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author's life or shortly after his death. Two of these texts appeared in the form of Quartos, that is, single plays printed separately in books of medium size. They are known as Quarto One and Quarto Two. The third text formed part of the First Folio, a huge book in which nearly all of Shakespeare's plays were published together. Shakespeare himself had nothing to do with any of these editions. The Quartos were printed without his consent by other men, the Folio by his friends after his death. Like most books of that time all three were full of mistakes. In some cases we find that a particular line does not read the same way in every one of these editions. Such errors are usually due to carelessness in copying or printing. They are not always serious, but in a few cases they change the meaning of a whole sentence. When a modern scholar prepares an edition like the present one, he has to use his judgment in these cases to decide which of the two or three different readings for a line is the one which the poet really intended. One or two of these doubtful readings are mentioned in the notes. In the main, however, an ordinary reader need not trouble himself about such passages. They show the carelessness of all printers in that age; but in general the mistakes can be easily corrected.
The Merchant of Venice did not appear in print until 1600; but we know that it was on the stage earlier than that, for in 1598 a writer named Francis Meres spoke of it as a play already familiar to the public. As far back as 1594 there is mention of a “Venetian Comedy"; but there were many comedies about Venice and other Italian
cities in those days, and consequently we cannot feel certain that this “ Venetian Comedy” was Shakespeare's play. At all events, The Merchant of Venice must have been written somewhere between 1594 and 1598, when the author was about thirty years old; that is, it was one of the earlier plays, though by no means the earliest. It was the best drama which the poet had produced up to this time, and ranks high among his most famous works.
Its reputation is due to many causes. For one thing there is the beauty and melody of the verse. Then, bined with this, is the author's marvelous command of words. He never uses dull, trite, or shop-worn terms, but expressions so vivid that they call up clear pictures before our imagination and make us see with our mind's eye the very thing which the poet is describing. Then, too, he has such a wonderful variety in his language. As fast as we begin to grow tired of one word he throws it aside and brings in another with similar meaning. The whole vocabulary of the English language is at his beck and call; and for this reason his style is always breezy and fresh when that of other men grows dull and stale by their tiresome repetition of the same time-worn expressions.
Besides this, the play is remarkable for its rapid succession of brilliant and interesting scenes. To hold an audience well, not only must a drama be a picture of real life, clothed in expressive language and melodious poetry; but it should also be full of action, of stirring events. We must feel that we are looking, as through a window, at something which is no ordinary scene but an eventful turning-point in many lives. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare provides this rapid action, this wealth of stirring incident, by weaving four stories into one. First, there is the story of the bond between Antonio and the Jew, then the courtship of Jessica and Lorenzo, then the wooing of Portia by Bassanio, and lastly, the episode of the rings in which Portia and her friend outwit their husbands after they are married. By connecting these four stories with each other, and shifting the reader back and forth from one of them to another Shakespeare fills every scene with action and interest. From start to finish there is no lag or let-up in his hold on our attention.
A still deeper charm in The Merchant of Venice, as in all Shakespeare's plays, is found in its portrayal of human nature. At a first reading this analysis of life may not seem as enjoyable as the excitement of the rapidly moving plot; but on a careful study it will mean more. The best qualities in a book, like the best qualities in a friend, are not always those which we notice at a first meeting; they are the qualities which grow on us with time, which become an ever increasing source of pleasure and comfort the more we see of them. And the one feature about the plays of Shakespeare which, more than all others, makes them our lifelong friends and makes us find new enjoyment in reading them for the hundredth time, is this study of human nature, this coming in touch with the warm sympathies of other men and women. poet is giving us a liberal education here. He is showing how much good there is in the worst of us, how many mistakes the best of us make; and he is thus teaching us
The great an attitude of general reasonableness and charity toward everybody.
When we see Antonio so contemptuous toward Shylock we are reminded that the most generous and warm-hearted of men may do very unjustifiable things through narrow prejudice. And even in the fierce, sordid heart of Shylock we find more than one redeeming trait. He had loved his wife, he loved his daughter; and the vindictiveness which deforms his character is a vindictiveness which we too should feel if we had been all our life insulted and despised. Antonio and Shylock hate each other, but we can hate neither of them. Their mutual enmity is due to the utter inability of each to understand the other. By the aid of Shakespeare we understand them both; and as soon as we understand them, hate changes to sympathy. Nor is this skill of the poet confined to the handling of one or two characters; it weaves its enchantment around all. What a charming woman is Portia; what a loving wife, what an eloquent pleader, what an adorable tease! How delightful is the contrast between the polished gentleman Bassanio and his warm-hearted but blunt-spoken friend. Gradually as we read Shakespeare we grow to realize what that vague phrase, “the study of character," means; that there is a deeper, more lasting interest in watching the strife of human passions than the strife of athletes or the clash of armies; that there is a nobler thrill of excitement in discovering why men act as they do than in discovering pirates' treasure; and that between the leaves of Shakespeare's plays we can find circle of friends whom nothing can take away from us. Nor is that all. In studying these people we come to know the living people around us. The world is full of Shylocks, Portias, Bassanios, once learn how to understand them. Just as a careful observer of birds or flowers teaches us to find a thousand interesting things in field or wood where for years we had noticed nothing, so this great student of human nature is opening up to us a new world of wonders in the minds and hearts of men.