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Shakespeare’s Merchant

St Antony and Sultan Suleiman
I have just read the ‘Merchant of Venice’ with my
local U3A Shakespeare group. As I had not done
English Literature since I was 14, I was pleased the
new group had chosen this as its first play. In the
‘Merchant’, Shakespeare had been able to choose all
the characters’ names himself, which he couldn’t for
a historical play. If I have any academic interests,
they are in names, words and maps. There would be
Banner of La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia historical maps to show the extent of the Venetian
PAX TIBI MARCE EVANGELISTA MEUS Republic within the Europe of the time and the
(Peace be with you Mark my Evangelist) names in the ‘Merchant’ would give me somewhere
to start.

However another trail opened up immediately. In the play, Shakespeare tells us that contact had
been lost with four of Antonio’s argosies (Venice’s largest class of ship) and some others and they
were feared lost. I could see that for many Venetians the ‘pound of flesh’ drama that Shakespeare
had focussed on would have been a sideshow. They would want their husbands, sons, fathers and
brothers on those ships safe home. The city of Venice then had a population of only about 150,000,
so that the loss of a ship’s crew would have been keenly felt. There would have been prayers in
homes and parish churches throughout the Republic and in St Mark’s basilica. Catholics pray to
patron saints and certainly would have done so in the Venice of the ‘Merchant’. I knew immediately
who the prayers would have been addressed to. So the first thing I should do was read up on St
Antony of Padua.

I found St Antony is also the patron saint of lost people as well as lost things. ‘Pray, St Antony, look
around/Something is lost which should be found’. Shylock thanked God when he heard a ship had
been lost. He did not want Antonio to be able to repay his debt. This puts Shylock in direct
confrontation with the patron saint of lost things. It turns out that this is not the first time a Jewish
merchant has challenged St Antony. In the end, the lost ships begin to turn up. This looks like the
answer to a prayer to St Antony.

The play is about Antonio the Merchant’s debt to the Jewish moneylender, Shylock. St Antony was a
Franciscan and knew St Francis. Like St Francis he was of a wealthy family. Though like St Francis he
rejected personal wealth, he understood the role of capital and risk taking in an economy. St Antony
initiated legislation in Padua (in Venezia and only 40 km west of Venice) to treat debtors fairly and to
abolish the debtors’ prison. (Perhaps financial losses are lost things?) A copy of this 1231 law is in
the museum in Padua. In the play Bellario (a fair wind?) sends legal force from Padua to the Doge’s
court in Venice in the form of his cousin Portia (the name means an offering) which ensures fair play
for Antonio the debtor. This looks like the answer to a prayer to St Antony.

With the ships apparently lost, Antonio could not repay Shylock. Those who cared for Antonio would
have prayed for compassion from Shylock, whose contract gave him power of life and death over the
Merchant. If only this man could acquire a Christian conscience. But he is a Jew. Who do you pray to
if you want to see a Jew become a Christian? St Antony converted to Christianity the Jewish
merchant who challenged him. In the play, Shylock converts to Christianity. This looks like the
answer to a prayer. At the time of the pound of flesh contract, Antonio had said, ‘The Hebrew will
turn Christian … ‘.

So St Antony was the patron saint of lost people and lost things. He looked after debtors and he
could convert a Jewish merchant to Christianity. It is no longer mandatory for a Catholic child to be

Shakespeare’s Merchant:
St Antony and Sultan Suleiman
named after a saint, but it was then. St Antony was the saint that the parents of the Merchant of
Venice chose to be their son’s patron saint. Given all this, it strikes me that the Merchant story must
have originated as a tribute to St Antony of Padua.

St Antony may have made his presence felt in an original story in yet a fourth way. He had preached
the Gospel to the Moors of North Africa. There is provenance for North Africa. At Belmont, Portia’s
home 20 miles from Venice, there are servants, Nerissa and Balthazar. Nerissa means black, and the
name Balthazar would be well known as the sometimes dark skinned one of the Three Kings of the
Nativity. No-one would have been surprised to see these characters as black or brown Christian
converts in a Mystery Play. Portia is fair haired, but the name she chooses when impersonating a
male lawyer is also Balthazar. Shakespeare could therefore have presented her as black or brown in
the courtroom scene. Balthazar also has a meaning – Baal (a god) protect the king. Portia as
Balthazar certainly gets Venice’s head of state off the hook.

Shakespeare makes no reference to prayers to St Antony for
the missing ships or to prayers generally. He could however
have easily left non-verbal clues for the audience. Much of
the action of the play takes place in streets and public places
in Venice. Most of the rest of the action takes place in
Portia’s home in Belmont. There is a scene in Shylock’s
home, and one in the Venice Court of Justice. Stage props
would have been minimalist, but there may have been some
religious iconography. We don’t get to see Antonio’s home
as a wealthy merchant but Portia was of a very wealthy
family. The walls of her home would have been hung with
portraits of Christ, the Madonna and various saints, the
latter illustrating incidents from their lives as recorded in the
Golden Legend. Because of the connection with Padua – her
cousin Bellario an eminent lawyer there – if there was
anything at all, it would have been a portrait of St Antony of
Padua. A sketch of a man standing erect and carrying a child
would have been recognisable from the furthest corner in the theatre and would probably still have
been a well known icon. There might even have been a genuine article looted from a monastery or
church in the recent past.

Shylock did not have from his own resources all of the 3,000 ducats Antonio wanted to borrow. So
he borrowed the difference from another Jewish merchant, Tubal. As he lost at the hearing, he could
not recover the money he had lent to Antonio. So he was in debt as he started his life as a Christian. I
wonder if someone suggested to him that he say a prayer to St Antony.

Whilst writing this I have read that after a promising start to his career, Shakespeare’s father ran into
troubling debts later in life. He did not go to prison. Maybe the Shakespeare household thought they
had reason to be grateful to St Antony. In Shakespeare’s time, everybody’s grandparents had been
Catholic and old practices would have lingered on.

There is another tribute to St Antony perhaps worth a mention. In 1607 King Philip III of Spain
established an Irish Franciscan College in the already flourishing Catholic University of Leuven
(Louvain), in what was then the Spanish Netherlands and is now Belgium. This was because
monasteries and places of learning in Ireland were lost to them because of the rule and
depredations of English Protestants. Philip’s brother in law and co-ruler of the Netherlands, the

Shakespeare’s Merchant:
St Antony and Sultan Suleiman
Archduke of Austria, laid the foundation stone. The King dedicated the College to St Antony of
Padua. The dedication was about ten years after the play was written and about two years after its
first recorded performance. This is not to say that the king and the archduke knew about
Shakespeare and his works, but it may be that at a time of losses - which I’ll come to – St Antony was
more than usually on people’s minds.

A tribute to St Antony need not require a Jewish heiress to marry a Christian and convert to
Christianity. Shakespeare takes advantage of cosmopolitan Venice to have this happen with
Shylock’s daughter Jessica. There is no mention of it, but inter-faith marriage is also in prospect for
the Venetian heiress Portia. Her nine suitors include Catholics, Protestants and a Muslim. They are
all aristocrats, but evidently their religion is not something that troubles Portia’s father. Before he
died he set up the lottery of the three caskets for the suitors, the prize being his daughter and his
family fortune.

The nine suitors were: the Neapolitan prince, the Prince of Arragon, the Count Palatine, a nephew of
the Duke of Saxony, the Prince of Morocco, a French lord, the English Baron Falconbridge, a Scottish
lord and of course the lord Bassanio.

Why did not this band of suitors include a scholarly, wealthy Jewish merchant – there are many Jews
in Venice; or a wealthy prince of the Greek Orthodox faith – Venice has only just lost Cyprus and still
rules Crete, many Greek islands, and part of mainland Greece? There is no Jew and no Orthodox
prince because Portia’s father was a man with an agenda. Neither a Jew nor an Orthodox could
provide a diplomatic alliance for Venice: neither would be backed by an army or a navy. Venice
needed both. The Ottoman Turks had closed the Black Sea to Venetian trade. Their conquests of
Syria and Egypt early in the 16th century blocked ports there as well. They were pushing into North
Africa as far as Morocco, where Moroccans were making common cause with Spain to resist them.
Moroccan chiefs were finding refuge in Spain when things went wrong. Shakespeare’s audiences
would have heard his Prince of Morocco say he had a scimitar ‘… That won three fields of Sultan
Suleiman’. I am taking it that ‘fields’ means battlefields.

In Europe, the Ottomans reached Vienna in 1529, but not before the Protestant Count Palatine had
arrived to reinforce the city so that it withstood the siege. The Emperor Charles V sent Spanish
musketeers to the city’s defence as well. The Duke of Saxony was also a prominent leader against
the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. He had Catholic and Protestant followers and was popular with
both. This may be where Baron Falconbridge played a part in the common cause.

On holiday whilst writing this, I took a photograph
of the Venetian walls of Famagusta, Cyprus, to show
their thickness, designed to withstand Turkish
cannon fire. The city was starved into submission in
1571. The brutal torture and murder of the
Venetian commander after the surrender became
one of the bitterest memories of Venetian history.
The counter-punch from the Holy League fleet of
most of the Catholic Mediterranean countries
destroyed the galley-slave powered Turkish fleet at
Lepanto, Greece, later in the same year.

A Venetian naval leader at Lepanto was later
elected Doge (Duke). The Papacy and the Empire had ships at Lepanto, but Venice’s principal ally

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there was Spain. The Spaniards could also help protect Venice against pirates and privateers in the
Caribbean. Venetian shores like all Christian shores as far afield as England, Ireland and Iceland were
prey to slave raids by Barbary (=Berber) pirates from North Africa. Obviously, the establishment or
reinforcement of an alliance with Spain would be in La Serenissima’s best interests. By his title alone,
the Prince of Arragon could secure this. Spain also ruled Sicily, southern Italy and other parts of Italy,
making the Neapolitan prince just as much an important subject of the King of Spain.

What little I know of Lepanto includes a comment that the Catholic fleet should have engaged the
Ottomans sooner. I wonder if the galley slaves had a ‘human-shield effect’. Facing the Spanish
Armada seventeen years later the English only had to feel remorse about the Spaniards’ horses.
Would they have so cheerfully sailed their fire ships into the Spanish fleet if it had comprised galleys
rowed by Protestant slaves? Famagusta motivated the Holy League fleet into action whatever
happened to the galley slaves.

In Istanbul, on a plaque in the Galata Tower, I found that Christian captives were put to work ship-
building in the dockyards of the Ottoman capital, then still called Constantinople. Interestingly, these
men were called ‘forsa’ by the Turks. In this context I would say this word means ‘workforce’ and I‘d
guess it was from the international trading language in use over the eastern Mediterranean - the
original Lingua Franca - which had a large Venetian Italian element in it. It suggests the origin of
these unfortunates: Italian has ‘forza’, Catalan (Aragon) has ‘força’ and Castilian has ‘fuerza’. I
suspect many of these slaves whether on land or at sea would have been seamen themselves and
skilled at ship repair and maintenance.

So far five of the nine suitors can reinforce Venice against the Turks. I shall leave Bassanio till last.
The English, French and Scottish lords know one another. Not forgetting that Shakespeare was an
entertainer, the English Baron Falconbridge I think could be a contemporary Londoner, recognisable
to Shakespeare’s players and audience. He stands to have his ears boxed by the Scottish lord to
avenge a previous slight. The Frenchman will stand surety for the Scot. I think these three may get a
mention because of some topical joke in London. The Falconbridge surname was local – appearing in
records from the beginning of the 17th century at the church of St. Martin in the Fields - about four
kilometres from Shakespeare’s Globe theatre.

If these three suitors are just mentioned for fun, it doesn’t matter if they don’t link to the front
against the Turks. But they may do. The Templars were associated with emblems of the Rose and the
Falcon. Their HQ in London had been the Temple – hardly more than over the bridge from the Globe.
There is a Falcon Court there now. The falcon has featured in historical novels in our day and I
assume Londoners of Shakespeare’s time would have associated the falcon and the Templars with
front line activity against the Turks. It might have been a tease to contrast the strangely dressed
Falconbridge with the crusader elegance of the Templar kit.

Also, the Englishman and the Frenchman might well make the shortlist in their own right. The
Englishman wears clothes from anywhere except England. This suggests he had been long absent
from England and could be presented as someone who has been up to the front line against the
Turks. France, uniquely, was allied with the Turks and captured Corsica from Genoa with Turkish
help. The French lord may be the exception that proves the rule. A marriage alliance that would have
brought France on side would have been a diplomatic coup.

Falconbridge would not have been the only suitor a London audience would recognise. The Count
Palatine came to the court of King of England Henry VIII in 1539 as a suitor for the hand of Henry’s
daughter Mary. Courtiers thought a Protestant prince would have been welcome to Henry, but the

Shakespeare’s Merchant:
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King did not encourage the initiative. Some in the audience might have had childhood memories of
this visit.

So I come to the ninth man. The chief Spanish naval leader at Lepanto had a name that Sir Walter
Raleigh spelt as ‘Bassan de Santa Cruse’. Raleigh would have spelt as he heard. Today we see Don
Álvaro de Bazán, suggesting for those of us in the Old World the Castilian ‘z = th’ pronunciation
which obscures the link. He was the Marqués de Santa Cruz. Shakespeare could have given Portia’s
successful suitor any name he liked, but he chose Bassanio. I don't see where he got the name
Bassanio from unless it was from Bassan.

Bassanio is the instigator of all the action in the play. He brings into the frame the suit for the heiress
Portia, and he gets Antonio to borrow from Shylock. It does not follow that Bassanio himself was the
hero of Lepanto, but being a son or close relative or godson of the Marqués de Santa Cruz would
give him a rank one would expect of someone in competition with a Prince of Arragon and a Prince
of Morocco for the hand of the wealthy Portia.

Bassanio is described as a Venetian scholar and a soldier of the company of the Marquis of
Montferrat. Spain ruled Montferrat for a short while, after which Holy Roman Emperor Charles V
(Charles I of Spain) gave it to the Duke of Mantua. The Empire also had had ships at Lepanto.
Montferrat is west of Milan, which was itself under Spain at the time. Bassanio was a lord, but we do
not know to what territory his lordship appertained. Wherever it was, I suspect he owed suzerainty
for it to the King of Spain.

Bassanio’s name recalls the fight against the Turks at sea and the company he keeps and his
profession as a soldier make him likely to be called on to fight on land - in Hungary, or wherever the
front line is. Bassanio therefore has double heroic credentials and he is a scholar as well. No wonder
Portia immediately falls for him. So the hero gets the girl – end of story? No.

Before linking on to the moneylender tale, I want to say something about the ‘terms and conditions’
that applied to Portia’s suitors. Those who chose the wrong casket and so did not win Portia, had to
promise they would not marry anyone else. Six of the nine suitors found this unacceptable and so
we were left with a short-list of three. It was an odd condition – why was it acceptable even to
three? The Turkish wars and also a plague had caused a drastic drop in living standards. It is
reckoned that between 1560 and 1600 Venetian registered shipping was down by half. Amongst the
ways Venetians reacted to this was to conserve inheritances. Marriages were being limited to a few
(and sometimes only one) of a number of sons. Shakespeare would have known all this. So it was not
in the least abnormal that a Venetian such as Bassanio could contemplate a life without a wife.
Aragon and Morocco being in the front line against the Turks and no less immune to disease than
Venice must also have being feeling the pinch. This must be why Shakespeare has Bassanio’s two
princely competitors also make this seemingly life-changing promise.

To resume the moneylender tale: Bassanio has to be a debtor. So he is in debt when the play starts,
with, it has to be assumed, contracts already signed. Why does he need the huge sum of 3,000
ducats? A loan of this size cannot be just to make an appearance in Belmont to rival the two princes.
A shipwright in Venice would make about 50 ducats per year. Is he consolidating his previous debts?
Has he lost out as a military adventurer? Is it just that a lesser amount would not balance against a
pound of flesh? Whatever the reason he is ‘maxed out’, so he has to go to his kinsman Antonio.
Antonio doesn’t have the liquidity, but his credit is good. Bassanio finds Shylock. Shylock doesn’t
have the liquidity for the whole loan either and borrows from another Jewish merchant, Tubal.
Antonio then contracts with Shylock for the famous bond for the pound of flesh.

Shakespeare’s Merchant:
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Antonio’s ships do not come in within the three months specified so he cannot repay and we have
the hearing before the Doge. Why did the Doge send to Padua for a professional opinion on his
difficult position in law? Padua was where Venetians went to university. So it was like London
sending to Oxford or Cambridge. Portia arrives pretending to be Balthazar from Padua. She gets
Antonio of the hook. She also puts Shylock on the hook. He cannot get his 3,000 ducats back from
Antonio as he has lost the case. And the ‘costs’ have taken half his fortune.

Shakespeare has shown us that in a chain of debt-credit links, only one link needs to break to ruin
someone: first Antonio, then Shylock. This perhaps recalls Shakespeare’s father’s experience. At the
end of the sequence, a Christian remains in debt to a Jew. This time Shylock is the Christian and
Tubal is the Jewish merchant. I am left wondering what Tubal made of the outcome of the hearing
before the Doge. Had Shylock told him that the loan he took of Tubal was secured only against a
pound of human flesh, described by Shylock himself as worthless? Did Tubal connive in Shylock’s
contract with Antonio, or was he unaware? Certainly, as far as we know from the play, Tubal’s
conduct was perfectly proper.

The names ‘Shylock’ and ‘Tubal’ make an interesting comparison. ‘Shylock’ has no provenance. I
think Shakespeare or any bard would have chosen/adapted or coined the name for precisely that
quality. The audience has to be told Shylock is a Jew. They would not have known from this one-off
name alone, as they would had he been called Abraham, Isaac or Benjamin. Shakespeare would
never have given a well known Jewish name to a character of such un-Jewish conduct. The one-off
name distances the character from Judaism. Shylock is going to be a better person for having to
accept the values that go with his Christian conversion. His first prayer as a Christian looks like being
to St Antony of Padua.

The name ‘Tubal’ on the other hand has excellent provenance. Tubal was a grandson of Noah and
was the alleged ancestor of many peoples, including the Iberian and the Italic. (Tbilisi, the capital of
Georgia, was named after him). Was Shakespeare’s choice of the name ‘Tubal’ to show that we are
all one really?

As a final observation, not one of Shakespeare’s characters suggests there could be a backlash
against the Jewish community if Shylock succeeds in killing Antonio. Whatever the outcome of the
hearing before the Doge, neither anti-Semitism nor anything else is going to disturb the serenity of
La Serenissima Repubblica.

I have followed two tracks in this piece: the prayers to St Antony and the provenance of the nine
suitors of Portia. Shakespeare need not have left either of these tracks. St Antony would not have
been apparent if the ships had not come home and if Shylock had not converted to Christianity.
Neither event matters to the story and both could have been omitted. If Shakespeare had given
Portia’s suitors any other names or titles, Venice’s need for defensive alliances against the Ottoman
Turks would not have been evident.

Shakespeare was only 33 when he wrote this play. He is so well informed in an age when books were
rare and expensive. He did have the advantage of being on the spot. He could have found out how
many crewmen it took to man an argosy ship just by asking a seaman as he walked over the bridge
to the theatre. If he had that information he chose not to use it.

The internet doesn’t solve all problems. I tried myself for this piece to find out on the web how many
crewmen there would have been on an argosy, so that I could have said how many men were at risk

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on Antonio’s ships. The figure should be around somewhere, but it didn’t turn up for me. Perhaps I
should have said a prayer to St Antony!

Edward Neafcy December 2013.


Photograph of Galata Tower Plaque (Part)

Text of Galata Tower Plaque (Part)

Galata Tower, one of the oldest towers of the world was built of wood by Byzantine emperor
Anastasius Oilazus in 528 as a lighthouse, in 1348 it was reconstructed by the Genoese as Christea
Turris (Christ Tower) using stack stone.

Galata Tower was owned by the Ottoman Empire during the conquest of Istanbul in 1453 by Sultan
Mehmet II “The Conqueror” and witnesses the most brilliant and most troublesome era of the

During the reign of Bayezid II the Tower was devastated by an earthquake and it was repaired by the
Turkish architect Murad bin Heyreddin. The tower which was used for defense purposes mainly
started to be used as an astronomical observation point by the Turkish astronomer Takiuddin. The
observatory was closed in 1579 and the tower was used to house “forsa” which stands for Christian
prisoners of war who were usually worked as slaves in the Ottoman dockyard at Kasimpaşa at the
Golden Horn.

Addendum April 2016

Re-reading the above after two years, there are two ‘unknowns’ I saw in the play that I did not share
at the time. I refer to them now:

The first unknown is Bassanio’s title. Bassanio is held in apparent awe: none of the characters in the
play uses the familiar ‘thee, thou’ when conversing with him. Even Antonio who was his kinsman and
Portia who became his wife address him with the formal ‘you’. Given the extent that these two
support him, this is surprising. The easiest explanation is that Bassanio’s unknown rank is highly
rated - or he has some highly rated expertise. We see that the Doge in court addresses Balthazar
(Portia) as ‘you’ despite his/her youth, but the character’s legal expertise and standing in the
courtroom is recognised and accepted by all parties.

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The second unknown is Tubal. We don’t know how wealthy Tubal is. There would have been no
story if he had been good for the whole 3,000 ducat loan and Bassanio had gone straight to him,
cutting out the middlemen Antonio, Shylock and Portia. Bassanio himself is too important to have a
pound of his own flesh at stake, and Tubal is too respectable a name to have sought such a deal.
Tubal may be even more respectable than I suggested. I was told when discussing my thoughts with
the U3A that Tubal as a name is associated with freemasonry. I checked this only insofar as to find
that in freemasonry there is the name Tubal-Cain. Freemasonry appears in records from the time of
King Henry VI. King James VI of Scotland was already a freemason when he became James I of
England in 1603. It does strike me that whereas a shipwright could use his skills all his life at one
shipyard, a mason would have to move from town to town to work on whichever repair or
construction job was available. Actors had to move around as well. One way or another Shakespeare
would have known about freemasonry. How much he knew – and whether he was a freemason
himself – I have no idea.

Also, I have chanced upon further provenance for Baron Falconbridge as the Englishman amongst
Portia’s original nine suitors. Whether there was an actual contemporary Londoner called
Falconbridge or not, the character as a name would already have been introduced to Shakespeare’s
audiences in the play of a year or two earlier: ‘King John’. Sir Philip Faulconbridge has an important
role. ‘Philip the Bastard’ is an illegitimate son of King Richard the Lionheart. He is proud of his father
and proud of his mother for making such a man his father. He is outspoken and assertive. The
contest for sites in the Holy Land does not feature in ‘King John’, but the Lionheart’s militant
opposition to Turkish occupation would have been well known. So Falconbridge may be assumed to
have just as much credibility to help Venice against the Turks as the two princes of the Habsburgs
(Arragon and Naples) and the Moroccan. I found this link from Shakespeare’s coat of arms, which
was designed by his father in the 1570s. It has a falcon on it. Shakespeare’s works have 50
references to hawks/falcons, which has led some to suggest that he was familiar with this rich man’s
sport from his younger days.

Addendum September 2017

I am reading Ian Wilson’s ‘Shakespeare: the Evidence’. Wilson points out that where the plays were
staged was important in how they were staged. The plan for the Blackfriars project seems to have
been for a new, up-market all-weather theatre for the more sophisticated plays that Shakespeare
was writing in the late 1590s. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ was most likely the first play written to be
performed at the proposed theatre. Local objectors to the change of use caused the project to be
aborted. (I have noted above the time lag between the writing of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and its
first performance). A builder/architect must have been associated with the scheme but we have no
name. Wilson has the name, Peter Street, of the man who later built the ‘Globe’, and points out the
high regard in which Street was held. I would say that most if not all of the craftsmen who worked
on these projects vital to Shakespeare would have been freemasons. I would say he must have
worked closely with them. In passing it could be said that meetings and ceremonies at Masonic
lodges have a bit of theatre about them and almost certainly Shakespeare would have found this
interesting. He must have picked up from masons he knew that Tubal-Cain was the world’s first
craftsman, revered by masons, and that he was the ancestor of Hiram-Abiff who was the chief
architect of Solomon’s temple. According to the scripture of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic
religions, Solomon was a successful and wise king of Israel and a son of David, the revered previous
king. Sultan Suleiman was obviously called after King Solomon, I take it therefore that the name of
the character Tubal in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ would have been entitled to the respect of the
Prince of Morocco as well as of Shylock and all the Christian characters represented in this play.