Merchant of Venice (1923) Yale/Appendix A


Sources of the Play

It is usually said that there are two separate stories in this play: the Pound of Flesh story, and the story of the Three Caskets. But Professor R. G. Moulton in his admirable book, Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist, emphasizes the fact that there are four strands in the plot, the Pound of Flesh, the Three Caskets, the Elopement of Jessica and Lorenzo and the Episode of the Rings. He points out cleverly and perhaps fancifully the exact moment when Shakespeare brings all four elements together.

There was an old ballad of Gernutus, printed in Percy's Reliques (1765), which gives the pound of flesh incident in detail. The difficulty is that no one can prove whether this ballad preceded Shakespeare's Merchant, and may thus be considered a source, or followed hard upon the appearance of the play, and is thus merely a tribute to its popularity. The chief source is probably an Italian work, Il Pecorone, written in 1378 by Giovanni Fiorentino, and published in 1565. No English translation of this is extant; but as Elizabethan England was familiar with a very large number of vernacular translations from the Italian, it is probable that Shakespeare had access to one in this instance. Il Pecorone is a collection of tales, and one of them has the story of a rich woman at Belmont, who is eventually married to a young gentleman, whose friend, in order to lend him money, had come within the danger of an avaricious Jew, who demanded as surety a pound of flesh. The situation is saved by the lady in the court room, who obtains her marriage ring with subsequent pleasantries. The Jew story, however, was a common one in all European literatures.

The Caskets story appears in the Gesta Romanorum, a collection of tales dating in England from the thirteenth century. Its editor, Herrtage, describes it as a 'collection of fictitious narratives in Latin, compiled from Oriental apologues, monkish legends, classical stories, tales of chroniclers, popular traditions, and other sources, which it would be now difficult and perhaps impossible to discover.' An English translation was well known in Shakespear's day, and this book may have been the source of the Caskets plot in The Merchant of Venice.

Shakespeare may have invented the Lorenzo—Jessica love story; some think he obtained it from a tale by Massuccio di Salerno, cir. 1470, but I doubt it.

In addition to these probable and possible sources, Gosson, in his Schoole of Abuse (1579), mentions a play acted at the Bull Inn, called The Jew. From his brief description of it, many editors have been convinced that this drama is the prototype of Shakespeare’s play, and the real source; but as no copy of it has yet been found, all statements concerning it are largely conjecture.

Shakespeare was undoubtedly influenced by Marlowe's tragedy of blood, The Jew of Malta, which was written sometime between 1589 and 1593, and was immensely popular, as it deserved to be. This Jew was a monster rather than a human being; but he was certainly the most famous Jew on the Elizabethan stage until the first matinée of The Merchant of Venice. His daughter similarly loves a Christian youth, throws down moneybags from a balcony at night, and ultimately flees from home; and her father's combination of parental and financial emotion infallibly suggests Shylock's ejaculations.

Dr. Johnson, as quoted by Furness, made an epitome of Il Pecorone, from which the following extracts are here given (Giannetto=Bassanio; Ansaldo=Antonio):

'Poor Giannetto's head was day and night full of the thoughts of his bad success. When Ansaldo inquired what was the matter, he confessed he could never be contented till he should be in a condition to regain all that he had lost. When Ansaldo found him resolved, he began to sell everything he had to furnish this other fine ship with merchandise; but as he wanted still ten thousand ducats, he applied himself to a Jew at Mestri, and borrowed them on condition that if they were not paid on the feast of St. John in the next month of June, the Jew might take a pound of flesh from any part of his body he pleased. . . .

'Giannetto governed excellently, and caused justice to be administered impartially. . . . But one day, as he stood at the window of the palace with his bride, he saw a number of people pass along the piazza, with lighted torches in their hands. What is the meaning of this? said he. The lady answered. They are artificers going to make their offerings at the Church of St. John, this day being his festival. Giannetto instantly recollected Ansaldo, gave a great sigh, and turned pale. . . . The lady told him to mount on horseback, and go by land the nearest way, to take some attendants, and an hundred thousand ducats; and not to stop until he arrived at Venice. . . .

'. . . The lady now arrives in Venice, in her lawyer's dress. . . . Giannetto proposed to the Jew to apply to this lawyer. With all my heart, says the Jew; but let who will come, I will stick to my bond. They came to this judge and saluted him. Giannetto did not remember him; for he had disguised his face with the juice of certain herbs. Giannetto and the Jew each told the merits of the cause to the judge; who, when he had taken the bond and read it, said to the Jew, I must have you take the hundred thousand ducats, and release this honest man, who will always have a grateful sense of the favour done to him. The Jew replied, I will do no such thing. The judge answered, it will be better for you. The Jew was positive to yield nothing. Upon this they go to the tribunal appointed for such judgments; and our judge says to the Jew, Do you cut a pound of this man's flesh where you choose. The Jew ordered him to be stripped naked; and takes in his hand a razor, which had been made on purpose. Giannetto seeing this, turning to the judge. This, says he, is not the favour I asked of you. Be quiet, says he, the pound of flesh is not yet cut off. As soon as the Jew was going to begin, Take care what you do, says the judge, if you take more or less than a pound, I will order your head to be struck off; and beside, if you shed one drop of blood you shall be put to death.' [Then follows the discomfiture of the Jew, who finding that he cannot get even the principal of the loan, tears up the bond in a rage, receiving no further punishment. The judge declines to accept any money from Giannetto, but succeeds in inducing him to give her the ring, whereupon follow the now familiar complications. Giannetto wept when his lady pretended that he had been unfaithful; reconciliation followed, and they lived happily forever after.]

For the original of the Caskets story, the following extracts are given from the Gesta Romanorum, as printed in Furness.

'Then was the emperour right glad of her safety and comming, and had great compassion on her, saying: Ah faire lady, for the love of my sonne thou hast suffered much woe, neverthelesse if thou be worthie to be his wife, soone shall I prove.

'And when he had thus said, he commanded to bring forth three vessels, the first was made of pure gold, beset with precious stones without, and within full of dead mens bones, and thereupon was ingraven this posey: Whoso chooseth me shall finde that he deserveth.

'The second vessel was made of fine silver, filled with earth and wormes, and the superscription was thus: Whoso chooseth me shall finde that his nature desireth.

'The third vessel was made of lead, full within of precious stones, and the superscription. Whoso chooseth me shall finde that God hath disposed to him.'

But whatever incidents Shakespeare may or may not have drawn from sources, the oftener one compares his play with these stories, the greater seems his genius. His characters are complex human beings; and the speech of Portia on mercy is only one of the evidences of the richness of the mind and character whence it came.

Shylock is a man as well as a Jew; and while Shakespeare took the national attitude toward Jews, and wished his readers and the spectators to rejoice in Shylock's discomfiture, he allowed Shylock to state his own case fairly, and in his comparison of himself with Christians, to reveal his human feelings. It is absurd to suppose that Shakespeare intended Shylock to be a hero, or to carry the sympathy of the audience; on the other hand, Shakespeare was not writing anti-Semitic propaganda, but a play for the theatre, in which the interest is immensely heightened by making every character a recognizable human being.