EARLY TEXTUAL HISTORY

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FIRST EDITOR: NICHOLAS ROWE. THE CHANGES BEGIN

Nicolas Rowe edited the first Complete Works in 1709. From this date forward, most editors have changed—even added to—the words that Shakespeare wrote and the characters that he created. Rowe divided the First Folio's acts into scenes, and—critically—added what he considered to be the location for each scene. Rowe provided the following stage direction at the beginning of:

Act IV Scene I Venice:
Enter the Duke, the Senators, Antonio, Bassanio, and Gratiano


Rowe replaced Shakespeare’s
Magnificoes with Senators of Venice. Rowe also included a Dramatis Personae, in which he added these Senators and additional unspecified Officers to the cast, and declared that the SCENE was partly at Venice, and partly at Belmont, the Seat of Portia upon the Continent. Thus the study of The Merchant of Venice began down the wrong track.

You may well wonder what else an editor was supposed to do. After all, the play is entitled
The Merchant of Venice. A careful editor would notice that Shakespeare did not provide a specific location for any of the scenes, and would let Shakespeare's words perform that task. He wrote the play to be performed on a sparse stage, not read. Everything an audience (or a reader) needs to know is right there in the text—that is to say, in the script.


For the next sixty years, subsequent editors—including Alexander Pope (1725), Lewis Theobald (1733), and Samuel Johnson (1765)—followed Rowe. Theobald further specified the location of the trial as the
Senate–house in Venice, and directed Antonio, Bassanio, and Gratiano to enter and stand at the Bar. None of these first editors located the trial scene in a court of law.


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Frontispiece, Rowe’s The Merchant of Venice

The Doge, wearing a corno ducale rather than a crown, sits on the throne. Two rows of Senators flank him on either side. (The Senate of Venice consisted of three hundred men.) A clerk sits below the Doge. Antonio is on the left, having just beseeched Bassanio to make no more offers. Bassanio nevertheless offers a bag supposedly containing 6,000 ducats to Shylock. Shylock is on the right, holding his knife and displaying his bond. This image influenced many subsequent editions of the play. Such images also have influenced subsequent performances of the play. Long after Capell had changed the location of the trial to a so-called Court of Justice, the image of the Doge or a Duke sitting on a throne has proven to be irresistible.

In his 2004 film William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Michael Radford employed a similar image when staging the trial scene, although his Duke did not wear a corno ducale. Almost all editors have followed Rowe regarding the scene divisions and their locales. As a result, readers have had their imaginations tied to a specific city—Venice—whereas Shakespeare did no such thing: he left it to his fellow actors to conjure up the scene, and left his audiences free to imagine that the trial occurred in the Court of Queen’s Bench in their present-day England.



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