Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Articles Written For:

The University of Oxford's Bodleian Library & The Royal Shakespeare Company

Most Popular Posts:

1. Shakespeare's Shylock Solved 2. Shakespeare's Othello Finally Identified 3. Shakespeare In Love Sequel Solved 4. The Real Romeo and Juliet 5. Shakespeare's Malvolio Solved 6. Shakespeare's Real Petruchio

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Shakespeare's Shylock Solved Part 2

Yesterday I wrote about why Shakespeare would have written the character of Shylock to represent himself.

(Click Here for Shakespeare's Shylock Solved Part 1)

Today I would like to show how Shakespeare named Shylock after himself.

I think I have found the last piece of the puzzle that is Shylock's name.

Today is the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth.

I have been waiting a long time for this day to share some discoveries I have made.

Happy Birthday Shakespeare!

When I wrote my version of The Merchant of Venice play, I was convinced that the character of Shylock was meant to represent Shakespeare himself, that Shakespeare was Shylock.

I looked into the name Shylock. It is a completely original name.

The name has no precedent in history or literature. 

Shakespeare invented it, just like he invented the name Othello (the meaning of which I solved last year), and he invented the name Jessica, Shylock’s daughter.

Yes, you can thank Shakespeare for inventing that beautiful name, since the name Jessica first appeared in Shakespeare’s Merchant play:

Shylock and Jessica, by Maurice Gottlieb 1876

But where did the name Shylock come from?

John Gross’s excellent book ‘Shylock: A Legend & Its Legacy’ lists some of the common theories:

The name Shylock could be a reference to Caleb Shillocke, who was mentioned in a Jacobean pamphlet.

It could have come from the word ‘shullock’ which means ‘to lie about, or to slouch.’

It might refer to Shelah, an ancestor of Abraham, in Genesis 10:24.

It might be from the Hebrew word ‘Shallach’ for the cormorant bird.

Kenneth Gross’s excellent book ‘Shylock is Shakespeare’ very persuasively argues that Shakespeare did in fact write the character after himself.

He refers to Professor Stephen Orgel who says that Shylock echoes ‘Selah’ or ‘Shiloh’ from the Bible, and the Hebrew ‘Shelach’ for the cormorant bird. Orgel says that the name Shylock ancient Saxon roots, and means ‘white-haired.’

I came across a great blog article which discusses the question of Shylock’s name:

It seems that there was a British man named ’Sylock’ who lived in the 14th century.

The blog mentions a theory by the journalist Maurice Brodzky who wrote that Shakespeare may have read the Pirke Avot, a collection of Rabbinacal ethical sayings and maxims. 

I would like to quote a paragraph from this blog in full:

‘What if, Brodzky asks, the name Shylock comes from the Mishna in the 5th chapter of Pirke Avot, where "the man who says שלי שלי ושלך שלך, the man who stands on the letter of the law" is described; neither evil, nor pious. An average sort of person, who says "What's mine is mine, and what's yours is yours."  (More intriguing; the Mishnah says that some say that this person is not "average," but displaying the qualities of Sodomites, which according to Jewish tradition was the trait of inhospitality, rather than homosexuality.) Brodzky suggests that Shakespeare may have seen some Latin translation of Pirke Avot, and was struck by the recurring term "Sheloch, in connexion with sayings descriptive of Jewish business men." Brodzky does not implausibly suggest that William read Hebrew, but wonders if he discussed the passage with a learned man. Although he did not know it, his conjecture that there was a Latin version of Pirke Avot is entirely correct.’

What I found persuasive in this paragraph is that is really suggests the character of Shylock in the play. Shylock stands on the letter of the law, and he is behavior towards Antonio and Bassanio could be characterized as inhospitable. 

And much like I established when I wrote my version of the Merchant play, Shylock is not 'evil' nor is he the villain. He is in fact the hero of the play.

Also, there is a mention of Sodom and sodomy. This is key since Venice was a Sodom and Gomorrah in the Elizabethan period, and part of the bawdy comedy in the Merchant play comes from this understanding.

I considered all of these possible solutions to the riddle of Shylock’s name.

Nothing seemed convincing.

But then I looked closer at the word ‘cormorant.’

It appears in Shakespeare’s Richard II, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Coriolanus and Troilus and Cressida. Perhaps Shakespeare was fond of this word for some reason.

The word ‘cormorant’ can mean a greedy person, which would strongly suggest the character of Shylock.

But there is a bird called a ‘cormorant.’

This bird is also called -- a ‘shag.’


‘Shag’ rang a bell in my memory.

According to Wikipedia

‘There is no consistent distinction between cormorants and shags. The names "cormorant" and "shag" were originally the common names of the two species of the family found in Great Britain, Phalacrocorax carbo (now referred to by ornithologists as the Great Cormorant) and P. aristotelis (the European Shag).’

Since there was no standardized spelling in the Elizabethan period, the name Shakespeare had several different spellings during his lifetime. The variations include:


And so forth.

But the one I remembered most was ’Shagsper.’

Say the name Shakespeare out loud and it could easily sound like Shagsper.

Say the name Shakespeare out loud and it could also sound like Shags-bird.

So, does Shakespeare’s ‘Shylock’ mean ‘Shelach’ (or ‘Shallach’) mean ‘Cormorant’ mean ‘Shag’ which means ‘Shakespeare?’

I have not found anyone else who has come to this discovery.

As far as I know this is an original theory.

But I found more pieces to this puzzle.



Socrates wrote a play ‘The Clouds’ in which there is a scene with a money-lender named Pasias that is very similar to the scene where Antonio and Bassanio take a loan from Shylock.

I have found very little evidence linking these plays together.

As much as I thought that there was no link between the two plays, I could not eliminate it from my mind.

The one idea that I found tempting was that Socrates was famous for being sentenced to death, and drinking the poison hemlock.

Shylock is sentenced to a fate worse than death. He loses his money, and he has to renounce his faith and convert to Christianity.

So, I wonder, is it too much to think that the ‘-lock’ in ‘Shy-lock’ comes from Socrates who drank hemlock?

I don't know, but I find it very plausible.

Jessica, by Samuel Fields 1888


There is one last piece to this puzzle.

Why did Shakespeare create the name Jessica, for Shylock’s daughter?

It is commonly believed that the name derives from ‘Yiskah’ in the Bible.

But why?

Well, Yiskah was the daughter of Haran, and sister to Lot who fled Sodom.

Sodom again.

So, this goes back to the Pirke Avot which refers to sodomites, or the people who were from Sodom and Gomorrah.

As I have already mentioned, the Venice in Shakespeare’s play was a Sodom and Gomorrah.

So, Shakespeare it seems was making another reference to Venice as Sodom by naming Jessica after Yiskah.

I have found no other evidence to support or refute this theory, but it seems very persuasive.

In conclusion, yesterday I wrote about why Shakespeare would have written himself into the Merchant play, and today I have explained how Shylock is in fact Shakespeare himself.

I consider Merchant to be his best play, and now with this new understanding I hope that you consider reading, or re-reading it again.

If you want to read a version of the play that shows how it would have been performed in 1596 at The Theatre in Shoreditch by Shakespeare's company of actors, I recommend reading my version of the play. It is fresh and funny, and quite unlike any other version you have ever known.

Thank you for visiting this blog and I hope you do something special today to celebrate Shakespeare's birthday!


David B. Schajer


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