Gosson’s 1579 Reference to the original “The Merchant of Venice”

The source play for The Merchant of Venice, which was originally titled, The Jew of Venice, is relatively easy to date: 1578. We know this because we can confine its date between a known source, Richard Robinson’s English translation of the Gesta Romanorum (1577), and a known allusion to the drama in Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuse (1579). In Gosson’s controversial pamphlet, he attacks the theater and stage plays – but does single out a few exceptional dramas, including two works, “The Jew & Ptolemy, shown at the Bull.” Gosson describes The Jew as portraying “the greediness of worldly choosers and bloody minds of usurers.”[1] A number of scholars assume this refers to the source drama for The Merchant of Venice because the description combines both peculiar plots. The “bloody minds of usurers” alludes to Shylock’s effort to extract a bloody penalty on the defaulting Antonio. In fact, Gratiano even refers to his bloody mind: “thy desires/ Are wolvish, bloody, starved and ravenous” (4.1. 137-8). Gosson’s other comment — “The greediness of worldly choosers” —refers to the covetous nature of the world-traveling suitors (“all the world desires her/ From the four corners of the earth they come” 2.7.) who had to choose correctly among gold, silver, or lead caskets in order to win the hand of Portia. The greed of the Princes of Morocco and Aragon lead them to the mistaken choice of the gold and silver caskets, respectively. The romantic local hero, Bassanio, observing that “The world is still deceived with ornament” (3.2.74), opts for the sturdy lead casket and thus wins Portia. Indeed, even the full title of Shakespeare’s 1600 publication of the comedy echoes Gosson’s dual description, referring to both the “the extreme cruelty of Shylock, the Jew” and “the obtaining of Portia by the choice of three chests.”

We also know that at least a few of the passages that appear in Shakespeare’s adaptation originally appeared in a similar version in this source-play because Gosson paraphrases these. Specifically, in The Merchant of Venice, before Shylock leaves for the dinner, he warns Jessica not to be tempted by revelers outside the house or the music of the night-masque entering the windows:

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-necked fife, 
Clamber not you up to the casements then, 
Nor thrust your head into the public street
To gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces,
But stop my house’s ears—I mean my casements.
Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter
My sober house. (2.5.29-37)

In the same work in which Gosson writes of The Jew, he also provides similar instructions for young women: “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 … assaulted with music in the night; close up your eyes, stop your ears, tie up your tongues; when they speak, answer not.”[2] Immediately prior, Gosson advises women not to use the theatre to help relieve grief: “lest that laboring to shun Scylla you light on Charybdis.”[3] The Merchant of Venice also uses “shun” with a metaphor involving the same two Homeric monsters: “Thus when I shun Scylla, your father, I fall into Charybdis, your mother” (3.5.14-15).

J. C. Ross, who discovered these verbal similarities, had to assume that Shakespeare was the borrower or else admit that these passages originally appeared in the source work: “It is as if Shylock has been reading Gosson, and is applying this advice to his daughter.” But this is an extraordinary interpretation, as we know that it was Gosson who had seen Shylock. Indeed, Gosson identifies The Jew as one of a few plays he liked in the very tract where these similarities appear.[4]

Thus, the source-play for The Merchant of Venice, which included both the major storyline and subplot and a few similar passages, had appeared by 1579. Also, as Kenneth Muir observes Shakespeare’s Sources: Comedies and Tragedies, we also know the source-dramatist took the casket plot from Robinson’s 1577 translation of the Gesta Romanorum because in the relevant scene he echoes Robinson’s word “insculpt,” which appears nowhere else in the canon.[5] EEBO indicates its scarcity, offering only 44 other works that use the word. But of course, as Gosson, in 1579, refers to the casket plot as already a part of the source-play, The Jew, and since this was borrowed from a 1577 work, the source play for The Merchant of Venice had to have been written sometime between these two publications in 1577 and 1579, so around 1578.

Given the royal patent of 1574, Leicester’s Men was one of the few acting troupes to be able to perform in the city of London. In the summer months, they would naturally use Burbage’s Theater, which was built in 1576 just beyond city limits of Bishopsgate. But in the winter months of the late 1570s, they may have preferred the more sheltered balconies provided by the city Inns, including the nearby Bull Inn on Bishopsgate. Fleay writes that “Gosson, in his ‘School of Abuse,’ 1579, mentions The Jew and Ptolemy [Telemo, perhaps acted at Court by Leicester’s Men, 10th February 1583] as two plays shown at the Bull.”[6]

Scholars have also identified the tell-tale signs of adaptation and abridgement in the extant version of The Merchant of Venice that we have today, which as published with Shakespeare’s name on the title page in 1600. Many have suggested that the 1578 source play likely contained the elements that appear to have been snipped from the extant work, like the reasons for Antonio’s melancholy, an explanation for the close relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, a fuller treatment of the story of Jessica, and, most notably, the missing dinner-masque scene that should occur just prior to Act 2, scene 7.

Specifically, in The Merchant of Venice,the scenes in the middle of the second act induce anxiety for a dinner party that never occurs. The tension flows from the fact that Bassanio invites both Shylock and Lorenzo to a feast on the same night that the Christian Lorenzo plans to elope with Shylock’s daughter and steal his ducats as a dowry. Lorenzo still plans on both eloping and attending the dinner and masque but with Jessica disguised as a boy page so she will not be recognized at the revelry—especially by her father. The gears of this plot remain in motion until Lorenzo comes to fetch Jessica: she is wearing the male disguise, and the opening stage direction is “Enter the masquers, Gratiano and Salerio” (2.6.s.d.). Yet just as the dinner-masque appears set to begin, Antonio abruptly announces that the masque has been cancelled: “No masque to-night. The wind is come about” (2.6.64). The scene ends immediately, and the audience is brought to Act 2, scene 7, with Portia, Morocco, and the caskets. The repeated foreshadowing of Shylock’s interaction with Lorenzo and the concealed Jessica at the revelry as well as Jessica’s disguise as a boy and Gratiano’s and Salerio’s dressed as masquers make little sense in the extant version of the play. But S. A. Small provides the obvious explanation:

A close study of the text indicates that the original text of the play and probably the old play, called The Jew, contained a supper-scene, which probably occurred just before the entrance of Antonio in Act II, Sc. vii. But the proposed supper in The Merchant of Venice seems to be a part of a general masque in which Lorenzo and Jessica were to be the central figures. The supper and masque, then, can be assigned to The Jew

S. A. Small, “The Jew,” The Modern Language Review 26 (1931): 281-87. [7]

John Dover Wilson also discusses this point and agrees that the dinner and masque were part of the original play and were removed by Shakespeare.[8]

The original dramatist had to adopt the main story about the Jewish usurer and his bond for the pound of flesh from an untranslated Italian text, Il Pecorone, which was printed in Venice in 1565. The prefatory material to North’s translation of The Moral Philosophy of Doni suggest he was in Padua and Venice in 1570, reading “a number of Italian authors”(A.4v). If Gosson’s comment implies we are looking for a late 1570s Leicester Men’s playwright who was familiar with Venice, focused on Italian culture, and skilled at translating Italian works, we have already narrowed down the field of possible candidates for authorship of this 1578 precursor to The Merchant of Venice to Thomas North.

But, of course, it is the passages throughout the play that come from North’s writings, especially his Plutarch’s Lives, and the evidence that he first wrote it for Queen Elizabeth’s 1578 visit to the family estate of Kirtling Hall that confirm his original authorship (See also Michael Blanding’s North by Shakespeare, and expect a video by June of 2021.)

Editors working on various plays often refer to Shakespeare’s reliance on foreign and obscure sources –even when they know that Shakespeare was likely working from a source-play and that this earlier dramatist was the one who had to use that original foreign text. Must we really assume that both Shakespeare and the author of The Jew of Venice found and read Il Pecorone (Venice, 1565) in Italian? They also credit Shakespeare with the casket-plot, even though Gosson indicates it was already part of the play that he had seen. This is an all too common scholarly mistake in which researchers and editors reflexively give credit to Shakespeare for the origination of various elements and characters that were indisputably part of the elder source work. The nineteenth-century editor Horace Howard Furness stresses this oversight: “Thus far we have been dealing with the plot of this play [The Merchant of Venice] as if it were a mosaic, which Shakespeare had combined into one group by gathering its diverse elements from diverse sources, and he has been greatly praised for showing so much dramatic and artistic skill in the combination.” But Furness then notes that this conflicts with the possibility “that Shakespeare was indebted for the framework at least of this drama to an older play, in which the Bond Story and the Casket Story were already combined.” Furness also quotes an early nineteenth-century editor, Francis Douce, to show that scholars had been underscoring this same error for some time:

“Douce refers to the ‘mistake that has been committed by those who speak of Shakespeare’s imitations of the sources of this play, and who forget that one on the same subject had already appeared, and which might have furnished him with the whole of the plot.’ Again, in referring to Tyrwhitt’s conjectures concerning [Shakespeare’s use of] the Gesta Romanorum [as a source for the casket plot], Douce says: ‘He also had forgotten the elder drama mentioned by Gosson.’”

The Merchant of Venice, ed. Horace Howard Furness, A New Variorum Edition (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1895), 319-20.

Douce’s last line effectively encapsulates the last century of all of Shakespeare studies: We have “forgotten the elder drama.”


[1] Stephen Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse, Conteining a plesaunt invective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Jesters, and such like Caterpillers of a Comonwelth; Setting up the Hagge of Defiance to their mischievous exercise, overthrowing their Bulwarkes, by Prophane Writers, Naturall reason, and common experience: A discourse as pleasaunt for Gentlemen that favour learning, as profitable for all that wyll follow virtue (London: Thomas Woodcocke, 1579), 22.

[2] Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse, EEBO document images 43-44.

[3] Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse, EEBO document image 43.

[4] J. C. Ross, “Stephen Gosson and The Merchant of Venice Revisited,” Notes and Queries 50 (2003): 36-37. Ramon Jimenez, a very insightful researcher on the original chronology of the Shakespeare-canon (or source plays), has made a similar argument about Gosson’s paraphrasing of Merchant of Venice in a similarly structured paragraph: “‘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.” See Ramon Jimenez, The Date of The Merchant of Venice: The Evidence for 1578; The Oxfordian, (13), 2011, 50-75; 53. I would officially quote and cite him here, but I am fairly sure that I published the argument first – early in 2011.  Regardless, one of us has subconsciously echoed the other, and this argument remains valid either way. Elsewhere, I do indeed rely on Jimenez’s splendid writings, particularly a number of his arguments about the chorus of Henry V and officially cite him.

[5] Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare’s Sources: Comedies and Tragedies (New York: Methuen, 1957), 50.

[6]Frederick Gard Fleay, “A Chronicle History of the London Stage, 1559-1642,” (New York: G.E. Stechert & Co., 1909), 36

[7] S. A. Small, “The Jew,” The Modern Language Review 26 (1931): 281-87.

[8]The Merchant of Venice, ed. John Dover Wilson, The Cambridge Dover Wilson Shakespeare (1926; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 21:110-12.

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