Merchant of Venice

Shylock pleads for Justice

While the title of this play is generally misconstrued today as referring to Shylock, it should be pointed out that is actually refers to the Italian merchant trader, Antonio. 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.

of Blood & Justice

An artist’s depiction of the “Alchemical Wedding”

A Venetian merchant, somewhat disconsolate is asked by a close friend Bossanio for a loan in order to travel to Belmont to woo his beloved, beautiful heiress, Portia. He informs Bossanio of his willingness but says that his own finances being tied up, he will need to borrow himself in order to advance him the loan for his trip. Meanwhile, at Portia’s house in Belmont, lamenting with her maid Nerissa, we discover that she is bound by her father’s last will and testament to accept a suitor who can successfully choose the correct one of three dowry caskets. She discusses anxiously which one of the six suitors assembled will fulfil her dreams. Bossanio has gone to the Jew, Shylock in order to obtain the 3,000 ducats he needs to woo Portia. This is agreed and Shylock refuses any interest save that he will agree to return the money as arranged within 3 months, otherwise Shylock will claim a pound of his flesh. The first suitor to approach Portia is the Prince of Morocco, who is told that if he choose the wrong casket he will be forbidden henceforth of any marriage. Shylock’s servant, Launcelot Gobbo, plans to leave his master’s service and become Bassanio’s instead, he leaves taking with him a message from Shylock’s daughter, Jessica for her beloved Lorenzo, now a guest at Bassanio’s house. On the way Gobbo unexpectedly meets with his near-blind father and joking pretends to be someone else. However, we soon discover that Jessica’s letter contains a plea for Lorenzo to take her away from her father, hopefully in disguise with a booty of jewels and money. This cleverly takes place while Shylock is lured away at Bassanio’s house. The prince of Morocco meanwhile, has chosen the wrong casket, that made of gold, followed by the Prince of Arragon, who choosing the silver casket, discovers his error also. Shylock returns to find his money, jewels and daughter missing, while Bassanio takes this opportunity to embark for Belmont. In Venice news is circulating of a vessel, belonging to Antonio which has been lost at sea, and Shylock reflecting on his own losses then makes his famous speech “Hath not a Jew eyes….” And secretly comforts himself with the knowledge of Antonio’s loss. However, in Belmont Bassanio has, having chosen the leaden casket guessed correctly, and his friend Gratiano steps forward with Nerissa and Jessica, accompanied by her own secret lover Lorenzo, so all are united in glee. However, Salerio enters also with news of Antonio’s disastrous misfortune and that Shylock is now claiming either his money back or justice. Portia then leaves Lorenzo and Jessica in charge of her household, and under the pretext of visiting a monastery with Nerissa, she assumes a disguise and goes forthwith to Venice in the hope of settling Bassanio’s debt. She also sends a servant with a message to a lawyer friend Bellario and instructs them to immediately bring back any important news or advice from him. In Venice we discover that Antonio has been arrested, and is appearing in court with his prosecutor Shylock demanding his pound of flesh. He has refused Bassanio’s offer of twice the amount if he would annul the contract. Portia arrives in the disguise of a lawyer (Balthazar) acting on Antonio’s behalf, with a letter of recommendation from Bellario. She upholds his legal right but urges him to show mercy. However, long cursed and reviled by Christians and therefore equally prejudicial Shylock insists on his right of law. Then Portia, in typical feminine style points out that it should be exactly one pound of flesh and no more, not even a drop of blood should exceed his demands. If that being so then Shylock realises he has been beaten by his own impossible demands and decides to settle for the 3,000 ducats. Antonio then has to pay half his estate to Lorenzo, as a forfeit and the other half is bequeathed to the state. Furthermore, under the conditions of law Shylock is then committed to convert to Christianity. The case been decided, the lawyer Balthazar is congratulated and offered a payment of 3,000 ducats, but “he” declines requesting instead Bassanio’s ring, given to him by Portia. He reluctantly parts with this precious gift, and soon we realise that the lawyer’s clerk, Nerissa in disguise has managed to obtain Gratiano’s ring. Act V ends in a moonlit garden in Belmont where Jessica and Lorenzo discuss the classic loves of former times. However, news soon arrives of Portia’s return and soon after that Bassanio and his male retinue are due to arrive with Antonio as guest. The jubilant mood is temporarily disturbed when Nerissa rebukes Gratiano for giving her ring away as payment for the clerk’s services and Portia admonishes Bassanio for the same. In the final denouement the women decide to forgive the men for their indiscretions and offer them a ring each which they discover are the ones they gave away as payment.

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


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