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One spring two of Bassanio's companions suggest that he should make with them the voyage to Alexandria to trade and see the world. His godfather consents to his going, and fits out a ship with merchandise. But on their way Bassanio sees a gulf with a fine port, and learns that it belongs to the lady of Belmont, a rich and beautiful woman, who will marry any one who succeeds in wedding her on the day of his arrival. If he fails he forfeits all that he brings with him. The condition seems simple, and Bassanio being determined to try his fortune slips away from the other ships and enters the port. Of course he fails, the lady's device being to feast her suitors, and give them a sleeping draught ; he awakes to find his chance gone and his ship lost, and returns home with the story that they had struck upon a rock in the night, and he alone escaped on a floating spar. The next year he begs to be allowed to make another voyage on the pretext of retrieving his loss, but really to try his fortune once more at Belmont. His godfather reluctantly consents, and as Bassanio is unsuspicious, the event of this voyage is the same, and he returns home, having lost the second ship. He becomes in consequence so dejected that his godfather is obliged to consent to his going on a third voyage ; but in order to make up the freight he has not only to sell most of his possessions, but to borrow ten thousand ducats of a Jew, the condition being that if they are not repaid on the feast of St. John, he must lose a pound of his flesh. This time Bassanio succeeds in his quest; a waiting woman betrays the trick, and he becomes lord of Belmont. But in the marriage festivities the godfather and the bond are forgotten. It is not until he sees the procession on St. John's day that he remembers, and then hurries to Venice only to find the Jew inexorable. But the lady of Belmont comes to the rescue; she disguises herself as a lawyer, and turns the tables on the Jew by pointing out that the bond makes no mention of blood, refusing to take any fee for her services except her husband's ring, by which she afterwards makes herself known.
Now this story is clearly in more than one respect unfit for dramatic purposes. Nothing could be made upon the stage of the several voyages to Belmont, or of the trick of the sleeping draught. For these therefore it was necessary to find substitutes. The story adopted in the Merchant of Venice* to give interest to the lady of
* It has been thought certain from a passage in Stephen Gosson's Schoole of Abuse, an attack upon the stage, published in 1579, that this change was not made by Shakespeare, but had already been made in some previous play now lost. Gosson mentions a play called The Jew, for which he finds some words of commendation as representing “the greedinesse of worldly chusers and bloody mindes of Usurers,” a description the first part of which seems to point to the casket episode. Mr. S. L. Lee, in two letters to the Academy (May 14th and 28th, 1887), brings forward two references, which make it probable that there was a previous play on the Story of the Pound of Flesh. The first is a letter of Spenser's to Gabriel Harvey of the year 1579, in which he signs himself, “He that is faste bounde vnto thee in more obligations than any marchante of Italy to any Jewe there." As Spenser shows in other places a familiarity with the stage, and as the Merchant of Venice was not written for at least fifteen years after the letter, it is not unreasonable to suppose that there is a reference to the same lost play of The Jew. The other passage is an episode in an old allegorical play called the Three Ladies of London, printed in 1584, in which Mercatore, an Italian merchant, is prosecuted by his creditor, the Jew Gerontus, to recover a loan of “three thousand ducats for three months.”
As the episode has nothing to do with the plot, Mr. Lee conjectures that it was introduced from a popular play, probably The Jew, to give a new term of life to the old morality. It should be noticed that the loan and the time for which it was borrowed are the same as in Shakespeare's play.
Belmont is the old story of the three caskets. It may readily be seen what advantages it offers. In the first place the character of Portia is relieved and humanised. The gay “lady of Belmont” in the Florentine story belongs to another world than ours—the world of Circe and Calypso. Her marriage with the young Venetian is an episode hardly of her choosing, and not very characteristic. By the device of the caskets there is at least a chance of winning her, and the chance can be made to turn more or less upon the character of the chooser. It is a further relief to represent the condition not as a caprice of the heiress herself, but as a safeguard devised by an eccentric father upon his death-bed. The substitution enables Shakespeare to preserve all the gaiety and cleverness required by the main plot, and at the same time to reconcile them with the deeper feelings. Portia's sprightly criticism of her wooers in the first scene in which she appears, is of a piece with the zest with which she undertakes the part of the young lawyer, and with the design to cajole her husband of his betrothal ring, and its great cleverness prepares us for the ability and selfconfidence which she displays in court; but neither her vivacity nor her intellectual power, which is greater than that of any other of Shakespeare's women, is incompatible with genuine affection and admiration for a lover who should be worthy of them. Another advantage of the substitution would be that the casket story was in itself popular. It is found in various forms, and in many collections of stories, such as the Decamerone and the Cento Novelle Antiche, and in two different shapes in that great promptuary of monkish preachers, the Gesta Romanorum.*
* The particular form of the casket story used in the play is the story of Ancelmus the Emperor. In order to discover if the daughter of the king of Naples was worthy to wed his son, he set her to choose one of three vessels-gold, silver, and lead
Further, it lent itself to stage magnificence. Elizabethan audiences were no less fond than our own of fine dresses and pageantry, and the prince of Morocco, "a tawny Moor all in white,” and the prince of Arragon, with their trains, were no doubt spectacles that were thoroughly appreciated.
But, on the other hand, it could not be expected that a story of such perfect simplicity and finish as this of the old Florentine should suffer no loss from the displacement of some of its details. In one point especially the change was disastrous. The doing away with the voyages nothing less than ruined the character of Bassanio. Antonio must be bound for Bassanio, and so Bassanio must borrow. But instead of the light-hearted boy driven by love of adventure, hoping against hope that he will succeed in his quest, and losir ship after ship as though they were trifles, we have the commonplace young gentleman who has spent borrowed money somewhat freely, and has to borrow once more in order to make a creditable appearance at Belmont. And this weakening of Bassanio weakens also the motive for Antonio's friendship. In the old story the relations between the two are quite intelligible ; their affection is such as might very well subsist between an older man and his adopted son, of which the first two had inscriptions like those in the play, and the leaden one read thus : “Thei that chese me shall fynde in me that God hath disposid.” The moral being, in the words of the king's daughter, “Sothely God disposide neuer iville ; forsothe that which God hathe disposid wolle I take and chese.” In the other story, a hospitable person who had found some money belonging to a miserly carpenter, who came by chance to his house in search of it, determines to try whether it is his duty to return it to him, or spend it in charity. Accordingly he makes three cakes, filling the first with earth, the second with dead men's bones, and the third with gold. The miser chooses the two heaviest, and leaves the gold to his host.
a love parental, but with more of friendship in it, and something also of admiration. In the play there remains only the reflection of this without any assigned reason for it, either in any story of its origin or in the disposition of Bassanio.
Let us now turn to the main incident of the bond. This, as we first meet it in what is after all but a summer's tale, does not affect us very powerfully. It is too far from probability. If we are to be moved by it, it must be brought within the range of our interest by being seen to arise out of motives which are within our experience. And this is what Shakespeare* has done for it. In the first place he has given Shylock a motive for his cruelty in his previous hatred of Antonio, and his desire for revenge. In Ser Giovanni's story the Jew and the merchant had no previous ill will, and the Jew's motive was simply “to have the satisfaction of saying that he had put to death the greatest of the Christian merchants." This change, it is true, makes the new difficulty, that neither Antonio nor Bassanio would have been likely to choose Shylock as their money-lender; but this may easily escape notice. Secondly, the proposal of the bond is made more probable by representing it as a feigned attempt at reconciliation, all interest being waived, and some forfeit being required in the nature of a bond ; and its acceptance is made more probable by Antonio's necessity being occasioned, not by the loss of any of his ships, as in the story, but simply by their absence at sea, so that the chance of the forfeit being claimed was of the slightest.
Bụt an important question still remains; namely, how a mediæval story like that of St. Hugh of Lincoln, or that which Chaucer's Prioress tells, could have obtained
* Until the play which Gosson calls The Jew is recovered we may fairly assume that it was “well lost."