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, September 9, 2015

Shakespeare's Real Shylock


Who is the real Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice?

Well, I already answered that previously — here — when I explained how Shylock is mostly a representation of Shakespeare himself.

Dustin Hoffman as Shylock, 1989

But there is someone else that Shakespeare had in mind when he created the character of the rich Jewish money-lender.

Here’s a funny story — when I wrote my version of Merchant around 2010, one of the last creative decisions I made was to include a real life character from Shakespeare’s London — John Spencer.

John Spencer
from his tomb at St. Helen's Bishopsgate


John Spencer was the Lord Mayor of London from September 1594 to September 1595. This is around the time in which Shakespeare was preparing to write or was writing the play.

I found very little information about him other than the fact that he was very wealthy and was also a money-lender. His nickname was “Rich” Spencer.

I found the idea of the Lord Mayor of London lending money to be very ironic. If one of the wealthiest and most influential men of the time was involved in a practice that had been illegal until some 25 years before, then it suggests that money-lending was very common across all of London.

Also, what was tantalizing about him was the fact that he lived at Crosby Hall, in Bishopsgate. This made him a neighbour to Shakespeare who lived nearby at the same time.

So, as I wrote my version of Merchant, I wanted Shakespeare meet and talk with John Spencer. This is the first scene I wrote. It’s a very funny scene.

Well, just recently I looked him up again and found much more information about him.

And boy, were my original instincts right. Not only did John Spencer belong in my version of Merchant — he is a central figure to what Shakespeare’s Merchant play. If there was one man Shakespeare wanted to make fun of in this play, it was Spencer.

Spencer was one of the wealthiest men in London. It is estimated that at his death his net worth was £500,000 — which today would be about £21 billion!

his tomb
A man that wealthy would have been very well known to anyone and everyone in London. 

He had made some of his wealth in overseas trade, including Venice. 

In 1591, he was accused of unfair trade practices with two other merchants. It seems that he was trying to corner the market on trade with Tripoli. 

So, when Shakespeare introduces Antonio, Salerino and Solanio talking about their argosy merchant ships on the seas, coming and going, it would seem that Shakespeare has Spencer and his cronies in mind. 

To reinforce this message, Shylock refers to Antonio’s “argosy bound to Tripolis.”

But before long, Shakespeare introduces Bassanio.

Where did Shakespeare get the name Bassanio?

Was it because John Spencer had been Sheriff of London, and during that time he had to investigate Anthony Bassano?

Bassano was part of a family of musicians to the courts of King Henry VIII and to Queen Elizabeth. 

His niece was Emilia Bassano, who was the mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, who was Queen Elizabeth’s first cousin and very close friend.

Lord Hunsdon was also the queen’s Lord Chamberlain, and it was his group of players, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in which Shakespeare acted and wrote.

Shakespeare probably knew Emilia Bassano and others in her family quite well. He may have known that her father Baptiste was born in Venice. It has been suggested that Emilia was the "Dark Lady" in the Sonnets.

He would have also known that the Bassano family were Jewish, and it makes sense that in Shakespeare’s only play about a Jewish character, he refers to this Bassano family by name, with Bassanio.

So, within the space of a few lines in the opening of Shakespeare’s Merchant play, he has made fun of John Spencer many ways — through his overseas trade, his cronies, and through the relation to the Bassano family.

But then Shakespeare introduces Shylock and his only child, a daughter Jessica.

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock
with Phoebe Pryce as Jessica

Jessica wants to run away from her father, and elope with Lorenzo.

Shylock all but locks her up in the house and when Lorenzo and his friends arrive. Jessica appears above them, from a balcony or window. She then runs off with Lorenzo to get married.

John Spencer also had problems with his only daughter, Elizabeth.

By 1598, Elizabeth was in love with Henry Compton, and wanted to get married.

Her father didn’t approve of the match. He was so abusive to his daughter, that Compton got Spencer locked up in Fleet Prison!

Sometime later, Elizabeth eloped with Compton — by lowering herself from a balcony or window in a bread-basket!

Spencer, who was famously stingy all his life, gave his daughter no money when she got married.

Even when she was about to give him a grandchild, he was still angry.

It seems that Queen Elizabeth, who knew Spencer, and had even visited his home in the past, had to intervene to get father and daughter to make up.

When we look at John Spencer, and the story of his daughter’s elopement, it is impossible to think that Shakespeare was NOT lampooning him with his Merchant of Venice play.

The similarities are too striking.

Anyone in the audience watching this play would have been laughing at Spencer. 

There must have been a great deal of gossip around London about Spencer and his daughter. Why else would Shakespeare put it in his play?

What is even funnier is that Shakespeare probably wrote the play, with Jessica and Lorenzo’s elopement, before Elizabeth and Compton eloped!

Is it possible that they were inspired to elope by Shakespeare’s Merchant play?

Also — after Elizabeth and Compton eloped — did Shakespeare re-write the play so Jessica was lowered in a bread-basket? I would bet on it.


In conclusion, there are many reasons why Shakespeare wrote Merchant, and inventend the character of Shylock.

But we must consider that Shakespeare wrote for his audience in a very specific period of time. And since this was a comedy, he would have wanted to pack as much humour in it as possible.

Unfortunately for Spencer and his family, Shakespeare packed them in the play too.

Cheers,



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