represent him as base, with avarice, cunning, and revenge for the constituent elements of his character; he did not hesitate to let the exhibition of these low qualities approach the farcical, as he would never have done had he thought of the Jew as in any sense heroic. Shylock had suffered insult and wrong, but there was nothing in him individually to excite commiseration. From beginning to end he shows no noble quality. Modern sympathy with him, apart from the pity that tragedy necessarily stirs, is social sympathy, not personal; it is because he is an outcast and belongs to an outcast race, because every man’s hand is against him and against all his people, that the audience of this century perceives an injustice inherent in his position itself, antecedent to, and independent of, any of his acts ; and this injustice is ignored in the play. The feeling which Shylock as a person excites, and should excite, is nearer that which Lady Martin describes as her experience : “I have always felt in the acting that my desire to find extenuations for Shylock’s race and for himself leaves me, and my heart grows almost as stony as his own. I see his fiendish nature fully revealed. I have seen the knife sharpened to cut quickly through the flesh, the scales brought forward to weigh it; have watched the cruel, eager eyes, all strained and yearning to see the gushing blood welling from the side ‘ nearest the heart,’ and gloating over the fancied agonies and death-pangs of his bitter foe. This man-monster, this pitiless, savage nature, is beyond the pale of humanity ; it must be made powerless to hurt. I have felt that with him the wrongs of his race are really as nothing compared with his own remorseless hate. He is no longer the wronged and suffering man; and I longed to pour down on his head the ‘ justice ’ he has clamored for, and will exact without pity.”

There has been very much discussion of this subject as to the extent to which Shakespeare was in advance of his times in his attitude toward the Jews, and therefore we have given space to it. There can be no better words to close the argument than those of Spedding, which seem to us so conclusive as to admit of no reply. “ The best contribution,” he says, “ which I can offer to this discussion is the expression of an old man’s difficulty in accepting these new discoveries of profound moral and political designs underlying Shakespeare’s choice and treatment of his subjects. I believe he was a man of business, — that his principal business was to produce plays which would draw. . . . But if, instead of looking about for a story to ‘ please ’ the Globe audience, he had been in search of a subject under cover of which he might steal into their minds ‘ a more tolerant feeling toward the Hebrew’ race,’ I cannot think he would have selected for his hero a rich Jewish merchant plotting the murder of a Christian rival by means of a fraudulent contract, winch made death the penalty of non-payment at the day, and insisting on the exaction of it. In a modern Christian audience it seems to be possible for a skillful actor to work on the feelings of an audience so far as to make a man engaged in such a business an object of respectful sympathy. But can anybody believe that in times when this would have been much more difficult, Shakespeare would have chosen such a case as a favorable one to suggest toleration to a public prejudiced against Jews ? ” Incidentally in this discussion it is interesting to observe the various comments made by Jewish critics on the character and treatment of Shylock, which vary from defense to repudiation, through many shades of patriotic and moral feeling.

A second leading topic is that of the law of the case, a subject not without interest to those who would fain believe that Shakespeare had some legal knowledge, perhaps derived, as Malone suggested, from an early apprenticeship in an office. Lord Campbell, as is well known, made an examination of the plays with reference to this very point, and gave his opinion that while there was much to sustain this view, there was nothing against it. It has naturally been thought, also, that the law presented in the Merchant of Venice had some pertinency to the subject of the Baconian authorship of Shakespeare. This theory, however, derives little support from this drama. The omnipresent devil’s advocate has several times come to Shylock’s defense. Those who could find something to urge in extenuation of Judas Iscariot had an easy task in showing that the Jew of Venice was more sinned against than sinning. The decisions of the young doctor who came armed with the recommendation of the learned Bellario have been overruled in every court of appeal. The bond itself is declared invalid, inasmuch as it contained an immoral proviso in the article that sought Antonio’s death ; the attempt to defeat it, its validity having once been granted, by denying the right to draw blood and requiring the exact amount of a pound of flesh to be cut out, is characterized as a wretched quibble, and set aside on the ground that a right once allowed carries with it the minor rights to make it effectual; the denial of the original debt for the reason that it had been tendered and refused in open court is declared a gross error, such tender having no other result than to destroy any claim for interest subsequently. But to mention all the grave reasons alleged to break down the reputation of the Court of Venice and show the illegality of its judgments would require more space than is at our disposal. It is made clear that on legal grounds the case was very badly managed, and in the event the Jew met with no better fortune than was the lot of his race before an unscrupulous and hostile tribunal everywhere. Nevertheless, the disputants upon the other side, who allege the substantial justice of the decisions rendered, do well to remove the discussion out of the plane of legality. There is much that is weighty in their argument. Shylock must be regarded as standing, after the nature of Judaism, for the law as a thing of the letter; this is the justice which he demands, not real, but literal; and if, by a still more strict interpretation of the letter of the bond than he had thought of, his claim was defeated, the audience will acknowledge the relevancy of the new point that is made, and will enjoy the spectacle of the Biter Bit, in which there is always an element of comic justice. As to the quibble involved, that belongs to the nature of literal interpretation always. Thus the matter is not without defense even in this level. But what really pleases the audience is not the method, but the fact, of the Jew’s defeat; and in the fact, however brought about, lies the ethical element, the victory of real over illusory justice, of equity over legality, of the right over the pretense of right. We would not go with the philosophers too far, as we are convinced that Shakespeare was not expressly philosophical; but there is little straining of the facts of the case in the view that in the discomfiture of that “ law ” which the Jew invoked, in the signal defeat inflicted on the letter of the bond, there is a suggestion of the conflict between Judaism and Christianity, the literal and the spiritual, the law and that justice with its elements of mercy into which the law develops, which is one of the great phases of historical civilization. Whether Shakespeare put it there is immaterial ; but that a modern audience finds it there, and that it was at least dimly present to an Elizabethan audience, is hardly to be questioned. The idea is a simple and ancient one; and in it is to be found whatever ethical meaning the play may have. An interesting incident in this discussion is a dramatic fragment by Richard Hengist Horne, in which he embodies what the Jew might have urged against the quibbles of Portia in the form of a passage to be inserted in the scene. It is too long to quote, but Mr. Furness gives it in full, for the first time, as we gather, and it will take its place with those curiosities of literature, such as The Death of Marlowe, in which the genius of Horne was fertile.

A third interesting matter that is here brought to the surface is the attractive subject of Shakespeare’s hypothetical travels. The Italian coloring in this play is exquisite, and there are such indications of acquaintance with the locality as readily to suggest that Shakespeare had unusual knowledge of the country. Karl Elze has worked out the topic with as much ingenuity as an entire lack of positive proof permits. He would identify Bellario with the distinguished Paduan doctor, Discalzio ; and by many other touches he seeks to make out a possibility for a more direct familiarity with Italy than books could give to Shakespeare. He is at pains to contrast Ben Jonson’s coloring in Volpone with that of The Merchant of Venice, and the parallel is artistically instructive. Ben Jonson’s local color is laid on in patches, as if he should say, “ I have read it all; ” it exhibits the method of one who “ had the languages,” but it produces no such illusion as does Shakespeare’s, in whose art the tones are diffused through all the scenes and characters until the work seems veritably Italian. Elze, however, does not go further than to offer a possibility; and he notices, by the way, one source of knowledge open to Shakespeare which is worth mention. Padua was a university frequented by all nations, and among others many English youth resorted there ; between 1591 and 1594 twenty-five of that nation were matriculated in it, and it is not impossible that Shakespeare’s seemingly close knowledge of the country between the Brenta and Venice was derived from some such source by word of mouth. The likelihood, however, that the magic of the master, employing a few bits of fact, is more to be credited with the illusion he creates than is any amount of direct observation by himself remains undisturbed by anything which has yet been brought forward.

The stage history of tins play is of quite special interest. We pass over the curious version by Lansdowne, here amply illustrated by extracts, which held the boards for forty years, to the discredit of English taste ; but the revival of the original by Macklin, and the impersonation by Kean when he first played to a London audience, and rose from penury to fame in a night, are great incidents in our theatrical history. Fortunately there are complete accounts of both performances, and that which tells us of Kean’s contains also such pictures of his condition at the time, such details of the whole eventful evening, until he went home to his wife through the snow, as rarely get into biographies. “ He told her of his proud achievement, and, in a burst of exultation, exclaimed, ‘ Mary, you shall ride in your carriage; and Charley, my boy,’ taking the child from the cradle and kissing him, ‘you shall go to Eton; and ’ — A sad remembrance crossed his mind, his joy was overshadowed, and he murmured in broken accents, ‘Oh, that Howard had lived to see it! But he is better where he is.’ ” There are other fine associations besides these with this favorite play, which well deserves the good fortune it has had in gathering them about itself.

There is no necessity to examine in any detail the other matters, abundant and various, which Mr. Furness’s new volume recalls to the student of Shakespeare, or informs him of, in connection with this drama, justly regarded as one of the jewels of the English tongue. It is a great pleasure to find that the editor has been able to add this to the list of the greater plays. Commendation of his work is superfluous. We will take space further only to quote what he pleasantly says upon the live topic of the Baconian authorship of the plays, principally because he says it. The mention of Gobbo’s “ dish of doves,” which has been brought into the Baconian argument in connection with Lady Anne Bacon’s sending to her son Anthony “ xii pigeons, my last flight, and one ring dove beside,” etc., furnishes occasion for his remarks : —

“ One is sometimes inclined to say to those who dispute the authorship of these plays, as the Cockney did to the eels, ‘ Down, wantons, down!5 but a little calm reflection reveals to us that this attempt to dethrone Shakespeare, so far from being treason or lèse majesté, is, in fact, most devout and respectful homage to him. In our salad days, when first we begin to study Shakespeare, who does not remember his bewildering efforts to attribute to mortal hand these immortal plays ? Then follows the fruitless attempt to discern in that Stratford youth the emperor, by the grace of God, of all literature. In our despair of marrying, as Emerson says, the man to the verse, we wed the verse to the greatest known intellect of that age. Can homage be more profound ? But, as I have said, this we do when we are young in judgment. The older we grow in this study, and the more we advance in it, the clearer becomes our vision that if the royal robes do not fit Shakespeare, they certainly do not and cannot fit any one else. Wherefore I conceive we have here a not altogether inaccurate gauge of the depth, or duration, or persistence of Shakespeare’s study; and, measuring by a scale of maturity or growth in this study, I have come to look upon all attempts to prove that Bacon wrote these dramas merely as indications of youth, possibly of extreme youth, and that they find their comforting parallels in the transitory ailments incident to childhood, like the chickenpox or the measles. The attack is pretty sure to come, but we know that it is neither dangerous nor chronic, that time will effect a cure, and that when once well over it there is no likelihood whatever of its recurrence.”

  1. A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare. Edited by HORACE HOWARD FURNESS, Ph. D., LL. D., L. H. D. Vol. VII. The Merchant of Venice. Philadelphia : J. B. Lippincott Co. 1888.