The Merchant and the Friar

Guest Writer V3 N3 2015

In every story their lies a grain of truth; the plays of William Shakespeare are no exception. The Elizabethan playwright modified many stories he heard for the stage. The Merchant of Venice, written in 1596, might be based on St. Anthony of Padua who lived four centuries earlier. Both persons were involved with shipwrecks, foreign entities and fought against usury in Northern Italy. The following will compare and contrast the two Antonio’s to find parallels between the Saint of Padua and The Merchant of Venice.

Through out the Shakespeare’s play there are many subtle parallels to the Saint of Padua. The first scene begins with Antonio worried about his ships at sea. St. Anthony was shipwrecked on Sicily from a voyage from Morocco. Possibly hinting toward the saint, Shakespeare has characters from Morocco and Aragon. Friar Anthony sought martyrdom in Morocco and was born in Portugal, which shares the Iberian Peninsula with Aragon. Also in the first scene, Gratiano enters to Antonio and tells him “you look not well” (I.1:73) which could be a reflection of the friar’s sickly appearance after his return from Morocco. At no point in the play is it implied that Antonio has a significant other, possibly alluding to Friar Anthony’s monastic and celibate vocation. In the middle of the play, Portia and Nerissa “have toward heaven breath’d a secret vow/ To live in prayer and contemplation [at] a monastery” (III.4:27,31).

Shakespeare could be referring to a relic from St. Anthony at two points in the play. While the prince of Morocco is selecting a casket he sais “From the four corners of the earth they come/ To kiss this shrine” (II..7:39-40). As early as the year of his death, 1231, many people journeyed to see the saints body. Later on someone asks Shylock “thou wilt take his flesh. What’s that good for?” Shylock replies “to bait fish withal” (III.1:53-55). The “flesh” in this line could refer to St. Anthony’s incorrupt tongue, toward which many pilgrims journey to see still today (Gamboso 155). Shylocks use of the word “fish” could be a verb in reference to the Christian missionary phrase “to fish for men.”

Also concerning fish, Shakespeare could be reflecting on one of St. Anthony’s miracles in the first scene of the play. In the first scene of the play Gratiano mentions to “mantle like a standing pond/ would almost dam those ears…but fish not this melancholy bait” (I.1:90,101). This could be a loose reference to a friar’s mantle and another miracle that St. Anthony preformed at Rimini. As the friar stood in a pond and preached, since the people would not listen to him, the fish stopped swimming and stuck out their heads to hear Anthony’s words (Gamboso 62). Beyond fish, Shakespeare uses many references to animals in this particular play, which might be alluding to the Franciscan order who housed Anthony and whose founder is the patron saint of animals.

The most noted speech in the play is while Shylock is comparing Christians to Jews he asks “if you prick us do we not bleed?” (III.1) St. Anthony described the usurers as “thorns that prick and make us bleed” (Gamboso 107). Perhaps Shakespeare gives the friar’s words to his Jewish character to remind the audience of Jesus Christ, the Jewish carpenter who shed his blood for mankind. When delivering this line, some actors make a gesture as if to prick their hand to resemble Christ being nailed to the cross. Further more, Shylock must convert to Christianity at the end of the play.

The central conflict in The Merchant of Venice is that Shylock demands “an equal pound of [Antonio’s] fair flesh” if the loan of 30,000 ducats is not paid back in time. St. Anthony also preached against usury in Northern Italy. When a usurer in Padua was died the friar proclaimed “Go to his treasure chest, you will find his heart in there with his money!” When the usurer’s body was opened up; miraculously, a box of coins was found in place of his heart (Gamboso 109).

At Shakespeare’s trial, Shylock is told to claim “a pound of flesh, to be cut off by him/ Nearest the merchants heart” (IV.1:232-233). Antonio is though saved by Portia disguised as a lawyer. This trial scene is similar to St. Antony representing a reformed thief falsely accused of murdering a usurer’s mercenary in Padua. The Friar proved that it was not the thief who murdered the mercenary, but it was the usurer himself who accidently killed his own mercenary and scapegoats the thief. Likewise Fr. Anthony inspired the usurer’s widow to reveal the practices and the seized properties in Padua were restored to their original owners.

While only Shakespeare himself knows if he modeled his merchant after a friar in Padua, many lines in the play do echo the saint’s words. Both situations convey a message against usury and that the law should be applied evenly not in favor any particular party. Since Shylock quotes the saint more often than then Antonio himself it is not likely that the merchant character is a direct reference to the friar, but is probable that Shakespeare did study the events in Padua and modified them for his play set in Venice. Beyond the connection between the dramatic and historical characters, Shakespeare and St. Anthony preached a message of forgiveness. Neither the usurers of Venice nor Padua forgave the tardiness of their loans, so ultimately they lost everything.

Bibliography

  • Gamboso, Vigilo. St. Anthony of Padua: His Life and Teachings. PPFMC. Padua: 1991.
  • Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Signet Classics: New York: 1998.
  • Stoddard, Charles. Saint Anthony : The Wonder Worker of Padua. Tan Books and Publishers Inc. Rockford: 1978.

Filmography

  • Belluco, Antonello. Anthony: Warrior of God. Xenon Pictures, Santa Monica: 2006.
  • Radford, Michael. The Merchant of Venice. Movision, West Sussex: 2004.

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