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Chapter LXVII. SHAKESPEARE—"THE MERCHANT OF VENICE"

IN this chapter I am going to tell you in a few words the story of one of Shakespeare's plays called The Merchant of Venice. It is founded on an Italian story, one of a collection made by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino.

The merchant of Venice was a rich young man called Antonio. When the story opens he had ventured all his money in trading expeditions to the East and other lands. In two months' time he expects the return of his ships and hopes then to make a great deal of money. But meantime he has none to spare, and when his great friend Bassanio comes to borrow of him he cannot give him any.

Bassanio's need is urgent, for he loves the beautiful lady Portia and desires to marry her. This lady was so lovely and so rich that her fame had spread over all the world till "the four winds blow in from every coast renowned suitors." Bassanio would be among these suitors, but alas he has no money, not even enough to pay for the journey to Belmont where the lovely lady lived. Yet if he wait two months until Antonio's ships return it may be too late, and Portia may be married to another. So to supply his friend's need Antonio decides to borrow the money, and soon a Jew named Shylock is found who is willing to lend it. For Shylock was a money-lender. He lent money to people who had need of it and charged them interest. That is, besides having to pay back the full sum they had borrowed they had also to pay some extra money in return for the loan.

In those days Jews were ill-treated and despised, and there was great hatred between them and Christians. And Shylock especially hated Antonio, because not only did he rail against Jews and insult them, but he also lent money without demanding interest, thereby spoiling Shylock's trade. So now the Jew lays a trap for Antonio, hoping to catch him and be revenged upon his enemy. He will lend the money, he says, and he will charge no interest, but if the loan be not repaid in three months Antonio must pay as forfeit a pound of his own flesh, which Shylock may cut from any part of his body that he chooses.

To this strange bargain Antonio consents. It is but a jest, he thinks.

    "Content in faith, I'll seal to such a bond, 
    And say, there is much kindness in the Jew."

But Bassanio is uneasy. "I like not fair terms," he says, "and a villain mind. You shall not seal to such a bond for me." But Antonio insists and the bond is sealed.

All being settled, Bassanio receives the money, and before he sets off to woo his lady he gives a supper to all his friends, to which he also invites Shylock. Shylock goes to this supper although to his daughter Jessica he says,

            "But wherefore should I go? 
    I am not bid for love; they flatter me: 
    But yet I'll go in hate, to feed upon 
    The prodigal Christian."

But Jessica does not join her father in his hatred of all Christians. She indeed has given her heart to one of the hated race, and well knowing that her father will never allow her to marry him, she, that night while he is at supper with Bassanio, dresses herself in boy's clothes and steals away, taking with her a great quantity of jewels and money.

When Shylock discovers his loss he is mad with grief and rage. He runs about the streets crying for justice.

    "Justice! the law! my ducats, and my daughter! 
    A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats, 
    Of double ducats stol'n from me by my daughter!"

And all the wild boys in Venice follow after him mocking him and crying, "His stones, his daughter and his ducats!"

So finding nowhere love or sympathy but everywhere only mockery and cruel laughter, Shylock vows vengeance. The world has treated him ill, and he will repay the world with ill, and chiefly against Antonio does his anger grow bitter.

Then Antonio's friends shake their heads and say, "Let him beware the hatred of the Jew." They look gravely at each other, for it is whispered abroad that "Antonio hath a ship of rich lading wreck'd on the narrow seas."

Then let Antonio beware.

"Thou wilt not take his flesh," says one of the young merchant's friends to Shylock. "What's that good for?"

"To bait fish withal," snarls the Jew. "If it will feed nothing else it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."

Then let Antonio beware.

Meantime in Belmont many lovers come to woo fair Portia. With high hope they come, with anger and disappointment they go away. None can win the lady's hand. For there is a riddle here of which none know the meaning.

When a suitor presents himself and asks for the lady's hand in marriage, he is shown three caskets, one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Upon the golden one is written the words, "Who chooseth me, shall gain what many men desire"; upon the silver casket are the words, "Who chooseth me, shall get as much as he deserves"; and upon the leaden one, "Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath." And only whoso chooseth aright, each suitor is told, can win the lady.

This trial of all suitors had been ordered by Portia's father ere he died, so that only a worthy and true man might win his daughter. Some suitors choose the gold, some the silver casket, but all, princes, barons, counts, and dukes, alike choose wrong.

At length Bassanio comes. Already he loves Portia and she loves him. There is no need of any trail of the caskets. Yet it must be. Her father's will must be obeyed. But what if he choose wrong. That is Portia's fear.

    "I pray you, tarry; pause a day or two 
    Before you hazard; for, in choosing wrong, 
    I lose your company,"

she says.

But Bassanio cannot wait:—

            "Let me choose; 
    For, as I am, I live upon the rack."

And so he stands before the caskets, longing to make a choice, yet fearful. The gold he rejects, the silver too, and lays his hand upon the leaden casket. He opens it. Oh, joy! within is a portrait of his lady. He has chosen aright. yet he can scarce believe his happiness.

"I am," he says,

    "Like one of two contending in a prize, 
    That thinks he hath done well in people's eyes, 
    Hearing applause, and universal shout, 
    Giddy in spirit, still gazing in a doubt 
    Whether those pearls of praise be his or no; 
    So, thrice fair lady, stand I, even so; 
    As doubtful whether what I see be true, 
    Until confirm'd, sign'd, ratifi'd by you."

And Portia, happy, triumphant, humble, no longer the great lady with untold wealth, with lands and palaces and radiant beauty, but merely a woman who has given her love, answers:—

    "You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand, 
    Such as I am: though, for myself alone, 
    I would not be ambitious in my wish, 
    To wish myself much better; yet, for you, 
    I would be trebled twenty times myself; 
    A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times 
    More rich; 
    That only to stand high on your account, 
    I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends, 
    Exceed account: but the full sum of me 
    Is sum of something: which, to term in gross, 
    Is an unlesson'd girl, unschool'd, unpractis'd, 
    Happy in this, she is not yet so old 
    But she may learn; happier than this, 
    She is not bred so dull but she can learn; 
    Happiest of all, is, that her gentle spirit 
    Commite itself to yours to be directed, 
    As from her lord, her governor, her king. 
    Myself, and what is mine, to you, and yours 
    Is now converted; but now I was the lord 
    Of this fair mansion, master of my servants, 
    Queen o'er myself; and even now, but now, 
    This house, these servants, and this same myself, 
    Are yours, my lord."

Then as a pledge of all her love Portia gives to Bassanio a ring, and bids him never part from it so long as he shall live. And Bassanio taking it, gladly swears to keep it forever.

                "But when this ring 
    Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence; 
    O, then be bold to say, Bassanio's dead."

And then as if to make the joy complete, it is discovered that Portia's lady in waiting, Nerissa, and Bassanio's friend, Gratiano, also love each other, and they all agree to be married on the same day.

In the midst of this happiness the runaway couple, Lorenzo and Jessica, arrive from Venice with another of Antonio's friends who brings a letter to Bassanio. As Bassanio reads the letter all the gladness fades from his face. He grows pale and trembles. Anxiously Portia asks what troubles him.

            "I am half yourself, 
    And I must freely have the half of anything 
    That this same paper brings you."

And Bassanio answers:—

                "O sweet Portia, 
    Here are a few of the unpleasant'st words 
    That ever blotted paper! Gentle lady, 
    When I did first impart my love to you, 
    I freely told you, all the wealth I had 
    Ran in my veins, I was a gentleman; 
    And then I told you true: and yet, dear lady, 
    Rating myself at nothing, you shall see 
    How much I was a braggart: when I told you 
    My state was nothing, I should then have told you 
    That I was worse than nothing."

He is worse than nothing, for he is in debt to his friend, and that friend for him is now in danger of his life. For the three months allowed by Shylock for the payment of the debt are over, and as not one of Antonio's ships has returned, he cannot pay the money. Many friends have offered to pay for him, but Shylock will have none of their gold. He does not want it. What he wants is revenge. He wants Antonio's life, and well he knows if a pound of flesh be cut from this poor merchant's breast he must die.

And all for three thousand ducats! "Oh," cries Portia when she hears, "what a paltry sum! Pay the Jew ten times the money and tear up the bond, rather than that Antonio shall lose a single hair through Bassanio's fault."

"It is no use," she is told, "Shylock will have his bond, and nothing but his bond."

If that be so, then must Bassanio hasten to his friend to comfort him at least. So the wedding is hurried on, and immediately after it Bassanio and Gratiano hasten away, leaving their new wives behind them.

But Portia has no mind to sit at home and do nothing while her husband's friend is in danger of his life. As soon as Bassanio has gone, she gives her house into the keeping of Lorenzo and sets out for Venice. From her cousin, the great lawyer Bellario, she borrows lawyer's robes for herself, and those of a lawyer's clerk for Nerissa. And thus disguised, they reach Venice safely.

This part of the story has brought us to the fourth act of the play, and when the curtain rises on this act we see the Court of Justice in Venice. The Duke and all his courtiers are present, the prisoner Antonio, with Bassanio, and many others of his friends. Shylock is called in. The Duke tries to soften the Jew's heart and make him turn to mercy, in vain. Bassanio also tries in vain, and still Bellario, to whom the Duke has sent for aid, comes not.

At this moment Nerissa, dressed as a lawyer's clerk, enters, bearing a letter. The letter is from Bellario recommending a young lawyer named Balthazar to plead Antonio's cause. This is, of course, none other than Portia. She is admitted, and at once begins the case. "You stand within his danger, do you not?" she says to Antonio.

"ANTONIO. I do.

PORTIA. Then must the Jew be merciful.

SHYLOCK. On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.

PORTIA. The quality of mercy is not strained; 
    It droppeth, as the gentle rain from heaven 
    Upon the place beneath; it is twice blessed; 
    It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes: 
    'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes 
    The thronéd monarch better than his crown; 
    His scepter shows the force of temporal power, 
    The attribute to awe and majesty, 
    Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; 
    But mercy is above this sceptr'd sway, 
    It is enthronéd in the hearts of kings, 
    It is an attribute to God himself; 
    And earthly power doth then show likest God's 
    When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, 
    Though justice be thy plea, consider this— 
    That in the course of justice, none of us 
    Shall see salvation: we do pray for mercy; 
    And that same prayer doth teach us all to render 
    The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much, 
    To mitigate the justice of thy plea; 
    Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice 
    Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.

SHYLOCK. My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, 
    The penalty and forfeit of my bond.

PORTIA. Is he not able to discharge the money?

BASSANIO. Yes, here I tender it for him in the court; 
    Yea, twice the sum: if that will not suffice, 
    I will be bound to pay it ten times o'er, 
    On forfeit of my hands, my head, my heart: 
    If this will not suffice, it must appear 
    That malice bears down truth. And I beseech you 
    Wrest once the law to your authority: 
    To do a great right, do a little wrong; 
    And curb this cruel devil of his will.

PORTIA. It must not be; there is no power in Venice 
    Can alter a decree established: 
    'Twill be recorded for a precedent; 
    And many an error, by the same example, 
    Will rush into the state; it cannot be.

SHYLOCK. A Daniel come to judgement! yea, a Daniel! 
    O wise young judge, how I do honour thee!

PORTIA. I pray you, let me look upon the bond.

SHYLOCK. Here 'tis, most reverend doctor, here it is.

PORTIA. Shylock, there's thrice thy money offered thee.

SHYLOCK. An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven: 
    Shall I lay perjury upon my soul? 
    No, not for Venice.

PORTIA. Why, this bond is forfeit: 
    And lawfully by this the Jew may claim 
    A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off 
    Nearest the merchant's heart. Be merciful; 
    Take thrice thy money; bid me tear the bond.

SHYLOCK. When it is paid according to the tenour. 
    It doth appear you are a worthy judge; 
    You know the law, your exposition 
    Hath been most sound; I charge you by the law, 
    Whereof you are a well-deserving pillar, 
    Proceed to judgment: by my soul I swear, 
    There is no power in the tongue of man 
    To alter me: I stay here on my bond.

ANTONIO. Most heartily I do beseech the court 
    To give the judgement.

PORTIA. Why then, thus it is. 
    You must prepare your bosom for his knife.

SHYLOCK. O noble judge! O excellent young man!

PORTIA. For the intent and purpose of the law 
    Hath full relation to the penalty, 
    Which here appeareth due upon the bond.

SHYLOCK. 'Tis very true: O wise and upright judge! 
    How much more elder art thou than thy looks!

PORTIA. Therefore, lay bare your bosom.

SHYLOCK. Ay, his breast: 
    So says the bond;—Doth it not, noble judge? 
    Nearest his heart, those are the very words.

PORTIA. It is so. Are there balance here, to weigh 
    The flesh?

SHYLOCK. I have them ready.

PORTIA. Have by some surgeon, Shylock, on your charge, 
    To stop his wounds, lest he do bleed to death.

SHYLOCK. Is it so nominated in the bond?

PORTIA. It is not so express'd. But what of that? 
    'Twere good you do so much for charity.

SHYLOCK. I cannot find it; 'tis not in the bond.

PORTIA. Come, merchant, have you anything to say?"

Antonio answers, "But little." He is prepared for death, and takes leave of Bassanio. But Shylock is impatient. "We trifle time," he cries; "I pray thee, pursue sentence."

"PORTIA. A pound of that same merchant's flesh is thine; 
    The court awards it, and the law doth give it.

SHYLOCK. Most rightful judge!

PORTIA. And you must cut this flesh from off his breast; 
    The law allows it; and the court awards it.

SHYLOCK. Most learned judge!—A sentence; come, prepare.

PORTIA. Tarry a little;—there is something else. 
    This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood; 
    The words expressly are, a pound of flesh: 
    But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed 
    One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods 
    Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate 
    Unto the state of Venice.

GRATIANO. O upright judge!—Mark, Jew;—O learned judge!

SHYLOCK. Is that the law?

PORTIA. Thyself shall see the act; 
    For, as thou urgest justice, be assur'd, 
    Thou shalt have justice, more than thou desir'st.

GRATIANO. O learned judge,—Mark, Jew;—a learned judge!

SHYLOCK. I take this offer then,—pay the bond thrice, 
    And let the Christian go.

BASSANIO. Here is the money.

PORTIA. Soft; 
    The Jew shall have all justice;—soft;—no haste;— 
    He shall have nothing but the penalty.

GRATIANO. O Jew! An upright judge, a learned judge!

PORTIA. Therefore, prepare thee to cut off the flesh. 
    Shed thou no blood; nor cut thou less, nor more, 
    But just a pound of flesh: if thou tak'st more, 
    Or less, than a just pound,—be it but so much 
    As makes it light, or heavy, in the substance, 
    Or the division of the twentieth part 
    Of one poor scruple,—nay, if the scale do turn 
    But in the estimation of a hair,— 
    Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate.

GRATIANO. A second Daniel, a Daniel, Jew! 
    Now, infidel, I have thee on the hip.

PORTIA. Why doth the Jew pause? Take thy forfeiture.

SHYLOCK. Give me my principal, and let me go.

BASSANIO. I have it ready for thee; here it is.

PORTIA. He hath refus'd it in the open court; 
    He shall have merely justice, and his bond.

GRATIANO. A Daniel, still say I; a second Daniel! 
    I thank thee, Jew, for teaching me that word.

SHYLOCK. Shall I not have barely my principal?

PORTIA. Thou shalt have nothing but the forfeiture, 
    To be so taken at thy peril, Jew."

So, seeing himself beaten on all points, the Jew would leave the court. But not yet is he allowed to go. Not until he has been fined for attempting to take the life of a Venetian citizen, not until he is humiliated, and so heaped with disgrace and insult that we are sorry for him, is he allowed to creep away.

The learned lawyer is loaded with thanks, and Bassanio wishes to pay him nobly for his pains. But he will take nothing; nothing, that is, but the ring which glitters on Bassanio's finger. That Bassanio cannot give—it is his wife's present and he has promised never to part with it. At that the lawyer pretends anger. "I see, sir," he says:—

            "You are liberal in offers: 
    You taught me first to beg; and now, methinks, 
    You teach me how a beggar should be answered."

Hardly have they parted than Bassanio repents his seemingly churlish action. Has not this young man saved his friend from death, and himself from disgrace? Portia will surely understand that his request could not be refused, and so he sends Gratiano after him with the ring. Gratiano gives the ring to the lawyer, and the seeming clerk begs Gratiano for his ring, which he, following his friend's example, gives.

In the last act of the play all the friends are gathered again at Belmont. After some merry teasing upon the subject of the rings the truth is told, and Bassanio and Gratiano learn that the skillful lawyer and his clerk were none other than their young and clever wives.

BOOKS TO READ

Among the best books of Shakespeare's stories are: Stories from Shakespeare, by Jeanie Lang. The Shakespeare Story-Book, by Mary M'Leod. Tales from Shakespeare (Everyman's Library), by C. and M. Lamb.

LIST OF SHAKESPEARE'S PLAYS

Histories. - Henry VI (three parts); Richard III; Richard II; King John; Henry IV (two parts); Henry V; Henry VIII (doubtful if Shakespeare's).

Tragedies. - Titus Andronicus; Romeo and Juliet; Julius Caesar; Hamlet; King Lear; Macbeth; Timon of Athens; Antony and Cleopatra; Coriolanus.

Comedies. - Love's Labour's Lost; Two Gentlemen of Verona; Comedy of Errors; Merchant of Venice; Taming of the Shrew; A Midsummer Night's Dream; All's Well that Ends Well; Merry Wives of Windsor; Much Ado About Nothing; As You Like It; Twelfth Night; Troilus and Cressida; Measure for Measure; Pericles; Cymbeline; The Tempest; A Winter's Tale.