"The Merchant of Venice": A Cynical Commentary

There are no original themes or elements in “The Merchant of Venice”. Everything was adapted from other works, and most if not all of these sources would have been well familiar to the educated members of Shakespeare’s English audience.

In one of the novellas of Ser Giovannai’s “Il Pecorone”, a young man of Florence named Giannetto (son of Bindo Scali) resettles in Venice in order to be adopted by his godfather Ansaldo. After establishing himself at the court in Venice, Giannetto decides to sail out to find his love and his fortune by courting an exceedingly wealthy heiress of Belmonte. Twice he tries to woo her but returns to Venice empty handed. In order to finance a third attempt, his godfather Ansaldo borrows a large sum (ten thousand ducats) from a “Jew of Mestri” to be repaid the following St. John’s Day on penalty of a pound of flesh.

Note: The name John is a Christian equivalent of Osiris, the murdered god of Egypt and a pagan inspiration for the Christian Jesus.

Giannetto arrives in Belmonte every bit as clueless as he had been twice before, and is about to be duped out of his rich gifts once more. However, this time one of the servant girls of Belmonte explains to him how to win the Lady and become King of Belmonte and its many barons and counts. After the wedding celebrations, Giannetto hurries back to Venice but the appointed day has already past and his godfather is being prosecuted by the Jew according to the firm laws of Venice. Giannetto offers ten times the amount of the loan, but it is rejected. At this point, the Lady of Belmonte comes to Venice disguised as a lawyer from Bologna and turns the tables on the Jew. He is to have the pound of flesh he demands but without shedding a drop of Ansaldo’s blood, or nothing at all. In gratitude for saving his godfather, Giannetto offers the mysterious lawyer the hundred thousand ducats. The lawyer refuses but asks for his wedding ring instead. When Giannetto gets back to Belmonte, the Lady at first accuses him of unfaithfulness, but then reveals her ploy and the two live happily ever after.

In “The Merchant of Venice”, potential royal suitors for Portia, the new the “Lady of Belmont”, are discussed. They are a French lord; the nephew of the German duke of Saxony; an English baron and his neighbor the Scottish lord; as well as the Prince of Naples. None of these venture their fortunes to win Portia, at least not in the play. Instead, three lesser suitors come a calling. The first is the Moorish Prince of Morocco. The second is the Spanish Prince of Aragon. And finally there is Bassanio of Venice who is bankrolled by his brother Antonio through the Jew Shylock’s financing. It would have been clear to the informed reader that all three of these suitors are one and the same. Bassanio could not win Portia as a Moor or as a Basque/Castilian, but as a Medici he succeeds at last.

In the 1580’s, Francesco de Medici was Duke of Florence and Grand Duke of Tuscany. His only surviving son Antonio was heir to the family empire. However, Francesco and the mother of Antonio (Bianca Cappello) died (apparently from poisoning) on the same day in 1587. Francesco’s brother Ferdinando became Duke in his place, and Antonio was proclaimed illegitimate. The Bossano/Bassano family of England would have found common cause with this Antonio in their plans for recovery. Royal favor was needed in order to trump the claims of Ferdinando in Medici supremacy. Gaining the support of Antonio’s half-sister Marie de Medici, Queen of France, would have been crucial, as well as another half-sister Eleonora (Nerissa?) Gonzaga. Another Eleonora, the daughter of Isabella daughter of Cosmio I, would have been a potential ally against Ferdinando, as well. Elizabeth daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand (of Austria) and former queen of De Medici king Charles IX would also have been courted heavily.

The sources used by Shakespeare to develop his character Shylock are also telling. In Anthony Munday’s “Zelauto” (1580), the tables are turned on an “extorting moneylender” (who is a Christian rather than a Jew) when he attempts to exact the right eyes of his two young debtors. His own daughter conspires against him with one of the debtors, the Verona playboy Rudolfo Ruscelli, with whom she is in love. (The Ruscelli family was also prominent in Florence, Giovanni Ruscelli being a most member.) Robert Wilson’s “Three Ladies of London” (1581) includes the story an upright Jew in Turkey named Gerontus who brings suit against a sleazy Italian Catholic merchant named Mercadorus over a sorely delinquent loan. In order to skip out on the repayment Mercadorus decides to publicly convert to Islam, but the “Christian-like” Jew forgives him the debt instead. In William Houghton’s “Englishmen for My Money” (1598), three young men seduce the three daughters of a Portuguese Jew named Pisaro rather than repay their loans to him.

The good Gerontus of Turkey was however eventually transformed into the hateful Gernutus of Venice, a Jew that could not forgive merchant debtors but would rather have a pound of their flesh. In the “Ballad of Gernutus” (date of publication unknown?), Gernutus has clearly become a villain who whets his knife in anticipation of killing a Christian (not specifically a Catholic), who is also a “merchant of great fame”. The judge of Venice however does not allow him to exact his bond and the merchant leaves the court both with his life and the Jew’s money. This same theme is found in Silvayn’s story (1596) about a Jewish moneylender that is denied a pound of flesh from a debtor who is in default only a little. Significantly, the story also mentions that the “worthy Turkish nation” holds Christ in high regard, and that Turkes “suffer such vermine [as Christian-hating Jews] to dwell amongst them”.

Shakespeare’s Jew Shylock also falls prey to a conspiracy of three Christian brothers. One seduces his daughter and the other two trick him into accepting a bond that cannot be enforced. The Duke of Venice and European royalty are also in on the scam. Despite the obvious con, Shakespeare’s play is not sympathetic toward the Jew. Shylock is made out to be a complete ogre. His daughter cannot wait to leave his miserable home and is easy pickings for gay Lorenzo. Shylock is himself easily played due to his deep-seated resentment toward the Christian merchants who were cutting him out of a livelihood.

The issue of usury (lending at interest) was hotly debated in Elizabethan England. Queen Elizabeth owed lenders thousands of pounds, as did many of the leading English families. Vilification of moneylenders in “The Merchant of Venice” would have gained sympathy for the English court against their creditors, some of which may have been Continental Jews. Vilification of Jews had a further benefit, in that Jewish franchises were one obstacle to expanding lucrative trade operations for the English. Unconverted Jews were to be targeted for sting operations. Converted Jews were forced to accept “two godfathers”, the European royal family and the Medici, which were well on the way to becoming one.

Shylock is given just enough humanity to make him a believable human sacrifice, which is in contrast to the pulp-fiction Barabas of Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta” (1589). And a sacrifice was considered necessary. The death of Christ was no longer sufficient to ward off the recurring Plague or the wars of retaliation between Protestants and Catholic Christians. Blood-libel of the Jews was effectively being raised to the level of Transubstantiation. It was a desperate attempt to take the focus off of the Black Death and Christian conflict and back onto a common enemy and scapegoat.

Shylock is a sacrificial character, but he is not literally put to death in the play. Murder was usually bad for business. The speedy accusation and execution of native Portuguese Jew (who had converted to Christianity) Roderigo Lopez in 1594 was a highly visible case in point. His hideous massacre had been a London crowd pleaser, but was disastrous for international relations. “The Merchant of Venice” (1598) was therefore part justification and part retraction of this act. “The Merchant of Venice” advocates a more gradual and graceful muscling out of the Jews in the markets they dominated. No matter that the conversion of Jews increased the price of pork. All the more money to be made by those (such as “Marranos” and “Pecorones”?) trafficking in pigs (and the like)!

Note: The names Marrano and Pecorone both have connotations of “pig”. If the Medici could be considered Marranos (“secret Jews”), then it was obviously in the situational/opportunistic sense. They were just as willing to become Muslims or Protestants if circumstances dictated it.
Note: “The Merchant of Venice” was revived for the pleasure of King James in 1605.

Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” was an appeal for Christians to set aside doctrinal differences and get back to the business at hand, building the country by cultivating a whole new world of opportunities. The three Medici wise guys and their Amici good fellows were being lifted up as role models in the mastery of creative financing and commercial development (exploitation). The outrageous caricature of Shylock screens the outlandish practices now being sanctioned for upstanding Christian enterprises (which even included piracy on the high seas).

The turquoise ring stolen by Shylock’s daughter Jessica (which entered with her into the possession of Lorenzo) symbolizes lucrative trade with the Ottoman Turks. The Fall of Constantinople to the Turks made this market all the more important. The discovery of America (and especially American gold) only 100 year before also increased competition for even greater windfalls from colonization and the promise of a new Golden Age (intensifying the revival of Classicism). Shakespeare and Spenser (author of "The Fairie Queen") promote obedience and active support of Queen Elizabeth (as the new Golden Age goddess "Aethra") and her foreign policy. “The Merchant of Venice” encourages tolerance and even respect for foreigners in London that were in Elizabeth's royal service, especially the Bossano/Bassano family.

Portia the Lady of Belmont is not beautiful and does not think highly of herself in those terms. She is homely as the fabled “golden fleece”, but like that coveted prize is bountiful and desirable in terms of access to wealth and power. She gives her ring to Bassanio and then takes it back again as a type of bond. The loan of her royal status fetches very high interest that must paid in full and through continued devotion. Jessica the daughter of Shylock has less leverage over her new husband. She is jokingly cynical of his love and for good reason. Once he gets what he wants from her, she is likely to be discarded.

And what of the Bossanos of England? Did their ships ever come in? Certainly England became a great maritime power, but it isn’t clear to what extent Bossanos may have shared in the spoils. Their descendants are evidently alive and well today in both England and America. Ferdinando De Medici retained power at Florence and married Cristina of Lorraine. Their son in turn married Maria Maddalena of Austria. Antonio De Medici faded quickly from history. The marriage of his half-sister Maria De Medici to the King of France had been arranged by Ferdinando. Her loyalties may have remained with Ferdinando rather than the cause of Antonio.

Further Notes, Observations and Questions:

1) The Medici played a role similar to the Templars of the 16th Century as a “middle man” to the Arab world, and in their pursuit of banking, transportation, trade, architecture, art, and ancient knowledge.

2) “Virginio [De Medici, grandson of Cosimo I] took up the Orsini dukedom on his father’s death, but having grown up at the Florentine court he was always more Medici than Orsini, spending by choice, as much time in Florence as Rome. In the late autumn of 1600, he arrived at the court of Queen Elizabeth I for an extended stay. This young and gracious nobleman proved popular with his English counterparts. On 6 January, Epiphany of 1601, the Queen’s players performed Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a light-hearted comedy composed especially for the feast. On e of the play’s principal characters, Duke Orsino, took his name from the Italian visitor seated as guest of honour in the audience.” -from, Caroline Murphy, “Death of a Medici Princess”, p 348.

3) Was Antonio De Medici also played for a fool? Was his love for Bassanio (and by extension the Bossanio family) exploited? Was there a sting within the sting?

4) The name Bossano/Bassano is thought to derive from a town in Italy near Venice by that name. Could it also possibly be related to Basse della Rovera. The Rovera family was sometimes a rival and other times allies of the Medici.

5) The name Ansaldo from Giovannai’s “Il Pecorone” was perhaps recycled as Salarino in the “Merchant of Venice”.

6) One of the ironies of “The Merchant of Venice” is that the Medici’s were finding European royalty more willing to intermarry with them than leading Jews! Simonetta, mother of Duke Alessandro de Medici, is speculated to have been a Moor. The name Simonetta however suggests that she may have been a Moorish/Arabian Jew.

7) It is more than curious that the Shakespeare Company had its origins in the patronage of an English nobleman called Ferdinando, Lord Strange.


The Merchant of Venice, The Arden Shakespeare, edited by John Russell Brown
[Includes commentary and the text of Ser Giovanni’s Il Pecorone (First Story, Fourth Day), The Ballad of Gernutus, Anthony Munday’s Zelauto, and Silvayn’s Pound of Flesh Story]

The Merchant of Venice, The Pelican Shakespeare, edited by A.R. Braunmuller
[Includes commentary by A.R. Braunmuller, UCLA]

The Shakespeare Wars, by Ron Rosenbaum

Will in the World, by Stephen Greenblatt.


The Jew of Malta
By Christopher Marlowe

The Three Ladies of London
By Robert Wilson

Englishmen for My Money
By William Haughton

Responses To This Message

ADMIN! Venice and England
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