OK, it’s only the third of the month, and a little early to cut loose our first podcast for The Merchant of Venice; so in lieu of that, let me give you a little background on the background of Merchant.
It seems (at least to most scholars) that Shakespeare’s main source was an Italian collection of stories called Il Pecorone (The Simpleton), written by Giovanni Fiorentino in the late fourteenth century. While it was published in the mid-sixteenth century, there was no known English translation; the similarities between the Italian works and Merchant, however, are too close to be counted as coincidence. In the story, a woman who lives at “the Belmonte” marries a young man who needs money. This friends get financing from a money-lender, a Jew. When the friend defaults on the loan, the Jew wants a pound of flesh in exchange, and takes him to court to have the penalty exacted. In court, the wife disguises herself as a lawyer and argues successfully for the friend’s life.
A second source according to many critics is another collection of stories, parables, and sermons, this one written in Latin, and called Gesta Romanorum. It is believed that the work was written sometime in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, then translated into English in 1577 by Richard Robinson. One of the stories contains the “casket test,” in which a suitor must make a selection from gold, silver and lead chests.
It is also almost certain that Shakespeare was influenced by the success of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (originally produced in 1589); the play was revived in 1594 after the execution of Elizabeth I’s personal physician Roderigo Lopez for plotting to kill the Queen. Lopez was a Portuguese Jew, and his trial and brutal execution (the doctor was hanged, then drawn, then quartered), made the concept of evil Jews a popular one for audiences. The success of Marlowe’s play, and its titular Jew Barabas, made Shakespeare’s delving into the subject of Jewish villainy a foregone conclusion.