The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Merchant of Venice, The

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Edition of 1920. See also Merchant of Venice on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

MERCHANT OF VENICE, The. ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ entered in the stationer’s register in 1598, and published in quarto form in 1600, was written about 1594 or 1595. Several stories that had long had currency in the world—notably the story of the caskets as a device for the choice of suitors by a wealthy heiress, and the bond story of the rich Jew and his debtor—are happily blended in this play, and thereto are added the story of the rings, the romantic minor plot of Lorenzo and Jessica, and the comic character of Launcelot Gobbo. Shakespeare never constructed a better plot, or one better calculated to win popular approval. It meets every demand of stage-management. Although the two main incidents—the choice of the caskets and the pound of flesh—are almost childishly absurd, they are made to seem probable and even natural by the romantic atmosphere in which the characters move. Whether walking the streets of Venice or watching the moonlight sleep sweetly upon the banks of fair Belmont, we breathe the air of the Renaissance in Italy. All the characters fit in perfectly with this background except Shylock. Unquestionably to an Elizabethean audience the impression made by him was partly humorous and not at all typical. With his huge nose and the red wig of the traditional Judas he was fair game, not only for the characters in the play, but for those in the pit. His practice of usury and his Jewish qualities rendered him the legitimate object of hatred and ridicule—his passionate words of rage only increased the laughter of an Elizabethean audience. While Shakespeare gave sufficient ground for this interpretation of the character, he has so humanized him as to produce a different effect on a modern audience. His famous words, “Hath not a Jew eyes, etc.,” are an instinctive protest against race hatred and in favor of social sympathy. Whatever may be doubtful in the interpretation of Shylock, there is none in the interpretation of Portia. There is no better illustration of the power with which Shakespeare transformed his material than in the change of Portia from “a piratical and widowed siren, who persuades merchants to stake their all against her hand that they will possess her person, and who then drugs them at supper” into one of the most charming characters of all times. Her beauty of person, brilliancy of intellect, nobility of soul, and gift of poetical expression, all combine to produce an effect not surpassed by any other creation of the dramatist. She is the bond of union between the casket story and the pound of flesh story, and all the other characters group themselves naturally about her. The concluding scene of the play at Belmont, after the excitement of the trial scene and the disappearance of the sinister character Shylock, is one of the supreme passages of poetry in the language—almost magical in its beauty of background and expression.

Edwin Mims.