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THE two principal incidents of this play are to be found separately in a collection of odd stories, which were very popular, at least five hundred years agn, under the title of Gesta Romanorum. The first, Of the bond, is in ch. slviii. of the copy, which I choose to refer to, as the completest of any which I have yet seen.
MS. Harl. n. 2270. A knight there borrows money of a merchant, upon condition of forfeiting all his flesh for non-payment. When the penalty is exacted before the judge ; the knight's mistress, disguised, in forma viri vestimentis pretiosis indutu comes into court, and, by permission of the judge, endeavours to mollify the merchant. She first offers him his money, and then the double of it, &c. to all which his answer is— Conventionem meam volo habere.—Puella, cum hoc audisset, ait coram omnibus, Domine mi judex, da rectum judicium super his quæ vobis dixero. Vos scitis quod miles nunquam se obligabat ad aliud per literam nisi quod mercator habeat potestatem carnes ab ossibus scindere, sine sanguinis effusione, de quo nihil erat prolocutum. Statim mit. tat manum in eum ; si vero sanguinem effuderit, Rex contra eum actionem habet. Mercator, cum hoc audisset, ait; date mihi pecuniam & omnem actionem ei remitto, Ait puella, Amen dico tibi, nullum denarium habebis-pone ergo manum in eum, ita ut sanguinem non effundas. Mercator vera videns se confusum abscessit; & sic vita militis salvata est, & nullum denarium dedit.
The other incident, of the caskets, is in ch. xcix. of the same collection. A king of Apulia sends his daughter to be married to the son of an emperor of
After some adventures, (which are nothing to the present purpose) she is brought before the emperor; who says to her, “ Puella, propter amoren “ filii mei multa adversa sustinuisti. Tamen
digna fueris ut uxor ejus sis cito probabo. Et « fecit fieri tria vasa. PRIMUM suit de uuro puris
• simo & lapidibus pretiosis interius ex omni parte, " & plenum ossibus mortuorum ; & exterius erat sub“ scriptio : Qui me elegerit, in me inveniet quod o meruit. SECUNDUM vas erat de urgento puro, &
gemmis pretiosis, plenum terra : et exterius erat
subscriptio : Qui me elegerit, in me inveniet quod “ natura appetit. Tertium vas de plumbo plenum
lapidibus pretiosis interius & gemmis nobilissimis ; “ & exterius erat subscriptio talis : Qui me elegerit, “ in me inveniet quod deus disposuit. Ista tria osten“ dit puellæ, & dixit, si unum ex istis elegeris in
quo commodum & proficuum est, filium meum “ habebis. Si vero elegeris quod nec tibi nec aliis est
commodum, ipsum non habebis.” The young lady, after mature consideration of the vessels and their inscriptions, chooses the leaden, which being opened, and found to be full of gold and precious stones, the emperor says: “ Bona puella, bene
elegisti-ideo filium meum habebis.”
From this abstract of of these two stories, I think it appears sufficiently plain that they are the remote originals of the two incidents in this play. That of the caskets Shakspeare might take from the English Gesta Romanorum, as Dr. Farmer has observed ; and that of the bond might come to him from the Peco
the whole I am rather inclined to suspect, that he has followed some hitherto unknown novellist, who had saved him the trouble of working up the two stories into one.
THE “ History of Gesta Romanorum,” is advertised at the end of the comedy of Mucidorus, 1668, to be sold, among other books, on Saffion-Hill, in Wine-Street, near Hatton-Garden. Again, in Sir Giles Goosecap, 1606:
“ Then for your ladyship's quips and quick jests,
why Gesta Romanorum were nothing to them.” Again, in Chapman's May-Day, 1611 :
one that has read Marcus Aurelius, “ Gesta Romanorum, the Mirror of Magistrates, &c."
OF the incident of the bond, no English original has hitherto been pointed out. I find, however, the following in The Orator: handling a hundred severall Discourses, in form of Declamations : some of the arguments being drawne from Titus Livius and other ancient Writers, the rest of the author's own intention: Part of which are of Matters happened in our Age.
Written in French by Alexander Silvayn, and Englished by L. P. [i. e. Lazarus Pilot] London, printed by Adam Islip, 1596.-(This book is not mentioned by Ames.) See p. 401.
Of the Jew, who would for his debt have a pound
of the flesh of a Christiun.
“ A Jew, unto whom a Christian merchant ought nine hundred crownes, would have sum'moned him for the same in Turkie: the merchant, because he would not be discredited, promised to pay the said summe within the tearme of three months, and if he paid it not, he was bound to give him a pound of flesh of his bodie.
The tearme being past some fifteene daies, the Jew refused to take his money, and demaunded the pound of flesh: the ordinarie judge of that place appointed him to cut a just pound of the Christian's flesh, and if he cut either more or lesse, then his own head should be smitten off: the Jew appealed from this sentence, unto the chiefe judge, saying:
Impossible is it to breake the credit of trafficke amongst men without great detriment to the com
monwealth : wherefore no man ought to bind himselfe unto such covenants which hee cannot or will not accomplish, for by that means should no man feare to be deceaved, and credit being maintained, every man might be assured of his owne; but since deceit hath taken place, never wonder if obligations are made more rigorous and strict then they were wont, seeing that although the bonds are made never so strong, yet can no man be very certaine that he shall not be a loser. It seemeth at the first sight that it is a thing no less strange than cruel, to bind a man to pay a pound of the flesh of his bodie, for want of money: surely, in that it is a thing not usuall it appeareth to be somewhat the more ad.' mirable, but there are divers others that are more cruell, which because they are in use seeme nothing terrible at all : as to binde all the bodie unto a most lothsome prison, or unto an intollerable slaverie, where not only the whole bodie but also all the senses and spirits are tormented, the which is commoly practised, not only betwixt those which are either in sect or nation contrary, but also even amongst those that are of one sect and nation, yea anongst Christians it hath been seene that the son hath imprisoned the father for monie. Likewise in the Roman commonwealth, so famous for lawes and armes, it was lawful for debt to imprison, beat, and afflict with torment the free citizens : how manie of them (do you thinke) would have thought themselves happie, if for a small debt they might have been excused with the paiment of a pounde of their flesh ? who ought then to marvile if a Jew requireth so small a thing of a Christian, to discharge him of a good round summe? A man may aske why I would not rather take silver of this man, then his flesh: I might alleage many reasons, for I might say that none but myselfe can tell what the breach of his promise hath cost me, and what I have thereby paid for want of money unto. my creditors, of
that which I have lost in my credit : for the miserie of those men which esteem their reputation, is so great, that oftentimes they had rather endure any thing secretlie, then to have their discredit blazed abroad, because they would not be both shamed and harmed. Neverthelesse, I doe freely confesse, that I had rather lose a pound of my flesh then my credit should be in any sort cracked: I might also say that I have need of this flesh to cure a friend of mine of a certaine maladie, which is otherwise incurable, or that I would have it to terrifie thereby the Christians for ever abusing the Jews once more hereafter : but I will onlie say, that by his obligation he oweth it me. It is lawfull to kill a souldier if he come unto the warres but an houre too late, and also to hang a theefe though he steal never so little : is it then such a great matter to cause such a one to pay a pound of his flesh, that hath broken his promise manie times, or that putteth another in danger to lose both credit and reputation, yea and it may be life, and al for griefe ? were it not better for him to lose that I demand then his soule, alreadie bound by his faith? Neither am I to take that which he oweth me, but he is to deliver it to me: and especiallie because knoweth better than he where the same may be spared to the least hurt of his person, for I might take it in such a place as hee might thereby happen to lose his life : whatte matter were it then if I shoud cut off his privie members, supposing that the same would altogether weigh a just pound? or els his head, should I be suffered to cut it off, although it were with the danger of mine own life? I believe it should not; because there were as little reason therein as there could be in the amends whereunto I should be bound : or els if I would cut of his nose, his lips, his ears, and pull out his eies, to make them altogether a pound, should I be suffered ? surely I think not, because the obligation