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Among the many discussions of the dates of Shakespeare's plays by orthodox scholars, there is no variation from the claim that The Merchant of Venice was written between 1594 and its registration in 1598 by James Roberts as "a book of The Merchant of Venice, or otherwise called The Jew of Venice ..." The quarto appeared two years later, bearing the title, The Most Excellent History of the Merchant of Venice (Chambers 1930, I, 368).
However, a reevaluation of the evidence demonstrates that a play with characters, plot and language similar to those in The Merchant of Venice was performed in 1579 and was, in fact, the Shakespeare play printed about twenty years later. The documentation presented here also demonstrates that the 17th Earl of Oxford wrote the play in about 1578, and that several later writers re-used the characters, language, and the basic plot in their own literary works. The evidence for both these conclusions has, for the most part, been ignored or dismissed by orthodox scholars who, instead, focus on the following alleged topical references in the play to events in the 1590s (with my comments included):
1. Dr. Roderigo Lopez, a Portuguese Jew who was physician to Queen Elizabeth, was accused of unlawful political intrigue on behalf of Don Antonio, a claimant to the throne of Portugal. He was tried, and then executed in June 1594. Some early Shakespeare scholars theorized that it was he who was the original of Shylock (Lee; Furness 399). But Dr. Lopez and Shylock have very little in common, except that they were Jews entangled in a legal system run by Christians; nor is there any resemblance between Don Antonio and Shakespeare's Antonio. Recent editors of the play discount a connection between Lopez and Shylock (Brown xxiv-xxv; Mahood 7; Drakakis 20-1).
2. Another alleged topical reference occurs in a discussion among Antonio and his two friends in the opening scene of the play. Salerio says:
I should not see the sandy hour-glass run But I should think of shallows and of flats, And see my wealthy Andrew [dock'd] in sand, Vailing her high top lower than her ribs To kiss her burial. I.i.25-9
The phrase "my wealthy Andrew dock'd in sand" has been explained as a reference to the Spanish galleon San AndrOs, which was captured by an English fleet after running aground in Cadiz harbor in June 1596. The ship was brought to England the next year and renamed St. Andrew (Brown xxv-xxvii). But it is much more likely that Salerio is simply using a term that was common for a type of ship in sixteenth-century Italy, an "Andrea" or "Andrew." This term came into use because of the practice of a prominent Genoese admiral, Andrea Doria (1466-1560), of assigning variations of his name to the ships he owned, e.g. Andrea la Spume (Andrew the Sea Foam), Andrea l'Onde (Andrew the Wave), etc. (Altrocchi 10). The word eventually came into general use in English as a slang term for a ship, and as a reference to the Royal Navy. The admiral's name has re mained in use for Italian ships, and American, into the twentieth century. (1)
3. A third alleged topical reference occasionally mentioned by editors are Portia's lines in III.ii.48-50:
Then music is Even as the flourish when true subjects bow To a new-crowned monarch;
The most recent Arden editor credits Edmund Malone with the observation that the passage "might allude to the coronation of Henry IV of France at Chartres on 27 February 1594; the coronation was before 'true subjects' because Rheims, where the ceremony ought to have taken place, was in the possession of rebels." But he finds the notion unconvincing, and admits that "there is no certain evidence for the date of The Merchant of Venice" (Brown xxv).
Even if these references were found to be genuinely topical, that is, intended to refer to events in the 1590s, they would be insufficient to date the composition of the play to that time. Revisions and additions to the text at any point up to its publication date, whether by Shakespeare or another, cannot be ruled out.
Nearly all scholars agree on the four principal sources of the play, each of which was available before 1580. These include the thirteenth-century collection of anecdotes Gesta Romanorum; the thirteenth-century poem Cursor Mundi; the fourteenth-century collection of stories, Il Pecorone, by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino; and the fifteenth century collection of fifty stories, Il Novellino by Masuccio of Salerno. All the plot elements of the play are contained in one or more of these four sources. Different versions of the Gesta Romanorum and Cursor Mundi were available in Latin or English before the beginning of Elizabeth's reign. Il Novellino was published in 1476 and Il Pecorone in 1558. Neither had been translated into English when The Merchant of Venice was published, in 1600 (Bullough I, 449, 456).
Lastly, orthodox scholars cite five literary works of the 1580s and 1590s as minor or probable sources of the play. I will discuss each of these in its own section below. But before any of them were written, there were four references in the late 1570s and early 1580s to a play or a story that can be identified with The Merchant of Venice. Orthodox scholars ignore or dismiss these as references to a source play, an Ur Merchant of Venice, now lost, on which they claim Shakespeare based his own play fifteen years later.
Early Merchant References
The earliest reference to the Merchant of Venice story is in the well-known passage in Stephen Gosson's tract The School of Abuse, registered in July 1579 and published in the same year. Its subtitle is "... a pleasant invective against Poets, Pipers, Players, Jesters and such like Caterpillars of a Commonwealth." As a former actor and playwright, Gosson chastises himself for his previous "folly," and then proceeds to a general condemnation of all places of entertainment and all that happens there, both on and off the stage. He acknowledges that some plays are not offensive, and cites several that are "without rebuke."
Two of these plays, The Jew and Ptolome, were performed at The Bull in Bishopsgate, an inn with a yard in which plays could be seen by a crowd of spectators. He describes The Jew as "representing the greediness of worldly choosers and bloody minds of usurers" (Chambers 1923, IV, 203-205). It is fair to say that the phrase "worldly choosers" characterize the three suitors who must choose the correct casket to earn the hand of Portia. Shakespeare uses the words "choose" and "chooseth" more than forty times in connection with the "three caskets story." "Bloody minds of usurers" describes Shylock, who wants to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio. Combined with the play's title, these are suggestive references to details in the play we now call The Merchant of Venice.
It is less well-known that several other passages in The School of Abuse can be associated with The Merchant of Venice. In Act II, as Shylock is about to leave his house to meet Bassanio, his former servant Launcelot Gobbo attempts to inform Jessica when to meet Lorenzo and his friends, who will be disguised as masquers. Shylock is alarmed at the prospect of masquers. He counsels his daughter to avoid the sights and sounds of playmaking in the streets during his absence, and to stay away from the windows, his house's "ears" (italics added):
What, are there masques? Hear you me, Jessica: Lock up my doors; and when you hear the drum And the vile squealing of the wry-neck'd fife, Clamber not you up to the casements then, Nor thrust your head into the public street To gaze on Christian fools with varnish'd faces, But stop my house's ears, I mean my casements; Let not the sound of shallow fopp'ry enter My sober house. II.v.28-36 (2)
In the next act, Gobbo commiserates with Jessica about the difficulty she endures as Shylock's daughter. He mentions the "bastard hope" that he may not be her real father. She replies that in that case she would be a victim of her mother's sin. Gobbo answers:
Truly then I fear you are damn'd both by father and mother: thus when I shun Scylla (your father), I fall into Charybdis, your mother. III.v.15-17
The same type of warning appears at the end of The School of Abuse, where Gosson adds a few pages of advice "To the Gentlewomen of London," urging them to avoid plays and theaters (italics aded):
When you are grieved, pass the time with your neighbors in sober conference ... If your grief be such that you may not disclose it, and your sorrow so great that you loath to utter it, look for no salve at plays or theatres, lest that laboring to shun Scylla you light on Charybdis ...
You need not go abroad to be tempted; you shall be enticed at your own windows ... And if you perceive yourselves in any danger at your own doors, either allured by courtesy in the day, or assaulted with music in the night, close up your eyes, stop your ears, tie up your tongues; when they speak, answer not ... (Kinney 117-18).
"It is as if Shylock has been reading Gosson," writes one Shakespeare scholar (Ross 37). In view of the phrases Gosson uses to describe the play, it seems far more likely that it is he who has been listening to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Gosson uses the same image and the same words and phrases as Shakespeare--in the same context of warning a woman against actors and playmaking. (3)
Another document from the same year, 1579, is a letter from Edmund Spenser to Gabriel Harvey. It is undated, but written in response to a letter from Harvey in 1579. Spenser and Harvey had become good friends at Oxford a decade earlier, and both lived in London at this time. At the end of his letter, Spenser signs off by describing himself as "He that is fast bound unto thee in more obligations than any merchant in Italy to any Jew there." Edward Scott, the archivist for the Sloane manuscript collection at the British …