Percy's Reliques - Gernutus, the Jew of Venice.

Gernutus, the Jew of Venice.

            In the Life of Pope Sixtus V, translated from the Italian of Greg. Leti by the Rev. Mr. Farneworth, folio, is a remarkable passage to the following effect:--

            "It was reported in Rome, that Drake had taken and plundered St. Domingo in Hispaniola, and carried off an immense booty. This account came in a private letter to Paul Secchi, a very considerable merchant in the city, who had large concerns in those parts, which he had insured. Upon receiving this news, he sent for the insurer Sampson Ceneda, a Jew, and acquainted him with it. The Jew, whose interest it was to have such a report thought false, gave many reasons why it could not possibly be true, and at last worked himself into such a passion, that he said, I'll lay you a pound of flesh it is a lie. Secchi, who was of a fiery hot temper, replied, I'll lay you a thousand crowns against a pound of your flesh that it is true. The Jew accepted the wager, and articles were immediately executed betwixt them, That, if Secchi won, he should himself cut the flesh with a sharp knife from whatever part of the Jew's body he pleased. The truth of the account was soon confirmed; and the Jew was almost distracted, when he was informed, that Secchi had solemnly swore he would compel him to an exact performance of his contract. A report of this transaction was brought to the Pope, who sent for the parties, and, being informed of the whole affair, said, When contracts are made, it is but just they should be fulfilled, as this shall; Take a knife, therefore, Secchi, and cut a pound of flesh from any part you please of the Jew's body. We advise you, however, to be very careful; for, if you cut but a scruple more or less than your due, you shall certainly be hanged."

            The Editor of that book is of opinion, that the scene between Shylock and Antonio in the Merchant of Venice is taken from this incident. But Mr. Warton, in his ingenious Observations on the Faerie Queen, vol. i. page 128, has referred it to the following ballad. Mr. Warton thinks this ballad was written before Shakspeare's play, as being not so circumstantial, and having more of the nakedness of an original. Besides, it differs from the play in many circumstances, which a mere copyist, such as we may suppose the ballad-maker to be, would hardly have given himself the trouble to alter. Indeed he expressly informs us, that he had his story from the Italian writers. -- See the Connoisseur, vol. i. No. 16.

            After all, one would he glad to know what authority Leti had for the foregoing fact, or at least for connecting it with the taking of St. Domingo by Drake; for this expedition did not happen till 1585, and it is very certain that a play of the Jewe, "representing the greedinesse of worldly chusers, and bloody minds of usurers," had been exhibited at the play-house called The Bull before the year 1579, being mentioned in Steph. Gosson's Schoole of Abuse,[ 1] which was printed in that year.

            As for Shakspeare's Merchant of Venice, the earliest edition known of it is in quarto, 1600; though it had been exhibited in the year 1598, being mentioned, together with eleven others of his plays, in Mere's Wits Treasury, &c. 1598, 12mo. Fol. 282.-- See Malone's Shakspere.

            The following is printed from an ancient black-letter copy in the Pepys Collection,[ 2] intitled, "A new Song, shewing the crueltie of GERNUTUS, a JEWE, who, lending to a merchant an hundred crowns, would have a pound of his fleshe, because he could not pay him at the time appointed. To the tune of Black and Yellow."


IN Venice towne not long agoe
A cruel Jew did dwell,
Which lived all on usurie,
As Italian writers tell.

Gernutus called was the Jew,
Which never thought to dye,
Nor ever yet did any good
To them in streets that lie.

His life was like a barrow hogge,
That liveth many a day,
Yet never once doth any good,
Until men will him slay.

Or like a filthy heap of dung,
That lyeth in a whoard;
Which never can do any good,
Till it be spread abroad.

So fares it with the usurer,
He cannot sleep in rest,
For feare the thiefe will him pursue
To plucke him from his nest.

His heart doth thinke on many a wile,
How to deceive the poore;
His mouth is almost ful of muche,
Yet still he gapes for more.

His wife must lend a shilling,
For every weeke a penny,
Yet bring a pledge, that is double worth,
If that you will have any.

And see, likewise, you keepe your day,
Or else you loose it all:
This was the living of the wife,
Her cow[ 3] she did it call.

Within that citie dwelt that time
A marchant of great fame,
Which being distressed in his need,
Unto Gernutus came:

Desiring him to stand his friend
For twelve month and a day,
To lend to him an hundred crownes
And he for it would pay

Whatsoever he would demand of him,
And pledges he should have.
"No," (quoth the Jew with flearing lookes)
"Sir, aske that you will have.

"No penny for the loane of it
For one year you shall pay;
You may doe me as good a turne,
Before my dying day.

"But we will have a merry jeast,
For to be talked long:
You shall make me a bond, quoth he,
That shall be large and strong:

"And this shall be the forfeyture;
Of your owne fleshe a pound.
If you agree, make you the bond,
And here is a hundred crownes."

"With right good will!" the marchant says:
And so the bond was made.
When twelve month and a day drew on
That backe it should be payd,

The marchants ships were all at sea,
And money came not in;
Which way to take, or what to doe
To thinke he doth begin:

And to Gernutus strait he comes
With cap and bended knee,
And sayde to him, "Of curtesie
I pray you beare with mee."

"My day is come, and I have not
The money for to pay:
And little good the forfeyture
Will doe you, I dare say."

"With all my heart," Gernutus sayd,
"Commaund it to your minde:
In thinges of bigger weight than this
You shall me ready finde."

He goes his way; the day once past
Gernutus doth not slacke
To get a sergiant presently;
And clapt him on the backe:

And layd him into prison strong,
And sued his bond withall;
And when the judgement day was come,
For judgement he did call.

The marchants friends came thither fast,
With many a weeping eye,
For other means they could not find,
But he that day must dye.


                "Of the Jews crueltie; setting foorth the mercifulnesse of the Judge towards the Marchant. To the tune of Blacke and Yellow."

SOME offered for his hundred crownes
Five hundred for to pay;
And some a thousand, two or three,
Yet still he did denay.

And at the last ten thousand crownes
They offered him to save.
Gernutus sayd, "I will no gold:
My forfeite I will have.

"A pound of fleshe is my demand,
And that shall be my hire."
Then sayd the judge, "Yet, good my friend,
Let me of you desire

"To take the flesh from such a place,
As yet you let him live:
Do so, and lo! an hundred crownes
To thee here will I give."

"No, no," quoth he; "no, judgement here
For this it shall be tride,
For I will have my pound of fleshe
From under his right side."

It grieved all the companie
His crueltie to see,
For neither friend nor foe could helpe
But he must spoyled bee.

The bloudie Jew now ready is
With whetted blade in hand,[ 4]
To spoyle the bloud of innocent,
By forfeit of his bond.

And as he was about to strike
In him the deadly blow:
"Stay" (quoth the judge) thy crueltie;
I charge thee to do so.

"Sith needs thou wilt thy forfeit have,
Which is of flesh a pound:
See that thou shed no drop of bloud,
Nor yet the man confound.

"For if thou doe, like murderer,
Thou here shalt hanged be:
Likewise of flesh see that thou cut
No more than longes to thee:

"For if thou take either more or lesse
To the value of a mite,
Thou shalt be hanged presently,
As is both law and right."

Gernutus now waxt franticke mad,
And wotes not what to say:
Quoth he at last, "Ten thousand crownes
I will that he shall pay;

"And so I graunt to set him free."
The judge doth answere make;
"You shall not have a penny given;
Your forfeyture now take."

At the last he doth demaund
But for to have his owne.
"No," quoth the judge, "doe as you list,
Thy judgement shall be showne.

"Either take your pound of flesh;" quoth he,
"Or cancell me your bond."
"O cruell judge," then quoth the Jew,
"That doth against me stand!"

And so with griping grieved mind
He biddeth them fare-well.
Then all the people prays'd the Lord,
That ever this heard tell.

Good people, that doe heare this song,
For trueth I dare well say,
That many a wretch as ill as hee
Doth live now at this day;

That seeketh nothing but the spoyle
Of many a wealthey man,
And for to trap the innocent
Deviseth what they can.

From whome the Lord deliver me,
And every Christian too,
And send to them like sentence eke
That meaneth so to do.

*** Since the first edition of this book was printed, the Editor hath had reason to believe that both Shakspeare and the author of this ballad are indebted for their story of the Jew (however they came by it) to an Italian novel, which was first printed at Milan in the year 1554, in a book entitled, Il Pecorone, nel quale si contengono Cinquanta Novelle antiche, &c. republished at Florence about the year 1748, or 9. The author was Ser. Giovanni Fiorentino, who wrote in 1378; thirty years after the time in which the scene of Boccace's Decameron is laid.-- Vid. Manni, Istoria del Decamerone di Giov. Boccac. 4to. Fior. 1744.

            That Shakspeare had his plot from the novel itself, is evident from his having some incidents from it, which are not found in the ballad: and I think it will also be found that he borrowed from the ballad some hints that were not suggested by the novel. (See above, pt. 2. ver. 25, &c. where, instead of that spirited description of the whetted blade, &c. the prose narrative coldly says, "The Jew had prepared a razor, &c." See also some other passages in the same piece.) This however is spoken with diffidence, as I have at present before me only the abridgment of the novel which Mr. Johnson has given us at the end of his Commentary on Shakspeare's play. The translation of the Italian story at large is not easy to be met with, having I believe never been published, though it was printed some years ago with this title,--"The NOVEL, from which the Merchant of Venice written by Shakspeare is taken, translated from the Italian. To which is added a Translation of a Novel from the Decamerone of Boccacio." London, printed for M. Cooper, 1755, 8vo.


1. Warton, ubi supra.

2. Compared with the Ashmole copy.

3. her cow, &c. seems to have suggested to Shakspeare Shylock's argument for usury taken from Jacob's management of Laban's sheep, act i. to which Antonio replies:

"Was this inserted to make interest good?
Or are your gold and silver ewes and rams?
Shylock. I cannot tell, I make it breed as fast."

4. The passage in Shakspeare bears so strong a resemblance to this, as to render it probable that the one suggested the other. See act iv. sc. 2.

Bass. "Why doest thou whet thy knife so earnestly? &c."


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