Medieval & Early Modern History Research article

In the Jewish Quarter

  The Merchant of Venice’s Shylock would have lived in the original Venetian Ghetto. What might have impressed Shakespeare had he been down its winding alleys?

7 minute read

‘Turn up on your right hand at the next turning, but at the next turning of all, on your left, marry, at the very next turning turn of no hand, but turn down indirectly to the Jew’s house.’ If one thing may convince Venetians that Shakespeare had a first-hand knowledge of their city, it is the mischievous directions given by Launcelot to his blind father Gobbo. Strayed tourists may meet the same fate today as they ask local children for a specific destination, after all their zeal and ardou in interpreting maps and signs has failed them in the fierce maze of calles and canals.

So, despite the lack of corroborating evidence, there is no harm in imagining a disoriented young Shakespeare roaming around the most famed city of Christendom, trying to reach the magnificent Piazza San Marco and being misled by some little pranksters towards the north western periphery to find himself instead in a large, bustling, churchless square.

A group of masked people gathered around an angelic person with a bow and arrow.

‘Ghetto’, the word that has become synonymous with ethnic segregation originated in Venice. Photographer: Marc Brenner

‘Ghetto’, the word which has become synonymous with ethnic segregation and that Shakespeare never mentions, originated here. It was in 1516 that the city Council decreed the removal of the Jews e corpore civitatis (‘from the body of the city’). While the new Church of the Holy Saviour was built in the centre of the city to atone for the sins that, according to preachers, had consigned Venice to defeat against the French at the battle of Agnadello, the resolution was to confine the Jews in the former ‘Public Copper Foundry’ (Geto del rame del nostro Comun), securing their services but safely keeping them at the margins, the traditional receptacle of all evil and perversity (like theatres and brothels).

It is not clear whether it was the former German foundry workers or the incoming German Jews who, gutturalising the initial ‘G’, turned the Getto [‘Jetto’] into the Ghetto. Constrained within the narrow limits of an island, the Ghetto became at once a place of exclusion and a safe haven for refugees, the best available compromise for a persecuted minority composed of five ethnic groups of Jews who had arrived in different waves from Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the Ottoman Empire.

An old map illustrating a bird's eye view of Venice with its winding streets and canals.

In 1516, the city Council decreed the removal of the Jews from the body of the city, confining them to the former Pulic Copper Foundry. Map of Venice by Danckerts, 1600.

Despite the strict regulations which forbade Jews to leave the area at night and prescribed a yellow badge for daylight excursions, the Ghetto was characterised by a considerable incoming and outgoing traffic. It attracted curious visitors like the Englishman Thomas Coryat, whose first impression upon entering one of the synagogues in around 1609, where sermons in Italian drew many learned Christians, was that Jews lacked respect for the place since they neither knelt down nor removed their hats. He later engaged in a theological dispute with a Rabbi and marveled at the man’s unwillingness to convert. The dispute then became a row, and Coryat (so he says) was saved from threatening Jews by the providential intervention of the English ambassador.

A scan of a tablet of the Old Testament showing a drawing of a person wearing a badge on their chest.

Jews were prescribed to wear a yellow badge for daylight excursions. English Jew wearing the Jewish badge on his chest in the form of the tablets of the Old Testament. BL Cotton MS Nero, D2, fol.180, thirteenth century. British Library, UK, reproduced from The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages.

Shakespeare may have been there some years earlier. He would not have met any Mr Shylock, for the simple reason that, as the scholar Stephen Orgel has demonstrated, all the efforts to demonstrate its Hebrew etymology cannot disprove the fact that Shylock was a purely English name, semantically equivalent to Whitlock and Whitehead and probably used by Shakespeare to poke fun at a London Puritan. On the other hand, the historian Brian Pullan has shown how certain details in The Merchant of Venice bear striking similarities to actual events that occurred in Venice. Shylock’s loan of 3,000 ducats could hardly match the real legal situation: Jews were not allowed to lend more than 3 ducats and the figure also differs from the 10,000 florins Shakespeare found in his literary source Il Pecorone. But 3,000 ducats is the sum quoted in a lawsuit that took place in 1567 between a Jew and a Christian.

It was the Jew Abraham Abencini, though, who accused the Portuguese Christians Gaspar and Giovanni Ribeira of usury and won the case. To complicate the story, the Ribeiras were later discovered to be crypto-Jews, trying to secure a tie with the Jewish community by arranging the marriage of Gaspar’s daughter Violante to a distinguished Jewish family. Like Shakespeare’s Jessica, Violante resisted her father’s will and married a Christian instead. If we think of The Merchant of Venice as a text that subtly plays with the inversion, subversion and conversion of religious and economic identities, Pullan’s findings become very tantalising.

If Shakespeare was wandering the streets of Venice, he most likely wouldn’t have met a Mr Shylock – it was a purely English name, probably used by Shakespeare to poke fun at a London Puritan. Photographer: Tristram Kenton

The traditional emphasis on the economic life of the Ghetto has obscured its incredible cultural vitality. From here Jewish learning reached Henry VIII seeking opinions on his divorce and the Rabbis of Amsterdam trying to establish a new community; it reached local Christian printers who produced one third of all the Hebrew books printed in Europe up to 1650 (including the first Talmud) and influential thinkers such as Paolo Sarpi and Jean Bodin. Once again we may imagine Shakespeare listening to a sermon by Rabbi Leon Modena, a myriad-minded man who in his celebrated autobiography Life of Judah listed teaching, preaching, writing poetry and music among his 20 or so occupations and gambling as the activity that bankrupted him. Who knows if his eloquence, praised by Jews and Christians alike, may have inspired Shylock’s rhetorical skills?

Nearly three centuries after Shakespeare, the American consul William Dean Howells visited the Ghetto, by now a dilapidated area, and saw the Jews, emancipated by Napoleon in 1797, as ordinary citizens. ‘Shylock is dead. If he lived, Antonio would hardly spit upon his gorgeous pantaloons or his Parisian coat, as he met him on the Rialto; that he would far rather call out to him, ‘Ciò Shylock! Bon dì! Go piaser vederla’ [‘Good Morning, Shylock, nice to see you’].’ In 1938 Howells’ words would ominously acquire a different ring. ‘Shylock is dead’: the Fascist Racial Laws excluded all Jewish citizens from public andeconomic life and paved the way for their deportation in 1943-44. Two hundred people were taken to Auschwitz and only eight returned.

A group of actors wearing tan robes and red sashes draped over their shoulders stand in various positions in a courtyard at night.

Life continues in the Ghetto today: in 2016, the year of the Ghetto Quincentennial, The Merchant of Venice was staged there for the first time by a multi-ethnic cast. Photographer: Andrea Messana

Life continues in the Ghetto. Today it is a religious centre, a site of memory, a popular tourist destination and an international meeting point of artists and intellectuals, inspired by its heritage. In 2016, the year of the Ghetto Quincentennial, The Merchant of Venice was staged there for the first time by a multi-ethnic cast, with Shylock played by five different actors alternating in the scenes, including a female actor. Today one can visit the Jewish Museum (currently undergoing a major renovation) and the magnificent synagogues. The pandemic temporarily emptied out the Ghetto main square, which remains, like the rest of the city, threatened by over-tourism, sea-level rise, and population decline. Ironically, The Merchant of Venice seems to anticipate the Ghetto’s (and the entire city’s) potential future scenarios. Either a place where everything is offered for consumption and exploitation; or, vice versa, a site of reflection, meditation, creativity, and cross-cultural exchange, where Shylock will be there with his uncanny, unruly presence to question us.


In loving memory of Ned Eisenberg, Shylock extraordinaire in the Ghetto.

The Merchant of Venice plays as part of our Winter 2021/22 season in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from until 9 April 2022.

Shaul Bassi joins Tracey-Ann Oberman to discuss race and social justice in The Merchant of Venice as part of our series of free online Anti-Racist Shakespeare webinars, on 15 March 2022, 6.00pm. This series is generously sponsored by Cambridge University Press.