Read PREFACE. of Merchant of Venice, free online book, by William Shakespeare, on ReadCentral.com.

Venice, “the famous city in the sea,” rising like enchantment from the waves of the Adriatic, appeals to the imagination through a history replete with dramatic incident; wherein power and revolution ­conquest and conspiracy ­mystery and romance ­dazzling splendour and judicial murder alternate in every page.  Thirteen hundred years witnessed the growth, maturity, and fall of this once celebrated city; commencing in the fifth century, when thousands of terrified fugitives sought refuge in its numerous islands from the dreaded presence of Attila; and terminating when the last of the Doges, in 1797, lowered for ever the standard of St. Mark before the cannon of victorious Buonaparte.  Venice was born and died in fear.  To every English mind, the Queen of the Adriatic is endeared by the genius of our own Shakespeare.  Who that has trod the great public square, with its mosque-like cathedral, has not pictured to himself the forms of the heroic Moor and the gentle Desdemona?  Who that has landed from his gondola to pace the Rialto, has not brought before his “mind’s eye,” the scowling brow of Shylock, when proposing the bond of blood to his unsuspecting victim?  Shakespeare may or may not have derived his plot of The Merchant of Venice, as some suppose, from two separate stories contained in Italian novels; but if such be the fact, he has so interwoven the double interest, that the two currents flow naturally into a stream of unity.

In this play Shakespeare has bequeathed to posterity one of his most perfect works ­powerful in its effect, and marvellous in its ingenuity.  While the language of the Jew is characterized by an assumption of biblical phraseology, the appeal of Portia to the quality of mercy is invested with a heavenly eloquence elevating the poet to sublimity.

From the opening to the closing scene, ­from the moment when we hear of the sadness, prophetic of evil, which depresses the spirit of Antonio, till we listen at the last to the “playful prattling of two lovers in a summer’s evening,” whose soft cadences are breathed through strains of music, ­all is a rapid succession of hope, fear, terror, and gladness; exciting our sympathies now for the result of the merchant’s danger; now for the solution of a riddle on which hangs the fate of the wealthy heiress; and now for the fugitive Jessica, who resigns her creed at the shrine of womanly affection.

In the production of The Merchant of Venice it has been my object to combine with the poet’s art a faithful representation of the picturesque city; to render it again palpable to the traveller who actually gazed upon the seat of its departed glory; and, at the same time, to exhibit it to the student, who has never visited this once

    “ ­pleasant place of all festivity,
    The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy.”

The far-famed place of St. Mark, with its ancient Church, the Kialto and its Bridge, the Canals and Gondolas, the Historic Columns, the Ducal Palace, and the Council Chamber, are successively presented to the spectator.  Venice is re-peopled with the past, affording truth to the eye, and reflection to the mind.

The introduction of the Princes of Morocco and Arragon at Belmont, hitherto omitted, is restored, for the purpose of more strictly adhering to the author’s text, and of heightening the interest attached to the episode of the caskets.

The costumes and customs are represented as existing about the year 1600, when Shakespeare wrote the play.  The dresses are chiefly selected from a work by Cesare Vecellio, entitled “Degli Habiti Antichi e Moderni di diverse Parti del Mondo.  In Venetia, 1590;” as well as from other sources to be found in the British Museum, whence I derive my authority for the procession of the Doge in the first scene.  If the stage is to be considered and upheld as an institution from which instructive and intellectual enjoyment may be derived, it is to Shakespeare we must look as the principal teacher, to inculcate its most valuable lessons.  It is, therefore, a cause of self-gratulation, that I have on many occasions been able, successfully, to present some of the works of the greatest dramatic genius the world has known, to more of my countrymen than have ever witnessed them within the same space of time; and let me hope it will not be deemed presumptuous to record the pride I feel at having been so fortunate a medium between our national poet and the people of England.

CHARLES KEAN.

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE.