Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  A Kindred Dramatic Method, in their Use of Double Time, Pursued by Æschylus and Shakespeare

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Kindred Dramatic Method, in their Use of Double Time, Pursued by Æschylus and Shakespeare

By Horace Howard Furness (1833–1912)

[Born in Philadelphia, Penn., 1833. Died in Wallingford, Penn., 1912. From A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare.—Vol. VII. The Merchant of Venice. 1888.]

IT seems to me that whatever Professor Wilson says of the Double Time in Othello is applicable to the Double Time in the Merchant of Venice, and that Shakespeare’s consummate art is shown here no less than there. Wilson claimed for Shakespeare originality in the use, or in the invention, of this art. Original it unquestionably was, as far as Shakespeare’s knowledge of it was concerned, but I think it can be shown that the same art was employed in The Agamemnon, by Shakespeare’s greatest predecessor in Tragedy.

In Othello, through this art, we accept as perfectly natural the gradual change of intense love to a murderous frenzy of jealousy, all within the space of thirty-six hours. Days and weeks are compressed into minutes and hours, not only without our detecting any improbability, but with a full faith that events have followed their natural, orderly course.

Here in the Merchant of Venice, by the same thaumaturgy, three months are to be compressed into as many days, a harder task than in Othello, in so far as the limit is fixed. At the very outset we are told that the bond is to be for so much money “and for three months.” There is no attempt to weaken the impression. As soon as it is firmly fixed, then Shakespeare begins at once to “hurl his dazzling spells into the spongy air.” He knew, none better, that just as soon as the ducats were pursed, Bassanio, swift as the thoughts of love, must fly to Portia. Did not Bassanio know, had he not himself told Anthonio, that the wide world knew Portia’s worth, and the four winds blew in from every coast renowned suitors? Could he afford to risk an hour’s delay? In that longing sigh, “Oh, my Anthonio,” did he not breathe his soul out for the means to hold a rival place with the many Jasons? As soon, therefore, as he has received the means from Shylock, he comes before us full of eager, bustling haste,—supper must be ready, at the very farthest, by five of the clock,—letters must be delivered,—his servant must make purchases and stow them aboard,—he must return in haste,—he must go for Gratiano to come at once to his lodging,—and then after all these commissions, full of feverish impatience, he bids his servant,—“hie thee,—go.” But—and here we catch the first glimpse of Shakespeare’s spell—the three months have begun to run, and against the swift current of Bassanio’s haste there must be some check. Bassanio tells his servant to “put the liveries to making.” This takes time. Liveries are not made in a day. Next, Bassanio tells Launcelot that Shylock had spoken with him that very day about Launcelot’s change of masters. This sounds as though Bassanio and Shylock had met casually in the street; surely they would not mingle the business of signing such a bond and of handing over so large a sum of money with discussing the qualities of servants. But these two checks will serve well enough for the thin edge of the wedge; and Bassanio’s eager haste returns again, and he excuses himself to Gratiano on the plea that he has “business.” In this bustling, feverish, hurrying mood we leave him, and do not see him or hear him again until he has reached Belmont, and is entreating Portia to let him choose, to let him to his fortune and the caskets, for, as he is, he “lives upon the rack.” What man is there, whose blood is not snow-broth, but knows that Bassanio has sped to Belmont with all speed of wind and tide.

But Shakespeare’s magic will be busy with us before we see Bassanio again. Nearly a fourth of the play is carried on (herein revealing Shakespeare’s art in the mere construction of his dramas), and days and weeks and months must pass before us, consuming the time of the Bond.

A new interest is excited. Jessica and her fortunes are introduced. Time obliterates Shylock’s antipathy to eating with Christians. We are taken to Belmont to see the Prince of Morocco and watch his choice of the casket. We are brought back to Venice to find Shylock so publicly furious over the loss of his ducats and his daughter that “all the boys in Venice follow him.” Rumors, too, are in the air of the loss of Anthonio’s ships. Salarino talked with a Frenchman about it “yesterday.” Again we are taken to Belmont; by this mere shifting of scenes, back and forth, from Belmont to Venice, and from Venice to Belmont, is conveyed an impression of the flight of time. The deliberate fool, the Prince of Arragon, fails in his choice, and departs. Lest we should be too much absorbed in all this by-play and lose our interest in Bassanio, we are told immediately after Arragon has left that a young Venetian has alighted at the gate. We are not told outright that it is Bassanio, yet we know that he is on the way, and it must be he. But before we actually see him, fresh from Venice as we know he is, although it is so long since we saw him and so much has happened, more spells must be woven round us; there must be the very riping of the time.

One is always conscious that between the Acts of a play a certain space of time elapses. To convey this impression is one of the purposes for which a drama is divided into Acts. Thus here, after merely intimating that Bassanio has reached Belmont, an entr’acte artfully intervenes, and when the curtain again rises we are all the more ready to accept any intimations of the flight of time which may be thrown out. Accordingly, when the Third Act opens with Salanio’s question: “What news on the Rialto?” Salarino replies that “it yet lives there unchecked” that Anthonio has lost a ship. Furthermore, the wreck has taken place not on any sea-coast near at hand, from which communication could be speedy, but on the remote Goodwins, almost as far off as it could be, within the limits of Europe; even for rumor to reach Venice from so remote a quarter implies much time; it could be brought only by slow argosies or heavy carracks, and days and weeks might elapse before any arrived direct from the scene of the disaster, and for many a long day the rumor might live unchecked. Much more time was implied to an Elizabethan audience, in this distance between the Goodwins and Venice, than it is to us.

Then Shylock enters, still so deeply cut by his daughter’s flight that his first words are reproaches to Salarino and Salanio for being privy to it; but evidently his first ebullition has cooled, and time has brought some self-control. It must have been days, nay, weeks. Have not Anthonio’s bearing and deportment undergone a gradual change that only time can bring about? Shylock says, that Anthonio scarce dare show his head on the Rialto; this is not the work of hours, but of days, perhaps weeks. Anthonio’s smug air upon the mart is spoken of as a thing long past: “he that was used to come so smug upon the mart.” Then comes in with startling effect, “let him look to his bond.” By this one allusion the three months shrink; we feel the first cold chill of Anthonio’s fast-approaching peril, and this impression is deepened with every repetition of the allusion by Shylock: “let him look to his bond! He was wont [again, how long ago that seems!] to call me usurer. Let him look to his bond! he was wont to lend money for a Christian courtesy. Let him look to his bond!” This is one of the masterstrokes of art in the play. Except one fleeting allusion to it by Salarino, we have heard nothing of the bond. We have watched Jessica elope with her lover, and gilded with ducats glide out of sight in a gondola, the Prince of Morocco has come and gone, the Prince of Arragon has strutted forth and back, the Rialto, with its busy life and whispered rumors of Anthonio’s losses, has passed before us day after day, week after week, the smug merchant has broken down, and now all of a sudden looms up the fateful bond, and its term is shrivelling as a scroll. To deepen this impression of the Long Time that has elapsed, Tubal returns from his weary quest after Jessica; he tells Shylock that he often came where he heard of her; he must have kept moving from place to place, because Shylock groans over the money that was spent in the search. Then, too, another of Anthonio’s ships has been cast away coming from Tripolis, much nearer home than the Goodwins; and some of the shipwrecked sailors have reached Genoa, nay, have even talked with Tubal. There is no hope for Anthonio now, his bankruptcy is sure; and so close has the limit come that Tubal must go, and go at once, to secure an officer for Anthonio’s arrest; within a fortnight the term will have expired and the bond be forfeit.

The minute-hand that has recorded for us so many varied events is fast catching up with the hour-hand.

There is no entr’acte now. We are taken at once to Belmont, at last to meet Bassanio in happy torment, full of eagerness and haste, fresh from Venice, unwilling to piece the time or stay one minute from his election. With the success of Bassanio’s hazard and with the winning of his prize, the only obstacle to the completion of the full term of the bond disappears. There is no longer need of further delay. Time’s steeds may now be fiery-footed and gallop apace. Yet even at this last minute two more spells from the past are to be cast around the present, and our imaginations must untread again the long weeks that have passed since the bond was signed. Salerio brings word from Venice that morning and night Shylock is plying the Duke for justice, and that twenty merchants, the Duke himself, and the magnificoes, have been pleading with the Jew for mercy. And Jessica, too, who left Venice when Bassanio left it, has reached Belmont after her merry junketings at Genoa (which we accept without questioning their possibility), and adds a masterstroke of legerdemain by saying that she had heard her Father swear to Tubal and to Chus that he would rather have Anthonio’s flesh than twenty times the value of the bond. We never stop to think that she left Venice within a few hours after the signing of the bond, and had seen her Father but once, and then for only a few minutes. Her words summon up pictures of many a discussion between the three old usurers in the seclusion of Shylock’s house, and tell plainly enough of the gradual hardening of Shylock’s heart. Thus the mighty magician “winds him into us easy-hearted men, and hugs us into snares”; and so completely entangled are we that there is no jar now when Anthonio’s letter says that his ships have all miscarried, his creditors grow cruel, his estate is very low, and his bond to the Jew forfeit!

The minute-hand is on the stroke of the hour. But one more fleeting impression and the hammer falls. Anthonio says that his griefs and losses have so bated him that he will hardly have a pound of flesh to spare for his “bloody creditor to-morrow.” The royal Merchant’s gaunt and haggard looks tell of many a weary week, and the bond expires to-morrow!

Although it was necessary that Portia should hasten to Venice as rapidly as Bassanio, yet some time must be given to her to master her brief; she might have done it while on the ferry, after receiving Bellario’s notes and garments from Balthasar at the Traject, and probably did do so; but Bellario’s letter to the Duke supplies the requisite time, if any be needed, in our imagination, by saying that he and the young Doctor “had turned over many books together,” evidently a faithful and prolonged consultation, ending in an “opinion,” the result of laborious and learned research.

How long the home journey from Venice to Belmont lasted, whether it took one day or two days, is a matter of small moment. Nothing was at stake, no art is demanded, nothing has to be smoothed away; we need neither Long Time nor Short Time. For aught that concerns the dramatic action, it might have taken a month. All that is needed is that Portia should reach home first, and that Bassanio should follow hard after. When Nerissa tells Gratiano that the Doctor’s Clerk had been in her company “last night,” she had already given Gratiano the ring, or was in the act of handing it to him; the jest was revealed, her eyes were dancing with merriment, and he would know in a flash that what was true of last night, be it in Belmont or Venice, was equally true of every night since she had been born.

It is to Dr. W. W. Goodwin, of Harvard College, that I owe the suggestion that in The Agamemnon an illustration might be possibly found of a treatment of Dramatic Time similar to Shakespeare’s Double Time. In representing the arrival of Agamemnon at Argos within a few hours of the fall of Troy, Æschylus has been charged by many an Editor with a violation of the Unity of Time. Dr. Goodwin suggested that a solution of the difficulty might be traced in the Herald’s speech to the Chorus. It is greatly to be regretted that a pressure of many duties has kept these pages from being enriched with Dr. Goodwin’s promised investigation of the question, and that the task has therefore fallen, instead, to my unskilful hands.

In the first place, if there be in The Agamemnon a violation of the Unity of Time, Æschylus committed it either wittingly or unwittingly. To say that he committed it unwittingly is almost unthinkable. From the very structure of a Greek tragedy, a downright violation of the Unity of Time, during the continued presence of the Chorus, would be a defect glaring alike to auditors and author; if to our eyes there appears to be such a violation, the presumption is strong, so strong as to amount almost to a certainty, that the defect lies in our vision, not in the play itself.

This apparent violation, then, Æschylus must have committed wittingly; and if so, an analysis of the tragedy will show, I think, that in dealing with time he waved over his audience, with a master’s art, the same magician’s wand that Shakespeare wields, and that by subtle, fleeting impressions of the flight of time a false show of time is created, which is accepted by us for the real. We must remember that in listening to Shakespeare or to Æschylus we are subject to their omnipotent sway, and that when they come to us “with fair enchanted cup, and warbling charms,” we are powerless to “fence our ears against their sorceries.”

The opening Scene of The Agamemnon reveals the tired Watchman on the Palace top at Argos. Of a sudden he sees on the distant horizon the flash of the fire on Mt. Arachnæum, the signal that Troy is taken.

The Chorus enters, and the Watchman hastens to tell Clytemnestra.

When the Queen enters, and is asked by the Chorus to tell how long it is since the city had fallen, she replies that “it was this night, the mother of this very day” ([Greek], line 279.)

The Chorus, knowing how far it is from Troy, and how many days and nights must pass in journeying thither, expresses surprise that the news could travel so fast; whereupon Clytemnestra explains that it was through the aid of Hephaistos; a fire was lit on Ida, then on the Hermæan crag of Lemnos, then on Mount Athos, and so on, till “the great beard of flame” flashed on the roof of the Atreidæ, and “this very day the Achæans hold Troy” ([Greek], line 320).

The opening hour of the Tragedy has struck. It is the morning after the night during which Troy was taken. The release of the weary Watchman from his sleepless years, Clytemnestra’s description of the speed, the speed of light, with which the beacon-fires had brought the news, her rejoicings over the end of the warrior’s hardships, all emphasize it. No impression with regard to Anthonio’s three months’ bond is conveyed more clearly than that here, in Argos, it is but a few hours since Troy had fallen.

“The voyage from Troy to the bay of Argos,” says Dr. Goodwin, in a letter, “would now be a good day’s journey for a fast steamship. So I think we are entitled to at least a week of good weather for the mere voyage, leaving out the storm and the delays.” That much time, then, will it take Agamemnon to reach his home, if he starts within an hour after he has conquered Troy. But the drama has begun, the Chorus is on the stage, and before it leaves the stage Agamemnon must arrive, here in Argos, and yet all traces of improbability must, if possible, be concealed.

The time during which the Chorus is on the stage is Æschylus’s Short Time, and corresponds to Bassanio’s journey from Venice to Belmont. Æschylus’s Long Time is Agamemnon’s week’s voyage from Troy to Argos, corresponding to Anthonio’s three months’ bond. The same power that can compress three months at Venice into one day at Belmont, must expand a few hours at Argos into a se’en night’s voyage from Troy.

The task in The Agamemnon is the reverse of the task in The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare must compress a long term into a short one, while Æschylus must dilate a short time into a long one. Shakespeare presents to us the spy-glass, and bids us see what is distant close at at hand; while Æschylus reverses the glass, and what is but an arm’s length from us recedes to the verge of the horizon.

To a certain extent and for many purposes, what Shakespeare can effect by Acts and the shifting of Scenes. Æschylus can bring about by means of the Chorus. Yet here it is not easy to see how the Chorus can help him; nothing that the Chorus could say would lessen the shock to our sense of the fitness of things if Agamemnon himself were to be brought at once upon the scene. Old Argive citizens compose this Chorus; they have remained here quietly in Argos; of Agamemnon, or of his journey, they can tell us nothing.

Of a sudden Clytemnestra sees a Herald hastening from the shore. In thus introducing a Herald, art is shown. Heralds always travel in advance of their lords, and this Herald, as far as we know, may possibly have left Troy before its fall. That it is a Herald from the Argive king we feel sure, and having accepted the fact of his presence, we sink into a receptive mood for any impression which his story can impart. But while he is yet at a distance, Clytemnestra sees that he is travel-stained with dust and grime. Thus is the spell begun, the magician is at work. We accept the Herald without a shade of suspicion; what can be more natural than that he should have travelled with extreme haste? The thrill of joy at the sight of one who can bring us news is heightened by waving olive branches, the pledges of peace and victory, which he bears aloft. Thus artfully is the Herald announced before he enters on the stage; when at last he does enter and breaks out into a thrilling greeting of his home, criticism is forgotten in joy and sympathy.

We must remember, and we cannot too deeply remember, that both The Agamemnon and The Merchant of Venice were written, not to be studied and pored over, line by line, and analyzed sentence by sentence, but to be acted; to be communicated by the speaking voice to the hearing ear and interpreted by the quick thought. It is by a repetition of faint, fleeting, subtle impressions, felt but scarcely heeded at the time, that a deep, abiding effect may be at last produced. The “snowflake on the river” may be but “a moment there, then gone forever”; yet let but enough fall and the stream is locked in frost.

What need to hurry with our questionings how the Herald came hither; he stands before us, and his story will tell us all.

In order to appreciate the delicacy with which Æschylus smooths away the objections to this speedy appearance of the Herald, we must bear in mind that every allusion to the flight of time since the hour that Troy has fallen, however light and evanescent the allusion may be, helps to make that hour recede into the past; and, for my purpose, I think I may be permitted to claim every possible impression which I can detect, of this nature, however fleeting, and then to multiply its effect on Grecian ears many times over. How clearly must it not have spoken to those ears, when it can penetrate even my adder’s sense!

Thus, when the Herald in his first speech (lines 523 et seq.) says that Agamemnon must be welcomed back, who has, with the crowbars of the just gods, levelled Troy to the ground, with all its towers and fanes, and that all earth’s seed lie scattered on the ground, is not Time’s thievish progress intimated here? Can walls, and towers, and temples be toppled over in a minute? Can harvests be burnt, and acres ploughed up, for leagues around, in an hour? Lost in the thought of these great tasks and of the mighty victory, we never stop to count the days; but the succession of pictures creates the flight of time, and the hour of Troy’s fall begins to recede.

Too much, however, is not demanded of us at once; the Chorus here speaks; and then Clytemnestra exults in the assurance that the beacon-fires are true, and we are gently prepared for Agamemnon’s approach by the message which the Chorus is to deliver when he arrives, telling him of her fidelity during his absence. Hereupon the Chorus asks after Menelaus, and the Herald reluctantly confesses that his fate is unknown. The Chorus presses for a more exact reply, and asks whether he set sail with all the rest of the fleet and then left them, or whether a storm snatched him away, but the Herald only ambiguously replies that it was even so. The Chorus returns to the point, and asks what rumors there were about him in the fleet, among the sailors. “No one knows anything about him,” replies the Herald; “the sun, the nourisher of the earth, alone can tell his fate.”

It seems needless to point out how insidiously, up to this point, the passage of time has been worked in by a succession of pictures, every one of which is suggested by a word or phrase which could not have fallen unheeded on Grecian ears. Troy has been conquered; and burnt; and razed to the ground; and reduced to a desolate ruin; the Greeks have divided the spoils; and allotted the trophies to be hung up in temples (577); the armies have been gathered together; and embarked in their fleet; and have advanced on their voyage; and been overtaken by a storm; and after the storm sufficient time has elapsed for the fleet to be collected; their losses counted; and rumors to “live unchecked” as to the fate of their companions.

(And Troy fell only last night!)

Trusting to the effect already produced, the Poet advances more boldly. Moreover, on the emotion, the uncritical emotion, excited in his auditors by the absorbing interest of the Tragedy he has a right to count.

Urged by the Chorus, the Herald hereupon describes this frightful storm which fell upon the fleet “by night” (line 653 et seq.), when fire and sea combined against it, and Thracian blasts dashed all the ships together; and “when the fair light of the sun arose, we saw the Ægean Sea enamelled like a meadow ([Greek]) with the drowned corpses of sailors and of Greeks.”

To all the previous indications of the flight of time, which were but delicate, artful hints, there must be now added the explicit description of a night of storm, when the fleet was well on its way (the blasts came down from Thrace), and the next morning afterwards when the sun shone bright and clear.

Is not the goal won? The days of gloom, the night of storm, the smiling morrow, have passed before us; we have lived through them all, and the journey from Troy to Argos is accomplished. To Grecian eyes has not every league been measured?

Not to disturb this impression, but to deepen it by repose, the Chorus breaks in with four Strophes and four Antistrophes, wherein no allusion to the journey is found,—that is left as something fixed and settled; but it anathematizes Helen, and at the close, so far away have our thoughts been carried that any allusion to the journey from Troy to Argos seems like a thrice-told tale; that journey has become a fact around which no shadow of mistrust can cling.

Thus heralded, thus prepared for, Agamemnon enters, and the task is done. After the spells that have been woven around us, we find no more violation of probability in Agamemnon’s appearance, from Troy, at that minute than in the expiration of the three months’ Bond within the hour after Bassanio has chosen the leaden casket; and is there a man, who, when sitting at the play, can say with truth that, on that score, he ever felt a jar?

I do not think it is claiming too much thus to urge that the two greatest dramatic poets of the world used a kindred skill in producing kindred dramatic effects. If we find those effects in their dramas, their hands put them there, and to imagine that we can see them and that the mighty poets themselves did not, is to usurp a position which I can scarcely conceive of any one as willing to occupy.