Performance history expert Rebecca Brown investigates the stories which inspired Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.
There are many ancient legends and folk-tales from around the world in which a bargain is struck with a bond of human flesh as security. One version of the story is told by the Italian, Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, in his collection of tales, Il Pecorone (which means 'the big sheep' or 'the simpleton'). He wrote this in the late fourteenth century and it was printed in 1558. This Italian (and untranslated) version is Shakespeare's main source for his play.
According to Ser Giovanni, the story begins with a wealthy merchant, Ansaldo, equipping his god-son with a richly laden ship to trade abroad. The young man, Giannetto, finds himself in the port of Belmont where he tries to win the hand of the Lady. Success can only be won if the wooer manages to spend a whole night with her; failure is punished with the loss of all possessions. Twice Giannetto tries and fails, each time calling on his god-father to provide again for him. Only at the third attempt does he have the help of a young woman who confides that the wine offered to him is drugged. With this knowledge, Giannetto is able to win the lady and live at his ease in Belmont, forgetting that his newfound happiness has been bought by his god-father's generosity. Ansaldo could only afford to help Giannetto make his third voyage to Belmont by borrowing from a Jew, promising a pound of his flesh if he fails to repay the money.
When the unpaid debt falls due, Giannetto hurries back to Venice with money from his wife but the Jew refuses to be bought off. It is only when the Lady appears in court, in the disguise of a male lawyer, that the Jew is confounded. As she points out to him, if he takes more or less than a pound or drops any blood, his own life is forfeit. The Jew tears up the bond in frustration and Giannetto reluctantly responds to the lawyer's request of the ring given to him by his wife as a reward for his victory. Giannetto and Ansaldo go to Belmont where the Lady is very angry at her husband's loss of her ring. Finally she reveals the truth and Ansaldo is matched in marriage with the young woman who helped Giannetto avoid the drugged wine and win his own wife.
Shakespeare changes the way in which his Lady of Belmont is to be won. Instead of gaining access to the Lady's bed, his successful wooer must make the right choice from among three caskets. Again, this kind of test is an age-old motif in fairy-tales and legends. The most recent English version available to Shakespeare is that in the 1595 translation of the medieval collection of stories, the Gesta Romanorum.
Shakespeare also trebles the pairs of wooers in the story and leaves his rich merchant figure alone at the end of the play. His confident handling of a complicated and multi-stranded plot is his own achievement but still he could learn from the fast-paced Italian comedies of love, intrigue and disguise written in the sixteenth century. Antony Munday's Zelauta (or The Fountain of Fame) printed in 1580 also shows an influence and may in turn have influenced Shakespeare. Munday tells the story of two friends, in love with two girls, one of whom is the daughter of a rich usurer. They pledge their right eyes in order to borrow money from the usurer. When the usurer brings them to court, they are saved by the wit of the young women, hidden behind their male disguise as lawyers. They too use the argument that the usurer must not shed a drop of blood in his extraction of his fleshly payment.
Shakespeare was not the first Elizabethan playwright to place a Jew at the centre of his drama. In 1579, Stephen Gosson referred to a play called The Jew which he describes as showing 'the greediness of worldly choosers, and the bloody minds of usurers'. That play has not survived, unlike Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, which was first performed in 1589. Marlowe's play was a great success and must have haunted Shakespeare's imagination long after its first performance. Barabas, the unscrupulous cynic of Marlowe's grimly comic drama, is very different from Shylock, although both have nubile daughters and heaps of gold.
Photo by Manuel Harlan shows Ian Bartholomew as Shylock in the RSC's 2001 production of The Merchant of Venice © RSC
Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC