30. Morocco’s Story of Hercules Playing Dice for a Woman in “The Merchant of Venice”

In The Merchant of Venice, Morocco paraphrases a story from Plutarch’s Lives about Hercules playing dice to win a woman. The prose passage appears in “The Life of Romulus,” not in one of the chapters used for the Roman plays. Scholars for a long time were confused about the origin of Morocco’s story, till E. A. J. Honigmann pointed it out in 1959.

North’s Plutarch’s LivesShakespeare’s Merchant of Venice
  To these two children lying there in this sort, they write, there came a she-wolf & gave them suck …The clerk or sexton of Hercules’ temple …did desire the god Hercules to play at dice with him with condition that if he did win, Hercules should be bound to send him some good fortune: and if it were his luck to lose, then he promised Hercules he would provide him a very good supper and would besides bring him a fair gentlewoman –22  Pluck the young sucking cubs from the she-bear,
Yea, mock the lion when ’a roars for prey,
To win thee, lady. But alas the while!
If Hercules and Lichas play at dice
Which is the better man, the greater throw May turn by fortune from the weaker hand…
Good fortune then! To make me blest or cursed’st among men. –2.1.29-34, 45-46
she-wolf … suck,Sucking she-bear,
Hercules to play at diceHercules play at dice
good fortune, win-gentlewomanGood fortune, win-lady

Quoting Honigmann: “Though the last editor of The Merchant of Venice tells us that ‘no story of a game at dice is known,’ Plutarch’s charming anecdote makes the quaint association of Hercules and dice.” What is more, Honigmann emphasizes that “On the same page in Plutarch (‘Romulus’, I, 52) we read of the ‘she woulfe’ which ‘gave them [Romulus and Remus] sucke.’”[i] This would explain why Morocco also juxtaposed the image of Hercules playing dice to win a woman with an image of “young sucking cubs from the she-bear.”

There is little doubt about the connection. Searches of both EEBO and Google confirm that the only two works to juxtapose Hercules with “play at dice” are The Merchant of Venice and North’s Plutarch’s Lives.

[i] E. A. J. Honigmann, “Shakespeare’s Plutarch,” Shakespeare Quarterly 10.1 (1959): 25-33; 32.

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