Interpreting "The Merchant of Venice"

Border's Bookstore has placed "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare" by Stephen Greenblatt in the Bargain Books section. Well worth the five bucks for this handsome National Book Award Finalist hardcover edition if you can still get it. If not, most of the book is available on-line. Frustratingly, many pages are omitted.,M1

Chapter 9 (starting on page 256) is must reading as background for "The Merchant of Venice". It explains how Christopher Marlowe's "The Jew of Malta" prefigured the brutal execution of the physician to Queen Elizabeth, supposedly a converted Jew, and how Shakespeare's play "The Merchant of Venice" is an epilogue to that event (written shortly thereafter).

Here's a long excerpt from Chapter 9:

Greenblatt contrasts Marlowe's apparently violent opposition to certain foreigners associated with the English court with Shakespeare's more accommodating view. Shylock, as an anolog of the "Jew" Roderigo (Ruy) Lopez, is interpreted (through Shakespeare) as just another pathetic player in the international game of royal intrigue. He is deserving of some humiliation and ridicule, but not a cruel and unusual death.

Lopez had been sacrificed (as a matter of course) after the all-important royal "intelligence network" was compromised. Lopez had formerly been in the employ of spymaster Walsingham and had turned down an offer to work for Essex. The Earl of Essex received as much or more blame from Queen Elizabeth for the incident. He later paid much the same price as Lopez.

Of special note, Queen Elizabeth confiscated from Lopez an exquisite jewel of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V that was in his possession. (She had earlier claimed a priceless set of large pear-shaped pearls in the possession of Mary Queen of Scots, who was arrested and executed by Elizabeth. This jewelry had been given to Mary Queen of Scots by her former mother-in-law Catherine de Medici Queen of France.)

Within this context, the character name of Bassanio inThe Merchant of Venice" takes on an entirely different significance, as does the chosen setting of Venice itself. We must expect that "foreigners" at the court of Elizabeth are not as they appear, and that a Medici by any other name (or religion) was still a Medici.

An excellent discussion of the "Lopez Case" from a legal perspective:

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