Pound of Flesh

Giving a new twist to the usual flurry of New Year’s resolutions to lose a pound or two of excess weight, a rather bizarre exhibition trial was staged in New York recently. As was widely reported, both in the New Yorker and on Radio 4’s Today programme, the Shylock v Antonio proceedings were

held in the Cardozo moot courtroom, before a sold-out crowd that seemed to be equal parts lawyers and Shakespeare nuts. Actors did a CliffsNotes version of the play, focussing on the trial scene. Quick refresher: Renaissance Venice, a different era in Judeo-Christian relations. Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, lends three thousand ducats to the Christian merchant Antonio, so that Antonio’s friend can use it to woo the wealthy Portia. Shylock, who hates Antonio, demands a “pound of flesh” as collateral. Some things go wrong, and everyone ends up in court, where Portia, disguised as a doctor of law, gets Antonio off the hook and gets Shylock charged with attempted murder. The staging was contemporary: Antonio wore a suit; Shylock carried a briefcase.

There was an impressive line-up of top-rate barristers, judges from the Federal District court and New York State Supreme Court, a professor of literature and a novelist and law professor, to mention a few.  The case against Shylock was first argued to have been ill-considered by a German legal philosopher, Rudolf von Jhering, back in the 19th century.

There are many fascinating theories about the origins of the Shylock story, as retold by Shakespeare in the Merchant of VeniceMark Anderson, author of Shakespeare by Another Name, argues against the conventional theory that the bard was inspired by an Italian tale, Il Pecorone (published in Milan in 1558), of which no English translation has ever been traced, and instead highlights the similarities between the Shylock incident and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford’s disastrous investment in a shipping venture financed to the tune of £3000 by a Jewish moneylender – coincidentally referred to as Micheal Lok.

Whatever the truth of the source of the Shylock, Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy was most likely gleaned from the large Italian community in London rather than in Italy itself, where he could not have afforded to go except in the retinue of one of his protectors.  Of the many Italians who Shakespeare may have met, one in particular stands out: John (Giovanni) Florio, the translator and lexicographer who lived from 1553 to 1625.  It is interesting that The Merchant of Venice was thought to have been written in about 1596, while Florio was working on his dictionary.

Incidentally, this blog owes Florio a huge debt because I named it after his Italian-English dictionary, A World of Words, first published in folio in 1598, and then as an expanded edition (the frontispiece is shown below)  in 1611.


After Frances Yates’ seminal work on Florio (John Florio: The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England. New York, 1968), a notable recent addition was provided by Michael Wyatt in The Italian Encounter with Tudor England: A Cultural Politics of Translation (Cambridge, 2005).

Another tributary of the anti-Stratford school of thought has suggested that Florio himself might also have written the plays and sonnets under the nom de plume William Shakespeare – a theory most recently put forward by Lamberto Tassinari in a book entitled  Shakespeare? E’ il nome d’arte di John Florio (2008).

The prevailing antisemitism of the time is evident in the dictionary where Florio’s entries confirm the general mistrust with which Jews were regarded, a misunderstanding that was not necessarily malevolent: “a Jew,” Florio writes is “an incredulous or misbelieving man”.  But we must beware of letting our interpretation of Florio and his contemporary, Shakespeare, be coloured by our 21st-century perceptions.  Although virtually impossible to achieve, we have to roll back the layers of historical events and lives, wipe out our knowledge of later pogroms and, above all, the Holocaust, then we might attempt to understand relations between Christians and Jews at the time.   Shylock is a moneylender – a profession reserved primarily to  Jews  – but rather than seeing his treatment here as antisemitic, we should remember that he is nonetheless a fictitious character, a stereotype of the “Jew preying on meek Gentiles” and – as Anthony Julius argues –  an “antisemitic fantasy”.

Coming back to the New York trial, the judges were divided in their ruling but nonetheless succeeded in reversing Shakespeare’s own verdict.  With a five to two majority, a ruling was passed in Shylock’s favour, stating that he deserved to be repaid his money but differing on the question of interest (Shakespeare’s pound of flesh).  Anthony Julius was on the losing side and pointed out that the others “sided with Shylock for reasons unrelated to the legal merits. They side with Shylock because they think that the play is antisemitic and he deserves a better deal than Shakespeare gives him.”  Instead, Julius believes that “within the logic of the play itself Antonio and his lawyer have the better arguments.”

Certainly, Portia’s speech on the quality of mercy is one of the most poignant and persuasive Shakespeare ever wrote.

What, if anything, can be extrapolated from Shakespeare’s original plot or indeed from this retrial in terms of our attitude towards our modern moneylenders – the Bernard Madoffs of this world – who have taken money and pounds of flesh from savers and businesses the world over is quite another matter.

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