5C. Knowledge of Jewish customs. In Act 1, Scene 3 begins the encounters between Bassanio, Antonio and Shylock. Bassanio says to Shylock, who had asked to speak with Antonio about the loan, “If it please you to dine with us.” The author obviously knew that this was a touchy issue and most likely there would be food that was not kosher. Later, Shylock mentions Tubal and describes him as “a wealthy Hebrew of my tribe”. This demonstrates the author’s appreciation for the variances among Jews in Venice, their different “nations” and which were distinguishable by their origins, dress, and everyday language. Also is mentioned the Jewish “gabardine” suggesting that the author knew that the Jews in Venice wore distinctive clothing.
Again, when the elder Gobbo visits Shylock he brings a gift of “a dish of doves” which was “not an uncommon gift in Italy”. Further, when Gobbo unknowingly asked his son Launcelot how to get to Shylock’s house he receives a comical yet typically confusing answer for directing someone around Venice:
“Turn upon 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.”
In an Arden edition of the play this directional dialogue was considered “ludicrous” since there could be 5000 Jews living in the Venice Ghetto. Roe found though that, for various reasons, by 1585 “there were only 1,424 Jews in Venice” and enough questions here and there should be enough to locate someone in such a small tight-knit community.
Shakespeare has even been criticized for providing Gobbo with a horse in Venice where travel is primarily by water. But not all travel is by water and there were horses in Venice. Roe even states there are bridges there today that a horse could traverse and that some even have “two parallel tracks made of ramped stone to accommodate the two wheels of a standard cart or dray” that a horse would pull. The author was even aware that some Jewish business or related non-religious matters were conducted at one of their synagogues. He has Shylock say “Go, Tubal, and meet me at our synagogue”.
There were few Jews in England at this time so a common understanding of many particular Jewish customs would not be easy to come by. Francis Bacon, however, even if he had not been to Italy could easily learn of these customs since he, like Antonio, had borrowed from a Jewish money lender in England, and for failing to repay him in time, and as in the play, had Francis arrested and confined, until his brother Anthony could pay for his release.
5D. In Act II, Scene 5 we have the scene where Gratiano, Salarino and Lorenzo arrive in the Venetian Ghetto to make off with Jessica and her father’s jewels money. They perform this escapade under the cover of the masks (varnish’d faces) at a time of some public revelry where masked revelers pass through the streets. The author seems to be familiar with this custom and that it could happen at many times throughout the year and not just at Carnival time. In addition, Roe examines Shakespeare’s use of a “penthouse” for Shylock’s home. Surprisingly, Roe found only one structure in the Ghetto that fit that description “a small structure attached to, or dependent on, another building, from appendere, to hang onto.” And the penthouse is right next to a building whose ground floor was a loan bank that Shylock would most likely have used. So again, the author seems to show detailed knowledge of some Venetian places and customs, not easily obtainable from casual conversations with travelers in an English inn.