Merchant of Venice

Shylock pleads for Justice

Literary sources include Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, “Il Pecorone” (The Simpleton) (1558) and the “Gesta Romanorum” (1340, translation by Richard Robinson, 1595 ed). Another source was a lost English play simply entitled “The Jew” which was elaborated on by Christopher Marlowe, (1564-93) in his own play “The Jew of Malta” (c. 1589), another possible inspiration include Anthony Munday, from his “Zelauto” (1580). Charlton Ogburn mentions that a play performed at court in February 1580 entitled “The Historie of Portio and Demorantes” was an early version of “The Jew” and was written by Edward de Vere. This coincides with the time his daughter Elizabeth Vere was married to the 6th Earl of Derby, William Stanley. The Merchant of Venice was probably written around late 1596 and 1598, just after Richard II and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was first printed in quarto in 1600 and later included in the First Folio of 1623. Anti-Jewish feelings or prejudices were highlighted at home and abroad when Queen Elizabeth’s physician, a Portuguese Jew named Rodrigo Lopez, was exposed as a conspirator who supposedly attempted to poison the Queen (see from my book Shakespeare’s Qaballah, Part III, The Virago Queen). Although the theme of blood bonds extends into antiquity, Shakespeare probably derived the gory theme of blood and justice from Ser Giovanni Fiorentino’s “Il Percorone” (The Simpleton -1558) where a certain disguised Lady of Belmonte redeems the character of Shylock in a court case. The theme of the wooing test of a choice of three caskets is derived from an English translation by Richard Robinson of Gesta Romanorum, a vast corpus of 14th century Latin medieval texts translated into Latin in 1577. But an original text of this folkloric tale was laid down by a Greek Monk, Joannes Damacenus dating from the 9th century. Other influences or theatrical sources include the playwright: Christopher Marlowe’s “The Famous Tragedy of the Jew of Malta” (1590) which was revived for the populist stage around the time of Lopez’s trial and execution, as well as Boccacio’s “Decameron” and John Gower’s “Confessio Amantis”. Marlowe’s play, which has alterations by Thomas Heywood is cynical and stereotypically prejudiced towards Jews by comparison with Shakespeare’s own Merchant of Venice. Scholars have attempted to argue against Shakespeare’s own personal attitude towards the Jewish banker, Shylock, but one is acutely aware that even in his time attitudes towards Jews were generally negative if not somewhat ambivalent.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Pathenogenesis” are as follows:


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