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Antonio's first words, the words, too, which begin the play:
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It is this very sadness that makes it easy for us to know Shakespeare, even when he disguises him
a Venetian merchant. A little later and Jaques will describe and define the disease as “humorous melancholy”; but here it is already a settled habit of mind.
Antonio then explains that his sadness has no cause, and incidentally attributes his wealth to fortune and not to his own brains or endeavour. The modern idea of the Captain of Industry who enriches others as well as himself, had evidently never entered into Shakespeare's head. Salarino says Antonio is “sad to think upon his merchandise”, but Antonio
Believe me, no: I thank my fortune for it.
This tone of modest gentle sincerity is Shakespeare's habitual tone from about his thirtieth year to the end of his life: it has the accent of unaffected nature. In bidding farewell to Salarino Antonio shows us the exquisite courtesy which Shakespeare
used in life. Salarino, seeing Bassanio approaching, says:
“I would have stayed till I had made you merry,
If worthier friends had not prevented me."
Antonio answers :
“ Your worth is very dear in my regard.
I take it, your own business calls on you,
More characteristic still is the dialogue between Gratiano and Antonio in the same scene. Gratiano, the twin-brother surely of Mercutio, tells Antonio that he thinks too much of the things of this world, and warns him:
“They lose it that do buy it with much care."
'I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano;
Every one who has followed me so far will admit that this is Shakespeare's most usual and most ingenuous attitude towards life; “I do not esteem worldly possessions,” he says; “ life itself is too
” transient, too unreal to be dearly held.” Gratiano's reflection, too, is Shakespeare's, and puts the truth in a nutshell :
“ They lose it that do buy it with much care."
We now come to the most salient peculiarity in this play. When Bassanio, his debtor, asks him for more money, Antonio answers :
“My purse, my person, my extremest means,
Lie all unlocked to your occasions.”
And, though Bassanio tells him his money is to be risked on a romantic and wild adventure, Antonio declares that Bassanio's doubt does him more wrong than if his friend had already wasted all he has, and the act closes by Antonio pressing Bassanio to use his credit “ to the uttermost.” Now, this contempt of
money was, no doubt, a pose, if not a habit of the aristocratic society of the time, and Shakespeare may have been aping the tone of his betters in putting to show a most lavish generosity. But even if his social superiors encouraged him in a wasteful extravagance, it must be admitted that Shakespeare betters their teaching. The lord was riotously lavish, no doubt, because he had money, or could get it without much trouble; but, put in Antonio's position, he would not press his last penny on his friend, much less strain his credit “ to the uttermost for him as Antonio does for Bassanio. Here we have the personal note of Shakespeare: “ Your affection,” says the elder man to the younger,
66 is all to me, and money's less than nothing in the balance. Don't let us waste a word on it; a doubt of me were an injury!” But men will do that for affection which they would never do in cool blood, and therefore one cannot help asking whether Shakespeare really felt and practised this extreme contempt of wealth? For the moment, if we leave his actions out of the account, there can be, I think, no doubt about his feelings. His dislike of money makes him disfigure reality. No merchant, it may fairly be said, either of the six
teenth century or the twentieth, ever amassed or kept a fortune with Antonio's principles. In our day of world-wide speculation and immense wealth it is just possible for a man to be a millionaire and generous ;
; but in the sixteenth century, when wealth was made by penurious saving, by slow daily adding of coin to coin, merchants like this Antonio were unheard of, impossible.
Moreover all the amiable characters in this play regard money with unaffected disdain; Portia no sooner hears of Shylock's suit than she cries :
“Pay him six thousand, and deface the bond;
And if we attribute this outburst to her love we must not forget that, when it comes to the test in court, and she holds the Jew in her hand and might save her gold, she again reminds him:
Shylock, there's thrice thy money offered thee.”
A boundless generosity is the characteristic of Portia, and Bassanio, the penniless fortune-hunter, is just as extravagant; he will pay the Jew's bond twice over, and,
“If that will not suffice,
It may, of course, be urged that these Christians are all prodigal in order to throw Shylock's avarice and meanness into higher light; but that this disdain of money is not assumed for the sake of any artistic effect will appear from other plays. At the risk of being accused of super-subtlety, I must confess that I find in Shylock himself traces of Shakespeare's contempt of money; Jessica says of him:
“I have heard him swear
Even Shylock, it appears, hated Antonio more than he valued money, and this hatred, though it may have its root in love of money, half redeems him in our eyes. Shakespeare could not imagine a man who loved money more than anything else; his hated and hateful usurer is more a man of passion than a Jew.
The same prodigality and contempt of money are to be found in nearly all Shakespeare's plays, and, curiously enough, the persons to show this disdain most strongly are usually the masks of Shakespeare himself. A philosophic soliloquy is hardly more characteristic of Shakespeare than a sneer at money. It should be noted, too, that this peculiarity is not a trait of his youth chiefly, as it is with most men who are free-handed. It rather seems, as in the case of Antonio, to be a reasoned attitude towards life, and it undoubtedly becomes more and more marked as Shakespeare grows older. Contempt of wealth is stronger in Brutus than in Antonio; stronger in Lear than in Brutus, and stronger in Timon than in Lear.
But can we be at all certain that Antonio's view of life in this respect was Shakespeare's? It may be that Shakespeare pretended to this generosity in order to loosen the purse-strings of his lordly patrons. Even if his motive for writing in this strain